Depression teaches us that we are not deserving of a normal, fruitful life. We go through long periods of believing that there is something inherently wrong with us. One of the major factors in this process is the formation of an inner critic which is a major underlying cause of depression and low self-esteem. The inner critic is often formed when childhood situations and interaction with caregivers lead to our inner child being wounded and replaced by the inner critic values. How does this happen?
Criticism from caregivers:
Criticism or judgement by parents or caregivers, especially when given in a harsh manner can turn an innocent child into one who believes that they are wrong, inadequate and worthless. If this is accompanied by physical or verbal abuse, then the Inner Child becomes traumatized. All parents set behavior standards for their children concerning such as performing a certain level, not showing emotion, behaving “properly” or in their interaction with others. If love and affection are only given when these standards are met, or even worse withdrawn when not, it has a devastating impact on the inner child. Parents often become frustrated when unrealistic tasks and expectations are not met, this is seen by the child as judgment. Criticism is often used as a motivation to do better as is comparison with more successful peers. Sometimes success is not recognised and mistakes emphasised as a “lesson” and praise is not given appropriately. These actions repeatedly used can wound the inner child and promote feelings of low self-esteem.
We often find that our inner critic criticises us in the same a parent did . That is how we think that it is perhaps a mirror image of our critical caregiver. It is usually much more complicated than this. If it was that simple, we could just ignore the critic and get on with it. To make it more complicated, the critic often has its own motivation for judging you in the same way as a parent. Take for example, a mother who constantly is critical of a child for untidiness and this was internalized. The critic would also judge the subsequent adult when they are untidy but for a different reason. To understand this, we have to realise that an inner critic’s prime function is to protect us from harm, sometimes dysfunctionally. When the critic judges in the case above, it is modeling the parent but also trying to protect from the parent. This is dysfunctional in the sense that it is trying to protect from something that happened years ago but the fact that it is basically trying to help means that potentially, it can be worked with.
There are caregivers who find it appropriate to shame and ridicule their children for fun or as a punishment measure. This causes the child to carry this embarrassment into their adult life. As noted above, this would then result in the inner critic causing embarrassment to avoid situations where it could happen. This embarrassment can also be transferred via the parents if there was a sense of shame or difficulty concerning religion, financial status or race. The child tends to “feel” with the parents in this case. This can be consolidated by parental attempts to keep children “in a box” of social acceptance.
Parents often punitively punish children when they feel they have done something that puts them in danger. Running away from the parents in a busy street, going to close to a fire are examples of this which need to be stopped and lessons learnt from. However, if parents overreact and engage in punitive discipline , they may have stopped the activity but the inner child can be harmed in the process. Additionally, when parents try to stop natural activities and impulses when children play with others in a demeaning and humiliating way, an inner critic could be formed full of guilt and low self-esteem.
The slightest indication that a child is being rejected or parental affection is being withdrawn can form a critic that blames the child in an attempt to forge a connection with the parent. The critic reminds the child that is essential that parents are part of their life, that if they fight back, they will lose their parent and they will be abandoned. They subsequently go on to take the blame for the rejection. This often leads to the fact that a child takes the blame for everything such as illness in the parent or dispute in the family. Children then take on the massive responsibility of thinking that they have to change themselves to change the situation. As parents are models early in life, when children see that there are problems, they believe that they are not ok because they seem to be different to the parent or the parent is displeased on a regular basis.
All of the factors highlighted above can be found in adults to a lesser or greater degree depending on how wounded the inner child was. They can range from mild self-esteem issues to crippling feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy, right through to intense mental pain.