Modern Psychotherapy and Buddhist Thought

Essay, 2011

17 Pages, Grade: 2.1


Critical Compassion: the Role of Self-Compassion in Healing the Inner Critic

Modern Psychotherapy and Buddhist Thought

This paper will explore the psychological concept of the inner critic and trace its roots in the work of Jung and his concept of the Shadow. The pioneering work on self-compassion in therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy will be examined and its roots in the beliefs and practices of Buddhism will be demonstrated.

Critical Compassion: the Role of Self-Compassion in Healing the Inner Critic

“Your own worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.” Ancient Buddhist proverb.

An Ironman triathlete finishes his latest race 5 minutes under typical time and tells himself: I’ll never be good at this. I’m so weak. Why can’t I be stronger?

A young woman gets accepted into UCLA’s distinguished nursing school program and her first reaction is: They must have made a mistake.

A graduate school student in the last six months of her program sits down to begin her final research paper and thinks to herself: I can’t do this. I don’t deserve to be awarded a degree.

There is a certain psychological struggle that as a budding therapist I am finding present in nearly all of my clients in some way, shape or form. This struggle is that of the Inner Critic, and its roots penetrate deep within the human psyche. The term “Inner Critic” is not unbeknown in our society. Even those outside the field of psychology and self-growth will reference their ‘Inner Critic’ in casual conversation. The whole concept of the inner critic has been popularized and references to it can be found in books on self-help and diets. Albers (2008, p.144) describes the Inner Critic thus:

We all have a little inner critic that lives in our heads…. The voice might be called a “mindless critic” when these thoughts are automatic, springing to mind without any effort, or when the thoughts take place below your awareness. you are thinking mindlessly when you aren’t really paying attention to the thoughts, but they are influencing your reactions like a backseat driver.

Yet for the widespread awareness that the inner critic concept receives and the amount of attention that has been focused on combating the critic, it remains (for the most part) a pervasive, painful and damaging function within the individual. The effects of an unchallenged Inner Critic can have rippling effects on an individual’s regard for their very identity, which in turn effects how one shows up for themselves and for others in their daily life.

As a final research topic of exploration, I have chosen to explore the Inner Critic due to its clear prevalence in the lives of my clients, but also for its presence in my own personal life, which has often kept me from realizing a dream or finishing a project. For as long as I can remember I have heard friends and family say to me: “David, you are so hard on yourself!” It wasn’t until I began my own psychotherapeutic work that I was able to see the truth in these claims and to concern myself with how to dampen the Critic’s voice. Of great surprise and interest to me was the discovery that at the root of healing Inner Critic wounding is critical compassion: the instrument of self-compassion.

Taking a historical view of psychology it is possible to argue that the root of the concept of the Inner Critic lies in the work of Jung and is related, although not the same as Jung’s concept of the Shadow. Young-Eisendrath and Dawson (2008, p.98) write of

… that unwelcome side of our nature that Jung calls the shadow. This is made up of all the tendencies, motives and characteristics that we have barred from consciousness, whether deliberately or not. The admission of the shadow is the sine qua non of individuation.

The great similarity between the shadow and the inner critic is that both are seen as negative and hostile to individual growth and happiness. Miller (2004, p.73) uses a quotation from Jung to show the importance and the disturbing effects of the shadow:

Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an in inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it…. But if it is repressed or isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected, and is liable to burst forth suddenly in a moment of awareness. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.

An “unconscious snag” – its relation to the inner critic could not be clearer. I will argue later that we must seek to know and identify and talk back to our inner critic and this process of recognition is also advocated by Jungian psychologists:

In Jung’s psychology, though the shadow can never be eradicated, coming to terms with it is an integral step along the path of individuation. Until we can recognize and integrate that which is unacceptable to us inside of our selves, we cannot grow to our full potential. (Miller, p. 73)

In a similar way, the inner critic can never be silenced, but he/she can be ignored or argued with or laughed at and ridiculed.

In the last few years I have been exploring the intersection between the Inner Critic and Buddhist teachings of compassion and have found certain core teachings of the Buddha to be extraordinarily effective not only in combating my Critic but in allowing for a spaciousness that is necessary for my larger, fundamental nature to shine through. In turn, if I can begin to offer my clients a way of first realizing then shining this fundamental light upon needless suffering, then surely I will be in practice of psychotherapy, in aim of ‘serving soul’.

To be in a position, however, to espouse these teachings first requires an understanding of the Inner Critic. What is it exactly? Where does it come from? What is its function? And what are a couple of key psychological theories/techniques that are worth weaving together with the compassion-focused intention of meeting the critic that this paper will propose?

The inner critic is a voice that resides inside our head but which has the power to take over our very being. This voice is a ‘you’ talking to ‘you’ voice, as opposed to an external voice from the outside. “Most of us are not even aware that it is a voice or a self speaking inside of us because its constant judgments have been with us since early childhood and its running critical commentary feels like a natural part of ourselves” (Stone & Stone, 1993, p. 4). The good news is that having an inner critic voice does not mean we’re gong crazy, however, the expressiveness with which the inner critic operates may sometimes make us feel this way.

Qualitatively, the inner critic voice takes on an emotional tone, which can be experienced as accusing, demanding, nagging and contemptuous. Engel (2007, p. 119) sums the inner critic and its tone up very well:

The pathological critic is a term coined by the psychologist Eugene Sagan to describe the negative inner voice that attacks and judges us. A loud, verbose inner critic is enormously poisonous to your psychological health – more so, than any trauma or deprivation you have experienced. We can often heal our wounds and recover from our losses, but the critic is always with us, judging us, blaming us, finding fault in us.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


Modern Psychotherapy and Buddhist Thought
Churchill College, Cambridge
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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500 KB
Buddhism, Jung, the Shadow, the Inner Critic
Quote paper
David Wheeler (Author), 2011, Modern Psychotherapy and Buddhist Thought, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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