Countertransference to the Hegemonic Critic in Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

April 06, 2013 9:04 AM | Admin EBCAMFT
Unless one is actually afflicted with Cptsd, it is hard to comprehend the totalitarianism and viciousness of the client’s critic. When a child is raised by parents who thwart her attempts to bond, her superego grows into an outsized critic as she desperately strives for safety and belonging.

Constant negative attention and a dearth of positive attention are typical of Cptsd-genic parents. Such parents use contempt …intimidation melded with disgust…to frighten and shame the child into total submission. The child’s two most fundamental developmental needs, safety and attachment, are constantly frustrated. Her superego morphs into a toxic critic, goading her to be perfect and self-deprecating in order  to gain acceptance and to avoid punishment and abandonment.

 Eventually, the critic forces the child to identify with her aggressors so thoroughly that she perpetrates their contempt and abandonment against herself. This is especially true of the “gifted child” [a la Alice Miller], who embraces perfectionism as a strategy to make her parents at least safer if not more engaging. She hopes that if she is smart, helpful, pretty, and flawless enough, that her parents will finally care for her.

But as John Bradshaw points out, continued failure at winning their regard forces her to conclude that she is fatally flawed -  loveless not because of her mistakes, but because she is a mistake. She can only see what is wrong with or missing in her. Anything she does, says, thinks, imagines or feels has the potential to spiral her down into a depressed abyss of toxic shame and abject fear. Her superego fledges into a full-blown, trauma-inducing critic, which now keeps trauma alive throughout the day by attacking her for every minor foible…by filling her psyche with stories and visions of catastrophe… moment to endless moment during emotional flashbacks.

Cognition in the Cptsd survivor is a maze of perfectionism and endangerment programs. [My article “Shrinking the Inner Critic in Cptsd” identifies 14 of these poisonous processes When the survivor is triggered, she perseverates about everything that has gone or will go wrong, obsessing all the while about triaging her imagined disasters. Hurrying, worrying, drasticizing and hypochondriasizing are ubiquitous cul-de-sacs of the critic’s negative focusing. Consciousness devolves into a process of negative-noticing – incessantly preoccupied with defects and hazards. Small potato miscues and peccadilloes trigger her into a full blown fight/flight response, which upon adrenalin exhaustion, collapses her into a depressed sense of helplessness and hopelessness.

The Outer Critic
The typical traumatized child also develops an Outer Critic, which projects his rejecting parent[s] on everyone around him.  He is plagued by intense social anxiety fueled by the belief that people abhor him as much as his parents did.  People are just too dangerous and too flawed to trust. Social interactions are routinely avoided or minimized.

The outer critic also commonly projects perfectionism in another way. It focuses on people’s flaws to justify avoiding them.  It constructs expectations that no other human being can match. Drasticizing about a minor faux pas, the critic decides that the other is too untrustworthy for further relationship. Endless repetitions of this dynamic leave the survivor stuck in the legacy of his family’s original abandonment. Most of my Cptsd clients initially have no one in their lives who they can relate to other than superficially.

Many survivors also experience relating as a highly stressful process of vacillating between outer and inner critic. Their negative-noticing oscillates between their own dangerous defectiveness and the deal-breaking defects of others. And some, of course, via repetition compulsion periodically plunge into dangerous attachments with others who replicate their parents’ patterns of abandonment and abuse.

Countertransference and the Critic
In the early phases of therapy, I sometimes feel hopelessly impotent and frustrated with the task of helping the client to deconstruct her critic. Sometimes, it seems as if the critic is the self, not some bothersome superegoic deformity or powerfully entrenched internalization. Standard tools, such as interpretation, psychoeducation, and mindfulness fail to even loosen a screw.

After numerous futile attempts to loosen up any real resistance to the critic in the client, the urge to give up deconstruction efforts feels irresistible. Early in my career, I would think:  “This critic stuff is so Psych 101. I have addressed the client’s critic issues so often that we’re both clearly sick of it. If I don’t back off soon, she’s going to leave.  She’s just not going to get it. Her critic’s just too big for her to see. It’s a forest of perfectionism and endangerment blurred by her narrow focus on this particular moment’s catastrophizations.”

Thankfully, I eventually learned that nothing would change for this type of client, until we shrunk the critic enough to eke out some psychic space for self-observation – for cultivating the developmentally arrested need of self-support. I now rely a great deal in early therapy upon psychoeducation and family of origin exploration. Out of an ongoing elicitation of the client’s childhood trauma, we weave an accurate narrative of how she was inculcated with a vicious and relentless critic.  I help her see how she was innocent and blameless, unlike the “care”-givers, who brainwashed her into routinely hating, shaming and abandoning herself.

Psychoeducative interpretation about the genesis of the toxic critic is, in my opinion, a step that cannot be bypassed, and I do it as much as the client can tolerate. Sometimes, I derive motivation to persist with this very slow, repetitive process by garnering the energy of other countertransferrential feelings that I have. I now typically feel guilty and neglectful when I let the critic get away with abusing the client. At such times, I feel derelict in my human and professional duty to bring attention to how he is hoisting himself on his parents’ petard.

I find now that I can no longer passively collude with the inner critic by failing to actively notice it, as various adults typically did while he was growing up. When an adult does not protest a child being attacked with destructive criticism, s/he tacitly approves it. The child is forced to assume contempt is normal and acceptable, and the witnessing adult forsakes his tribal responsibility to protect children from other adults who perpetrate child abuse.

When I label the traumatizing behavior of the client’s parents as egregious, I begin the awakening of her developmentally arrested need for self-protection. I model to her that she should have been protected, and that she can now resist mimicking their abuse in her own psyche. This eventually encourages disidentification with the aggressor and weakens the internalization of the attacking parent as the locus of the critic. Ptsd expert, Harvey Peskin, adamantly proffers that witnessing and validating the criminality of traumatizing behavior is essential to ameliorating ptsd.

In my own case, I felt loved by my grandmother who lived with my family, but she never helped me see that my parents’ vitriolic rages were wrong and not my fault. In retrospect, I believe that her neglect crystallized my belief that I totally deserved their abuse. The stage was then set for me to morph their contempt into self-loathing…chapter and verse for nearly two decades. I have also noted a marked difference in the ferocity of the critic in clients who had one influential adult in their childhood who helped them see that the destructive behavior of a caregiver was wrong and not their fault. In fact, some have survived horrible parental abuse without developing full blown Cptsd.

To close I would like to encourage you to become the first person in the Cptsd client’s life who helps him see how horribly and unfairly he was indoctrinated against himself when he was too young and impressionable to resist.  Let me paraphrase Milton Erickson’s challenge to us all: we must remain resolute, brave and creative about repetitively confronting key deeply imbedded patterns that do not easily resolve from our attempts to treat them.
I believe it is crucial to apply this advice to deconstructing the critic- patterns that block the client’s psyche from becoming user-friendly.

[In my two articles on Shrinking the Critic, available for downloading at, I offer an expanded perspective on deconstructing the influence of the hegemonic critic.]

Pete Walker, M.A., is in private practice in Lafayette. He has been working as a mental health professional for thirty-five  years. He is also the author of The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness Out Of Blame.  His various published writings on working with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and adults traumatized as children can be viewed and downloaded from his website:  He can also be reached at 925.283.4575.

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