Inviting Your Inner Critic for Coffee

Why Is It So Hard to Show Up for Ourselves?

Magazine Issue
March/April 2024

A month before I went to graduate school to become a therapist, I sat on a meditation cushion with my hands resting lightly on my knees, trying to focus on my breath at the start of a three-day self-compassion retreat. Although quiet pervaded the spacious hall, I was distracted by a loud conversation.

“Can’t you sit still for one fucking minute?” a voice hissed. “What’s wrong with you?”

“I can’t feel my foot! There’s no blood flow!”

“You’re supposed to ignore it. Stop squirming! Why are you so weak-willed?”

“I told you this stupid retreat was a mistake! Now we’re stuck here for three entire days. I can’t stand it.”

“Shut up! The whole reason we’re here is because you’re such a pathetic mess.”

These two chatterboxes clearly knew each other, but they couldn’t possibly be friends—could they? I found their conversation annoying and unpleasant. At the same time, I was struck by the familiarity of their banter, as if they’d been taking vicious swipes at each other for decades.

“Notice how you speak to yourself.” Our meditation teacher, who was seated cross-legged on a dais at the front of the room, broke the silence. Her tone was measured, and the reverberations of her voice rippled faintly along the high ceiling. “Would you be friends with someone who spoke to you the way you speak to yourself?”

I closed my eyes, returning to the conversation I’d been listening to—the one inside my head.

For years, I’d had a Metta practice where I wished myself well with phrases like May I be happy and May I be at peace. A month before the retreat, I’d begun reciting the Hawaiian ho’oponopono self-forgiveness mantra: I’m sorry, forgive me, thank you, I love you. But my inner critic still went for the jugular—my jugular—whenever I felt sad, restless, scared, or lonely, accusing me of being a weak, unworthy failure. A toxic brew of shame and disgust seeped into my emotional ecosystem at the slightest hint of vulnerability or distress.

“Even if you were to travel the whole world searching for someone more deserving than you are of love and friendship,” the teacher continued, “you wouldn’t find them. You deserve your own love and friendship as much as anyone else.”

My ankle slipped off the cushion, and a wave of prickly sensation shot through my toes. Next, my leg extended, knocking into the hip of a man seated next to me. He let out a loud grunt of alarm. A few meditators turned their heads to stare.

“Sorry,” I whispered, my face hot. He shrugged.

I’d always assumed my personal problems were the result of other people judging me, but the reality was, I’d gotten very good at judging myself. My worst enemy wasn’t somewhere outside of me. Like an evil BFF, she’d been squatting in my own brain rent free for years, wearing all my clothes, spending all my money, and sleeping with all my boyfriends. She judged and criticized me regularly—and most of the time, I believed whatever she said.

Be Your Own Best Friend

If you type “How to Be Your Own Best Friend” into Google, hundreds of thousands of results appear. Bestselling books and viral articles abound, offering generic and incredibly hard-to-follow advice, like treat yourself the way you’d treat a friend, take time for yourself, and practice self-compassion. Being your own friend seems to have become a pop-psychology panacea for every modern-day emotional and psychological challenge we face. But what does it truly mean to befriend yourself?

Most of us would agree that good friends are curious about our inner worlds. Generally, they accept us. They don’t blame us for our flaws or point out our mistakes unless they’re trying to rescue us from our own self-sabotaging behaviors. They give us the message You’re precious to me; you matter; you’re not alone. Yet many clients we see, including therapist-clients, find it hard to matter to themselves—to really matter.

We try to help them balance care for themselves with care for family and friends, doing our best to shepherd them toward whatever internal experiences they’ve been judging or denying, disowning, or projecting onto others. Even when the work is processing trauma, metabolizing corrective emotional experiences, or regulating the nervous system, it’s still, at some level, a way to help clients become their own true, loyal, trustworthy friends. But it’s not easy to do this, even for therapists who know all about self-care.

Hazel, one of my clients, reached out to me after being promoted into the director role of a small research institute. The promotion had triggered anxiety and depressive symptoms. She’d been getting into conflicts with staff members, who’d been missing work deadlines and skipping meetings. But what was most painful was the internal sense of her own unworthiness. She couldn’t shake it. Raina, her girlfriend, rather than being supportive, had minimized and invalidated her feelings, and even blamed her for the stress she was under.

“Being in a leadership role isn’t easy,” Hazel tells me. “If I could be nicer to myself, none of this would matter. But I’m so insecure! Why do I care so much what people think?”

I point out similarities between Raina’s judgmental accusations and the things Hazel has been telling herself.

“Maybe you’re right,” she concedes, “but so what? That just means there’s two of us pointing out what an insecure person I am. It doesn’t help me like myself better.”

Both Hazel and I can see how she’s become her own worst enemy and how entrenched these patterns are. Still, after months of work, and despite some progress, my own inner critic sneers at me, Seriously, is this the best you can do for her? Your active listening is accomplishing jack shit. You spent the entire last session colluding with her defenses. Though I try to ignore these messages, as the day wears on, the tension in my jaw becomes a splitting headache, and the dull pain in my lower back worsens.

The irony of the fact that I beat myself up for failing to help Hazel stop beating herself up isn’t lost on me. It’s a complicated web to untangle! So I decide to call Jeanne Newhouse, one of my former therapists, to get her take on why my harsh inner critic continued rearing its ugly head in some of my sessions, even though I’ve studied all the ways we can help our clients be kinder to themselves. Newhouse is an Accelerated Experiential Dynamic Psychotherapist and AEDP faculty member with a background in psychoanalysis. She’s been a therapist for more than 30 years.

“It’s a challenge for therapists to be our own friends because we’re caregivers,” she says pointedly. Originally trained as a dancer, Newhouse radiates a particular kind of ethereal grace that catches me off guard, even on a Zoom call. “We’re used to giving care out and listening out, not giving care in and listening in. Therapists can berate themselves as much as anyone else, and our self-talk can be harsh.”

I nod vigorously.

“Sometimes other people reinforce our high expectations of ourselves,” Newhouse continues. “People in our lives say, ‘You’re a therapist! You’re supposed to know how to handle these emotional tsunamis.’ But we need to remember that we’re a human first and a therapist second.”

I agree with Newhouse, but when I start criticizing myself after sessions with Hazel, should I put my hand on my heart and murmur, “You’re doing the best you can”? Should I indulge in a short nap or a bubble bath? I’ve participated in group, individual, and peer supervision, and still do. I’ve attended countless self-improvement seminars. Should I sign up for another one and rack up more debt? I’ve been to individual therapy off and on for over 25 years. Should I ask Newhouse if she has room on her caseload for a returning client? These things can help, but I know from experience they can’t magically transform the way I relate to myself in all situations. Given the opportunity, my evil BFF remains quick to go for the jugular, even when I know it’s just my brain’s way of coping with fear and uncertainty.

“People think befriending yourself means meditating, taking a bath, eating well, exercising, putting your hand on your heart,” Newhouse says, as if reading my mind. “Those things are important but befriending yourself is a far more internal process. It’s all those things and none of those things. It’s about how you show up for yourself.”

The Goal of Therapy

“I’m tired of being me.” Hazel makes fists out of both hands and presses her knuckles against her face. Her hair is unkempt, and there are dark circles under her eyes. “Maybe the simplest explanation for why people at work aren’t friendly is because I don’t deserve friendship. I just want to change. I want to be someone else. I want to stop feeling lonely and stuck all the time.”

Many of my clients have voiced a similar desire, one that Steve Shapiro, a psychologist and Intensive Short-Term Dynamic Psychotherapy trainer, recently challenged at a retreat he was leading on clients with entrenched defenses.

“Do people go to therapy to change?” he asked the 22 therapist-participants.

Of course, I thought. Why else would someone go to therapy?


“We think we know the answer to that question,” Shapiro said. “But when clients want to change, or be a different person, or stop feeling what they feel, they may as well be saying, ‘I reject something fundamental about who I am.’ And is that the solution? or is that the problem? When clients criticize themselves, it doesn’t help to say, ‘Go develop self-compassion.’ That’s like telling someone learning tennis, ‘Go be a better tennis player.’ That’s not functional. But if you say, ‘Do you want to see what happens if you shift your wrist 45 degrees to the left?’ That’s something you can work with. That’s functional.”

I lean toward Hazel, who’s staring out the window. She’s relaxed her fists and dropped her hands to her lap. Faint red marks are visible where her knuckles pressed into her face.

“Would you be willing to check in with your body?” I’m hoping this intervention falls into the “functional” category for someone who wants to be their own friend. “See if you can sense what the loneliness and stuckness feel like inside.”

Hazel shakes her head. “I can’t,” she says.

“There’s a lot of emotion when you say that,” I reflect, noticing a tremor in her voice.

A tear crosses her cheek, following the curve of her jawline. “I feel the loneliness now,” she says. “In my chest. It’s cold and heavy.”

“Stay with that if you can,” I encourage her. “Just breathe and stay with the feeling.”

Hazel closes her eyes.

Something else Shapiro said comes back to me. “Pain and suffering are different things. When we beat ourselves up to avoid pain, that’s when we suffer. The goal of therapy is to help people feel pain, because it helps guide us out of our suffering. If our clients knew that, they’d say, ‘Wait—I thought I came here to feel better and be different!’ But people really go to therapy to feel, and to be who they already are.”

Right now, Hazel is doing both.

Building Internal Relationships

When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me I was ugly and stubborn—fea y terca—and that no one would marry me because I looked like a horse when I smiled. The joke, which he repeated often, sent him into paroxysms of laughter. He’d survived the aftermath of the Spanish civil war in the famine that followed Franco’s rise to power—a feat he could accomplish only by focusing single-mindedly on his own survival. A generation later, his put-downs crystalized into elements of my evil BFF, the entrenched psychic structure that worked against me just as Hazel’s inner critic worked against her, even though she’d grown up in the U.S. with a supportive father. Most therapists call these internal structures parts.

I contacted Carmen Jimenez-Pride, a psychotherapist, supervisor, and Internal Family Systems (IFS) practitioner in Atlanta, for help understanding what it means to develop a healthier, friendlier relationship with our parts from an IFS perspective.

“Just as we work to build healthy relationships externally, we need to work to build them internally,” Jimenez-Pride says. “If there’s no relationship there, the inner critic is going to come in and say harsh things. If my inner critic says to me, ‘You’re trash; you’re going to be late to this meeting,’ I can slow down and respond, ‘Okay, Carmen-critic—girl, calm down,’ but I can only do that if there’s a relationship there.

“As a high-functioning professional woman of color, my inner critic is always pushing me to do better, be better. This is the case with many of my clients who carry heavy legacy burdens, which are beliefs that belong to other people and get passed down across generations. But I can sit down with Carmen-critic and listen and be curious. ‘Okay, you called me trash. I’m looking in the mirror and not seeing any trash. Help me understand.’ ‘Oh, you’re trash because I have to keep working so hard.’ ‘Well, why do you feel you have to work so hard?’ ‘Because you won’t be on time for the meeting.’ ‘But you don’t give me a chance to be on time before saying something hurtful. Give me a chance. Let me lead. I’ll make both our lives easier. You can be my copilot.’ With my clients, I might ask, ‘What percentage of this negative belief belongs to you, and what percentage of it belongs to someone else?’”

That question sticks with me.

The next time I see Hazel, it’s mid-December, and lights have been strung out along the balconies of the apartments outside my office window. She enters the room slowly, as if a pair of five-pound weights have been strapped to her ankles.

“The loneliness is heavy,” she says. “Even when I’m in a conference room full of people. A part of me believes I deserve it, but I’m trying to ignore that part.”

“How?” I ask.

“I eat,” Hazel says. “I scroll through my phone.”

“Does that work?” I ask.

“For a while,” she says. “Then I feel like a lazy pig.”

“Do you want to do something different here?” I ask. She shrugs and stares out the window. “What if we invited that part of you to coffee? The one that calls you lazy and says you deserve to be lonely,” I suggest. “What if we get to know that part a bit better? Maybe we can learn more about why she says things like that.”

“Invite her to coffee?” Hazel smirks. “I’d rather invite her to get hit by a train.” It’s dark humor that hints at morbid ideation, but right now, I’ll take it. Any spark of liveliness might galvanize her to engage in our process.

I chuckle. “I’m not saying you have to become besties with that part, but could you at least get to know her a bit? As a casual acquaintance rather than as a dreaded enemy?”

She agrees to try. With my support, she connects to the visceral experience of feeling undeserving, and then pictures that part of her walking into one of her favorite coffee shops.

“I’m at a corner table with a latte,” Hazel says. “She’s coming in the door and sitting down across from me. She’s in a stylish pantsuit, but her hair’s a mess and she’s scowling.”

“Can you let her know you’re paying attention to her and willing to listen?” I suggest.

“She’s saying, ‘If you want to get anywhere in life, you’d better get used to being alone.’” Hazel’s voice has risen an octave, but then it drops back to normal. “She thinks there’s no way to succeed and be liked by other people. Weird!” Hazel exclaims, opening her eyes.

“What?” I ask.

“My mom used to say ‘It’s lonely at the top’ whenever I complained about nobody sitting with me at lunch in middle school. I was a great student, but I was shy. I probably just needed a little coaching. My mom dismissed the whole situation as silly.”

“What comes up as you realize that?” I ask.

“Relief,” she says. Dusk is arriving, and the lights on the balconies brighten as we sit in silence. After a few moments, Hazel says in a voice suffused with quiet power, “I’m not actually unworthy or undeserving. None of this is silly.”

Not all our friends qualify as besties, and not all our parts inspire loyalty and love. When we form a relationship with the inner critic, as Hazel did, this judgmental part of us can soften, and we can learn about it. Many therapists, IFS trained or not, agree this is how it works with parts. We might not choose to snuggle up with every single one of them on a couch at the start of a Netflix movie, but we can still accept them, meet them for coffee, and listen to what they have to say.

Love Goes Both Ways

Amid all the chatter in the ether these days about what’s being deemed a loneliness epidemic, separating the issue of how well we relate to each other from the issue of how well we relate to ourselves seems misguided. Our society prizes independence above relying on others for love and support, but what if you can’t get to self-friendship without relying on others? What if our collective loneliness is actually a reflection, on a massive scale, of the misguided path we’ve gone down in trying to befriend ourselves, with all our myriad parts, by ourselves?


Hazel breezes into my office the next time we meet. “Did you have a nice Christmas?” she asks.

“It was fine,” I say, “thanks for asking.” I’m smiling, but the words sound mechanical. A week earlier, I’d returned home from a miserable family trip to New Jersey, during which my husband and I had spent most of our time bickering and our son had stared glassy-eyed at a computer screen, his back to the beautiful view of the Hudson and the Manhattan skyline. Then, on Christmas day, I’d come down with the flu.

Hazel looks concerned. “You sure you’re okay?”

You’re here to take care of your client, but you look so out of sorts that she’s asking about you, my inner critic whispers. I inhale and pause for a moment, noticing a familiar tightness in my chest. By now, I know what it means: I’m attacking myself. I sense something else, too—a subtle, upward movement along my spine, as if someone has put a gentle, supportive hand on my back where my posture tends to collapse. “Actually,” I say, exhaling, “the holidays were rough.”

“The holidays can be so hard,” Hazel replies, her face reflecting kindness.

My eyes close for just a moment. “I feel you caring about me,” I tell her.

“I do care about you,” she says quietly. “And I appreciate you so much.”

“Thank you,” I say. Then, effortlessly, the focus of our session shifts back to her. She needs to address some personnel conflicts at work, and she’s frustrated that being authoritative is so anxiety-provoking for her. Still, even as we process difficult emotions, something sweet lingers in the air between us—a sense of ease and acceptance. What is this?

I remember Newhouse had once told me that in AEDP, the back-and-forth experience of mutually attuned care—especially when there’s a rupture or the potential for a rupture—has a name: dyadic affective coordination. “An important part of healing for our clients is experiencing the positive impact they have on us,” she said. “When we allow them to care for us, and receive that care, it helps them care for themselves. It’s a feedback loop. The journey toward self-friendship is not a solo journey.”

As Hazel began treating her inner critic like an acquaintance in her friend circle—a well-intentioned one with poor communication skills—she felt less anxious. Over time, she began having more to give—to herself, her girlfriend, her coworkers, and even to me, her therapist. As I opened up to what lay under my own self-attacks, I could take in more of the small moments of care from others that I’ve tended to overlook, and tune in to my own self-compassion. Each of us was engaged in an individual process of learning to be a friend to ourselves by facing and softening internal obstacles—and we were doing it together.

“People say you have to love yourself before someone else can love you,” Newhouse said. “But I think we have to be loved in order to love ourselves. Love goes both ways. We’re not born loving ourselves. We are loved. From there we practice loving others, and ourselves, too.”

And yet, being our own friend can still feel like an elusive idea. To be your own friend means being yourself in a world that bombards you with the message that you’re not okay. It means feeling pain in a culture that lulls you into the fantasy of a pain-free life. It takes a village—a patient, caring village—and a sizable dose of personal courage, pretty much every day, to do it well.

Illustrations by Summit Art Creations

Alicia Muñoz

Alicia Muñoz, LPC, is a certified couples therapist, and author of four relationship books, including Stop Overthinking Your Relationship: Break the Cycle of Anxious Rumination to Nurture Love, Trust, and Connection With Your Partner (New Harbinger Publications, 2022). Over the past 16 years, she’s provided individual, group, and couples therapy in clinical settings, including Bellevue Hospital in New York, NY. Muñoz currently works as a Senior Writer and Editor at Psychotherapy Networker and as a couples therapist in private practice. She connects with her readers and followers through monthly blogs, newsletters, and podcasts as well as InstagramFacebook, and Twitter. Muñoz is a member of the Washington School of Psychiatry, the American Psychological Association, and the Mid-Atlantic Association of Imago and Relationship Therapists. You can learn more about her at