When I sat down to write this article I was aware of my resistance to start. I felt moody and slightly anxious so I took a deep breath and listened to my inner dialogue. That’s when I heard the voice: “This article will be terrible. It will probably be the worst one you’ve done so you should just quit now.” I listened and responded with: “I can tell that you’re feeling protective of me and don’t want me to get hurt. But you’re making me anxious and I need you to stop criticizing me. Trust me, I will be OK!”
The voice I am referring to is my inner critic. We all have one: an inner voice that expresses disapproval, criticism, and judgment of our actions. It may sound like, “What’s wrong with you? You brought this on yourself.” Or, “Ugh, you look awful.”
The critic is fluent in criticizing appearance, intelligence, emotions, and just about anything about you. Its presence can be painful and is often directly involved in anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, addictions, and a variety of self-destructive behaviors.
What if I told you there was a way you could understand your inner critic and form a healthy relationship with it? Well, you can! And as a result, you will experience a greater sense of control and inner peace.
First, it is important to understand how the inner critic develops. In a nutshell: Our inner voice develops in childhood and is shaped by the way we are spoken too. Whether it’s loving, angry, encouraging, or critical, whatever our parents, caregivers, teachers, or peers say gets imprinted in our mind. We then learn to divide the world into “good” and “bad” and try to behave accordingly. We develop both the positive voice that is encouraging and the inner critic that appears to correct us. Typically, the more we are exposed to criticism, rejection, and negative messages the louder the inner critic becomes.
Our inner critic appears in adulthood the same way it does in childhood—it tries to correct our behavior and keep us safe from embarrassment and shame. It carries with it an underlying fear that our actions are unacceptable and therefore will be rejected. It comes out in vulnerable situations: when you’ve made a mistake or are second guessing your choices, when meeting a stranger or interacting with someone you’re attracted to and often times in situations where you feel criticized or exposed.
Imagine the following scenarios:
1. Do you check social media to see how many favorites, re-tweets, likes, and comments you accrued? Do you edit your language multiple times before posting your thoughts? For many of us, the most appealing aspect of social media is the experience of instant gratification and the feeling of being connected and liked by others. Our egos love it when our photos have accrued likes and comments or an article we posted is shared.
However there is also a negative side to social media where our inner critics can run rampant. We are repeatedly exposed to other people’s lives and opinions and naturally begin to compare, often to our own detriment. When we see someone else experiencing what we want we may experience jealousy, shame, and anger—all stemming from our critic. When we don’t get the instant gratification we seek it can leave us feeling insecure and regretful. Chances are your inner critic is present and doing its best to protect you because it fears what others will think and how you will be treated.
2. You’re in the middle of an intimate encounter with your partner and are feeling happy and connected then all of a sudden you notice you are stuck in your thoughts and worried about your body “flaws.” You’re bombarded with shaming negative self-talk and struggle to regain your presence.
When we feel shame, we feel that something makes us so flawed that we don’t deserve to be in connection with other people. Shame disconnects us, making us feel alone and causing us to withdraw as a way to comfort and soothe. This doesn’t only happen in intimate encounters, it can happen in any relationship. At the crux of this process is your inner critic doing its best to protect you from re-experiencing painful encounters you had in the past.
Believe it or not, our critics ultimately want us to be happy. It wants us to have everything we desire—but often has a negative way of communicating. Taming your inner critic may feel impossible but I encourage you to consider these tips the next time your inner critic speaks up:
Most people are not aware that there is a critical voice inside because the constant judgments have been with us since early childhood—its running critical commentary feels natural. So, pay attention to your internal narrative and catch yourself when you are being overly critical. Recognize that just because you have opinions and judgments, it doesn’t mean they are always true. You have immense power in choosing how you respond. Will you choose love or shame?
When you make a mistake your inner critic wants to correct it. It may feel natural to replay the event over in your head to find a solution. But often the inner critic doesn’t focus on solutions; it focuses on chastising. Doing this will make you feel worse and will not solve the problem.
When you notice that you are ruminating identify what you can do to help yourself in the present moment. If it feels like there is nothing you can do, go for a walk, call a friend, or sit with your experience as it is and breathe deeply. Your inner critic and ruminating is a pattern—it is not who you are.
Express compassion for out of control feelings: “I understand you are terrified of getting rejected—it is painful. I know you’re trying to protect me.” Try responding to yourself the same way you would a friend—speak to her with compassion. And remember, your critic developed in childhood and carries with it parts of your inner child so choose your words wisely and be kind.
Challenge Your Critic
Sometimes our natural inclination is to try to silence or ignore our inner critic. Many of us are taught to suppress our feelings and emotions so it makes sense to try to disown a part of us that makes us feel bad. But this does not work with the inner critic. The opposite actually happens: The more you ignore your inner critic the stronger it gets.
Instead, try challenging its voice by examining the evidence. If your critic tells you that you will never move up at your job or that you will be single forever examine evidence that supports or refutes this claim. This helps address the situation from the rational part of your brain and distances thinking from your emotions.
Buddha said, “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make our world.” There are few things we have control over in our lives. We can’t control what happened to us in the past—how we were treated, the bad things that happened, the mean things that were said—but we can have empathy for the inner critic that lives in us all.
Our inner critic works to protect us from pain and suffering. When we understand our critic for what it is and become attuned to what it needs, it can shift from being an abusive intruder to an empowering ally.
If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and are interested in individual or couples therapy I invite you to contact me via email at: [email protected]