How easy is it for you to list your good qualities? For most of us, each time we think of a strength our Inner Critic kicks in and tells us we aren’t really that good. It ridicules any attempt to look on the bright side of things. Our Inner Critic encourages imposter syndrome, that sense of feeling fake, with an accompanying worry that people will find out we are not really that good.
A healthy Inner Critic helps you recognize where you’ve gone wrong and what you need to do to set things right. But for most people, the Inner Critic goes way overboard, throwing second dart after second dart of scolding, shaming, nit-picking, and faultfinding. By doing so, it creates the belief that something is wrong with us.
When we believe everything our Inner Critic says, we can waste our whole life trying to prove ourselves to the world. We hunger for approval from others so that we can feel better about ourselves.
So where does the Inner Critic come from? It represents all the critical, disappointed voices from our childhood. The Inner Critic played a role in your childhood to allow you to control the more wayward forces of anger, rage, greed, and selfishness, often by using shame. It is not a sophisticated mechanism as it is fully developed by age eight – so reasoning with the Inner Critic goes nowhere.
You invite your Inner Critic when you hold yourself to a high standard of perfection. When you fail to meet that impossible standard, you hear the same words over and over and over again – “I’m not good enough,” “How could I be so dumb, or “I never get it right.”
For most of us, our Inner Critic has lived past its sell-by date, we no longer need that harsh voice haranguing us at every turn. We can employ reason, reflection and compassion to navigate the challenges of our lives. But for some reason, we still listen to the Inner Critic. And the more we listen, the deeper its roots take hold. The Inner Critic usually gets more powerful when others have been nasty, belittling, or mean toward you.
We can’t make the Inner Critic go away, but we can reduce the power it holds over us. As soon as we recognize the characteristic tone or words of the Inner Critic, we can be skeptical about it. We can stop believing that our failures are who we really are. We can choose whether we want to join with it and believe it, or separate from it and doubt it. Often the Inner Critic masquerades as reality or truth. To help take off that mask, we can ask:
- “Is it possible that there is another way to see this situation?”
- “Is this the real truth or not?”
- “Are you sure?”
We tend to want to ignore or fight the Inner Critic. But what we resist, persists. If we fight it by saying “I shouldn’t be judging. I’m too harsh,” we only add more judging. When we call it a “bitch” we are simply engaging it.
Instead, we can simply acknowledge it with an inward bow and say, “Oh, yes, my Inner Critic.” As soon as we do, the judging thought loses its power over us. We can even say, “Thank you for your opinion.” You can decide whether or not to listen to the Inner Critic, to believe it, or to act on what it says. Whenever you do make another choice, observe carefully what happens. The Inner Critic has always warned you that disaster would ensue if you stopped obeying it. You will likely find out this isn’t true.
When responding to the Inner Critic, be mindful how you are talking to yourself. Language is very powerful and you are listening. Talk to yourself in useful ways:
- “This criticism has a grain of truth in it, but everything else is exaggerated or untrue.”
- “This is what ____ used to tell me; it was wrong then and it’s wrong now.”
- “This is not helping me and I don’t have to listen to it.”
- “I’m trying my best”
- “I made a mistake, I will do better next time”.
Remember, you are allowed to make mistakes just like every other person. It does not make you less worthy, or dumb. One way to get past the negative conditioning is to actively develop self-compassion by learning to accept yourself and to be a good friend to yourself. Compassion is a best antidote to the Inner Critic’s poison. So, the Inner Critic will attack the compassion, making kindness seem like weakness, sentimentality or selfishness.
Carl Rogers wrote: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.”
In other words, this acceptance — this recognizing what’s going on inside us and this deep unconditional tenderness — is the prerequisite to change.
Here are some practical steps for quieting your Inner Critic:
- When you’re feeling upset, look at what thoughts are flooding your mind.
- Learn to recognize your Inner Critic, usually we are not even aware it’s speaking.
- Consciously pay attention to your Inner Critic so you get to know it.
- Listen, then step back to observe if there is any truth to what it says.
- Look at the overall big picture, not each little detail. No one is perfect, we are all just blokes bumbling along through life.
- Send yourself unconditional love.
“You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” Thich Nhat Hanh