Releasing Your Inner Critic’s Grip on You

“This Inner Critic is a voice within each of us that criticizes us mercilessly. With an IQ of about 500 that enables it to spot all of our shortcomings, an uncanny ability to read our most secret feelings, X-ray vision to reveal deficiencies that would be invisible to the naked eye, infrared tracking systems that can look within our dreams at night, and standards of comparison that would make Einstein look stupid and Mother Theresa look selfish, this Inner Critic takes upon itself the task of evaluating us. Needless to say, it always finds us falling short of expectations.” Hal & Sidra Stone, authors of Embracing Your Inner Critic

If you prefer to listen

Our inner critic, that negative inner voice of self judgement, gives us a distorted view of who we are.  We often hang on to those roles and the stories that come with that distorted view even when they cause us to suffer. We hold on to the familiar because it feels safe.  Kind of like the devil you know. It is scary to let go of our roles, even when they no longer serve us. Being smart (defined by me as knowing-it-all) served me well in school when I was graded on how much I knew.  And it worked when I was in technical positions as work.  But it was not beneficial when I was positions where I had to lead people.  And it really wasn’t so beneficial in my everyday life. Yet I held on to that role and that definition of the role.

It is frightening to question or change our definition of those roles. I equated being intelligent with being a know-it-all.  But I was afraid to change that definition. I couldn’t say that being smart was being smart enough admit when I didn’t know things.  Because I had this inner critic that said “You should know everything, you should do better”.  And it came from the voice of my father who said, “What is that B doing there?” Like I wasn’t good enough because I had the B.  So, I had trouble admitting that I didn’t know something, and would work doubly hard to become the expert.

I judged myself on how well I was playing the outdated role that I defined as know-it-all. I thought if I played my role better, I would be happier and people would like me more.  This meant spending time to become the expert on everything, instead of focusing time and energy on developing relationships. And I beat myself up if I didn’t meet the impossible standards my inner critic set for me. That attacked my sense of self-worth. Feeling I wasn’t good enough made me try harder to know everything. It is that vicious circle of reactivity I talk about when I talk about getting on that hamster wheel.

Hal & Sidra Stone say, “It is your critic who feels you are rotten to the core. It is your critic who feels you must never let anyone know who or what you are because you are a mistake; you are flawed, and evil possibly even dangerous creature. It is your critic who fears that others will find you disgusting and possibly horrifying and that they will hurt or reject you.”

Our critic came from our parents who were trying to socialize us so we could get along in the world. And some of those roles they gave us worked well when we were 8 years old and maybe even 12 years old. But they don’t work so well now.  Yet, we allow the inner critic to talk to us about that in a way that we would not accept from anyone else.  We accept the story our inner critic is telling us as if it is really true. We think our inner critic will make us better so we won’t make the same mistakes.  But in reality, our inner critic encourages us to give up control.  “You will never be good enough, so why even bother.”

Unfortunately, if we are not aware of the thoughts of our inner critic, we are blindly believing it and letting it shape our lives. When we judge ourselves in a real negative way, our body contracts. Think of it when you tell yourself, “Oh, you’re stupid.” Or “I can’t believe you lost your keys again.”   Or “I can’t believe you are going to be late again.”  You can feel the contraction in your body.  And when our body contracts, we can’t see all the possibilities there are.  Our vision becomes tunnel vision. And we just see the problem, we don’t see the solutions.  So, we can’t react in the most skillful way. 

We continue to play our old roles in the same way, even when it hasn’t worked for us for years. This perpetuates our feeling of inadequacy and allows our fear to paralyze us when we think about changing. For me, saying “I don’t know.” is a hard thing to do. I worry that people will think I am stupid or not good enough.  I clung to being a know-it-all even though it may have made people around me feel stupid.  It has taken me a long time to get to know in my heart that people would like me better if I didn’t have to always be right. 

We often defend our critic when it berates us.  We think that if it didn’t criticize us, we would continue to make the same mistakes again and again.  We say “It’s OK, I deserve that,” when none of us deserve to be talked to in that manner. Maybe we made a mistake, and we deserve to be corrected.  But not in the harsh belittling tone that our inner critic usually uses.  Because the way our inner critic talks to us makes us question our ability to learn or grow. We think, “I can never change this.” 

Mark Coleman says, “It is as if your brain is stuck in the wrong gear and the judgments are quietly whirring just below your perceptual threshold, gnawing away at you and draining precious mental resources. In this state of mind, it can be difficult to think clearly or make decisions. It can feel like your brain is frozen and you’ve lost the antifreeze.”

How do we get the inner critic to release its grip?
First, recognize when the inner critic is talking

You can recognize the critic’s tone; it is harsh and demeaning.  When your critic is in control, you may notice your voice gets higher, and you talk faster or louder. You may notice your heart is racing or that you are breathing faster.  If you scan your body, you are likely to feel tension.  Note where that tension is – that can be your bell of mindfulness.  You can say, “Oh, the inner critic is talking, do I want to stop and listen to it?”

Michael Singer says that your inner critic “talks for the same reason that a teakettle whistles. That is, there’s a buildup of energy inside that needs to be released. If you watch objectively, you will see that when there’s a buildup of nervous, fearful, or desire-based energies inside, the voice becomes extremely active.”

Be aware of when your inner critic is most likely to talk. It is often when you feel most vulnerable because you have been criticized, belittled, stressed, or maybe you have done something that is totally inappropriate or in character with who you are.  You lost it with someone.  That is when the inner critic is most likely to be talking to you.

Notice the content, it is usually a variation of one of these themes:

  • You have no business doing that
  • You should be perfect at all times
  • Normal people wouldn’t do this
  • You only have problems because you are bad, there is something wrong with you
Second, use your discernment to determine the truth of what your inner critic is saying

Bring the story your inner critic is telling you to the conscious level.  Then ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is this thought or belief 100% true, partially true or totally false? Often what your inner critic says has a kernel of truth, but not the whole story.
  • How do I react when I believe this thought, feeling or belief? Does it make me lash out?  Does it make me close up?
  • Does that reaction move me in a positive direction, the way I want to go to the future self I want to be? Or does it move me negative direction, to do something I am going to beat myself up about?
  • Who would I be if I did not believe this thought or belief? If I didn’t believe that I was shy, would I open myself up to people and move in the direction that I want to go?
  • Am I really not a good person deep down? If we look underneath all that armor we use to hide ourselves, we see there is a lot of light, there is a lot of goodness.
Third, call on your inner nurturer

Your inner nurturer is the part of you that acts like a best friend.  It accepts that you are an imperfect human being, and that it is normal to make mistakes.  It speaks to you in a soft, compassionate way, unlike the harsh, belittling tone of the inner critic. It may be helpful to create a response that your inner nurturer says to your inner critic when it begins to get out of control.  Something like, “Can you say that in a more respectful manner?” or “I know you are trying to help, but it’s not working.” Your inner critic really is trying to help.  It wants to keep you from being criticized so it criticizes you first. It is trying to be helpful, but it is doing it in the wrong way. You may want to say, “Here is that story again.” Or “That was true ten years ago, but it is not true anymore.”

The inner nurturer will remind you that you can pause and calm your body by breathing. It will let you know that you are not alone, you are a part of this common humanity, this imperfect human race. Then you can reword the observations made by your inner critic in a kinder, more positive way which is more likely to get the change you are looking for in your life.

Fourth, feel the freedom that comes from releasing old views and judgments that have created pain

This is not a one and done.  You don’t do this once and your inner critic becomes quiet.  Your inner critic has been chatting away for many years. You have to do it over and over.  When you take the time to feel how good it feels to release your inner critic’s grip on you, it gives you the strength to release its grip over and over again.  Mark Coleman says, “Inner peace comes from seeing that you cannot be defined by stories, views, or negative thoughts about yourself. The more you release the burden of painful self-judgments that are no longer relevant, the more accessible inner peace will be.”