“It’s easy to see someone else’s verdict but difficult to recognize one’s own—and so we live within its confines. What are you telling yourself before you wake up? What is the inner verdict by which you yourself live? Do you, like me, wait for the triumph that will decisively and permanently make you feel good? Do you, like me, wish for the success that will justify your colleagues’ respect? And do you, like me, find ways, different ways, from day to day, to banish most of whatever good feeling accrues?” Bonnie Friedman
Your inner critic defines your verdict. 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 dart after dart of scolding, shaming, nit-picking, and faultfinding. By doing so, it creates the belief that something is wrong with us. It creates the verdict that something is wrong with me.
Reflection: Take a moment to reflect on your good qualities. Sit with this for a minute or two. Notice whether your inner critic kicks in and tells you that you aren’t really that good.
Chances are your inner critic ridiculed 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. Our inner critic would make Einstein look dumb and Mother Theresa look selfish.
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. Although my inner critic is made up of many different voices, I named my inner critic Billy, after a boy who was mean to me in grammar school. It helps to distance his opinions from my view of reality and reminds me that it is just a kid talking to me.
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.” 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.
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, I still listen to Billy. And the more I listen, the deeper his roots take hold. Billy gets louder when others have been nasty, belittling, or mean toward me.
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?”
Sometimes we tend 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. I often yell at Billy to leave me alone. He just keeps up his banter about how I am not good enough. It’s normal to fight your inner critic, but I found it doesn’t quiet him.
Other times, we 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. When I listen to Billy, I 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.”
I am learning to simply acknowledge him and say, “Oh, yes, there is Billy again.” As soon as I do, the judging thought loses its power over me. I can decide whether or not to listen to Billy, to believe him, or to act on what he says. Whenever I do make another choice, I find that disaster doesn’t strike. By observing carefully what happens, I gain the strength to go against the voices in my head. And I find the results are better than when I followed his advice.
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 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 the best antidote to the Inner Critic’s poison. To protect itself, the inner critic will attack the compassion, making kindness seem like weakness, sentimentality or selfishness.
Here are some practical steps for quieting your Inner Critic:
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. My chest contract when Billy is talking. That is my cue to say, “Oh, there is Billy again, be careful about believing what he says.”
Notice the verdict, 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 the verdict
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 toward the future self I want to be? Or does it move me to do something I am going to regret?
- 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 the 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, “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 this common humanity, the 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 how good it feels to release the verdicts 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 creating verdicts 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.”
“You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” Thich Nhat Hanh