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Want to set yourself free from self-criticism? Here’s the secret

11 June, 2021

Is your inner critic ruling your life? Thankfully, there are various ways to manage that nagging voice in your head…

Why do you always mess up? You’re such a failure.’

‘You’re not working hard enough.’

‘You’re so dull. All you do is work.’

‘What a stupid thing to say. Everyone thinks you’re an idiot.’

‘You didn’t say anything. Everything thinks you’re an idiot.’

‘You should have achieved more by your age. Why can’t you be as successful as your peers?’

Do any of these phrases sound familiar? If so then they probably weren’t said by friends, acquaintances or work colleagues (or at least, let’s hope not). Sadly, they were most likely said by yourself to yourself, like a record on repeat.

This is the droning, repetitive script of the ‘inner critic’, that voice in our heads (or perhaps imp on our shoulder) who tells us everything we’re doing is wrong. Or worse still, that we ourselves are somehow wrong, or bad, or useless. In fact, this voice can cause us to be much harsher and unforgiving towards ourselves than we would ever dream of being to a loved one — or even a stranger.

The truth is that an out of control inner critic can sabotage your relationships, trample on your self-worth and stop you from ever taking risks. It can also have a huge impact on your mental health, resulting in everything from depression to social anxiety to addiction. Yet where does this voice come from? What is its purpose in our lives? And what, if anything, can we do about it?

Understanding the inner critic

We make sense of the world through our experiences, especially those from our childhood and adolescent years. The attitudes and behaviours of the people around us, particularly our caregivers and other adults, can have a huge impact on our own beliefs. In fact, much of what we witness and experience in our early years can end up as deeply internalised messages that we carry through our whole life.

For example, if you grew up with an older sibling who was a high achiever, then you might have internalised the message of ‘I need to achieve in order to be acceptable’. This can be the case even if your parents didn’t tell you this explicitly, as you might still have drawn your own conclusions from watching your sibling be praised a lot.

Or if you grew up with parents who weren’t emotionally available, you might internalise the message of ‘I’m not enough to make my parents happy, I’m worthless’. Of course as adults, we know this isn’t true — a child is never responsible for solving adult problems — but when these messages get established early, we can carry them into adulthood without even realising it.

Another way of understanding the self-critic is from an evolutionary perspective. We are wired to survive, which involves paying attention to things that could be a danger. This includes both physical and social threats, for instance, being rejected or cast out of a group. This means that we tend to tune into things that might cause us problems, meaning that we’re more likely to pay attention to ‘failings’ or ‘mistakes’. So in some ways our inner critics can be thought of as trying to protect us from shame and embarrassment, but its messages are not always accurate. At the extreme end of this our inner critic can cause our threat systems to be constantly triggered, which can lead to various mental health issues.

Signs that your inner critic is out of control

If you don’t like yourself very much — or only like yourself selectively, when you feel that you have ‘done well’ — then your inner critic has probably become problematic. It might tell you that you are not worthy of love, or can only ‘earn’ love when you become more ‘perfect’. It might pick apart everything from your appearance to your speech to your behaviour in social situations, meaning that you constantly feel that there is something ‘wrong’ with you. It can also cause you to seek external validation from others to prove that you are ‘acceptable’, such as social media likes or even relationships with avoidant people. Yet with this inner critic, no amount of praise is enough — as far as it is concerned, you can always be better and do better.

But the fact is that an over-active inner critic is not always accurate, rational or right. In fact it can often act as a saboteur, robbing us of confidence and opportunities, as we are scared to try new things in case we make mistakes. Because no matter how authoritative this voice might sound, there is no real reason to necessarily trust its opinions. Yet if this is the case, what can we do to stop ourselves from taking it seriously?

How to manage the inner critic

If your inner critic is causing excess perfectionism, distress or low self-esteem, then it could really help you to learn how to manage it. That said, trying to just ignore it is easier said than done and can even lead to unhealthy distracting behaviours such as comfort eating, drinking alcohol or zoning out on the internet. So what is the alternative?

In fact, there are various ways to manage your critical inner voice and gain greater self-acceptance. Here are a few of the main ones:

1- Become aware of your triggers

Whether we realise it or not, our inner critic tends to be at its most active when we are in emotional pain or shame. That’s why it is crucial to be aware of your own personal triggers to self-criticism. These could include being around certain difficult family members, making a mistake at work or being rejected romantically.

If you’re not sure what your triggers are then keeping a journal can be useful as it can help you to see patterns that you didn’t even know existed. For instance, you might start noticing that your inner dialogue is harsher after spending time on Instagram looking at images of ‘perfect’ lives. Or you may notice that the company of a particular friend makes you like yourself less, perhaps because they criticise you directly or engage in indirect one-upmanship.

2 - Create boundaries with your critic

When it comes to dealing with self-criticism, it can be good to start with one simple rule: you won’t talk to yourself in a way that you wouldn’t to a friend. So if your inner dialogue becomes cruel, abusive or simply makes you feel upset, then ask yourself — would I speak to anyone else like this? Notice the tone of voice you’re using with yourself.

Next, try to get into the habit of challenging that harsh voice inside of you. Our thoughts are not facts so next time the inner critic speaks, ask yourself ‘Is this actually true?’ For instance, is it really ‘lazy’ not to work overtime every evening? ‘Are you really ‘ugly’ if you’re not a certain weight? And are you really a ‘failure’ if you’re not earning a certain amount? Learn to notice when your inner critic is around, as awareness brings choices.

In setting boundaries with your inner critic and then questioning its assumptions, you will be going a long way towards loosening its grip on your life.

3 - Learn to detach from your habitual thoughts

You could do this by introducing a mindfulness meditation practice to your day, even just for five minutes in the morning. Meditation can help you to learn to become an objective observer of your thoughts, instead of always assuming that they are ‘real’, ‘true’ or ‘accurate’. You can then start to notice these critical thoughts for what they are — the same old judgements that show up regardless of the reality that’s going on around you.

As observed by Sharon Salzber in Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection: ‘Mindfulness helps us see the addictive aspect of self-criticism — a repetitive cycle of flaying ourselves again and again, feeling the pain anew. The inner critic may become a kind of companion in our suffering and isolation. As long as we judge ourselves harshly, it can feel as if we’re making progress against our many flaws. But in reality, we’re only reinforcing our sense of unworthiness.’

4 - Introduce self-compassion

Your next step is to welcome another voice into the conversation, one with very different opinions from the critic. In other words, your compassionate inner voice.

This voice will speak to you in the way a good friend would when you’re feeling down, with kindness and care. For instance, it might tell you that no one is perfect, or remind you that you are deserving of consideration and respect, or list your achievements instead of your perceived ‘failures’. This inner voice might also validate how you’re feeling and comfort you when you are upset.

As a result, your compassionate voice can help to gain a whole new perspective on yourself and your life. Remember that this voice might be faint or even hesitant at first, so really take the time and space to listen to it. If you’re struggling to get started, then you could try thinking about what you’d say to someone you care about if they were in your shoes. You could also think about how you would respond if you heard a stranger speak to someone else the way your inner critic is speaking to you.

As Kristin Neff writes in Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself: ‘When we give ourselves compassion, the tight knot of negative self-judgment starts to dissolve, replaced by a feeling of peaceful, connected acceptance—a sparkling diamond that emerges from the coal.’

And if you are looking for a starting point, these free guided meditations from The Compassionate Mind Foundation are a good resource for learning to develop a more self-forgiving inner state.

5 - Get to the roots of your self-criticism

Who in your life does your inner critic most sound like? A parent? Unpleasant ex? School bully? Or just the media with its constant messages of self-improvement and perfection?

In order to deal with our inner critic, it can help to take a look at the past and present forces in our lives that might have caused it to become so dominant. Of course, this can be difficult and painful work, which is why therapy is often an essential part of the journey.

A therapist can offer an external compassionate voice, modelling to us how a caring inner dialogue might sound. Over time, the encouraging, compassionate voice of the therapist can be ‘heard’ by the client in between sessions and then eventually, is internalised fully.

Types of therapy that can be particularly helpful in managing the inner critic include CFT, ACT and Mindfulness. If you’ve been through traumatic experiences, then EMDR or trauma-focused CBT can help to update the messages you’ve taken away from those experiences. And if you feel that you have a critical partner, then you both might benefit from relationship therapy.

It’s a continuous journey

Remember that dealing with the inner critic is an ongoing process, especially if it has been dominating your life for a long time. But as you cultivate your compassionate inner voice you will find that it becomes easier to hear. You might also find that you no longer have to consciously invite that kinder voice forward as it will start asserting itself spontaneously, chipping in while the inner critic is busily listing your faults.

In other words, when that stuck record of self-blame begins all over again, you might be surprised to find that a gentler voice pipes up too. ‘You’re doing great’, it might say, or ‘you deserve to be happy’, or ‘everyone makes mistakes’. And while the inner critic won’t disappear completely in response, it might shrink or slink away for a while, leaving a feeling of peace in its place. And eventually, you might find that under the positive influence of the kinder voice, the critic’s opinions become a bit more sensible too. And somewhere between these two internal dialogues, you can start to find your true self.

Of course, we need to have a conscience and to be able to hold ourselves accountable but this has to be constructive and balanced. Just remember that the inner critic was never supposed to get all the airtime, you were never supposed to spend your whole life stuck on the same old grating radio station. So why not make a promise to yourself to turn the dial every once in a while and tune into the voice of self-compassion instead?

After all, the relationship that we have with ourselves is the most lasting one in our lives. So who would you rather have accompany you on your journey — a harsh, invalidating critic or a supportive, compassionate companion who reminds you that you are doing your best?


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