Have you ever tripped up on your words in front of your boss, fell in front of someone or made a mistake on an important task at work? All of sudden you get a barrage of harsh thoughts that tells you things like “you’re so stupid” or “you’re not smart enough” or “you can’t do anything right”? This voice might tell you that you’re unqualified, incapable. It probably compares you to the people around you, making sure you always feel like you can’t measure up. This voice is what we call the inner critic–and chances are if your inner critic says anything like the above, it’s holding you back.
What is the Inner Critic?
The inner critic is exactly what it sounds like: a critical voice inside our head that demeans us, judges us, and always finds us coming up short. This critical inner voice is often at the root of our unhelpful behavior or destructive coping style.
So how does it develop within us?
Our inner critic often forms at a very young age. When we look at what it’s telling us, we can probably trace it back to formative, early life experiences. Our own internalization of others’ views of us (be it unrealistic expectations, disappointment, etc.) comes out through our critical inner voice.
Our inner critic, while an unwelcome guest now, developed with a function in mind. It probably worked as a sort of survival method in early life–if you could anticipate the judgment of others you could adjust your behavior or performance so that it was in line with what others wanted from you. This critical inner voice functioned as a tool to make sure you behaved how others wanted. If you could anticipate and play by their rules, then parents, teachers, friends, family, etc., wouldn’t be disappointed or upset with you.
However, now the inner critic, rather than protecting you from the disappointment or unmet expectations of others, punish you without cause. Instead of guiding us as a conscience does, the inner critic judges and demeans us.
When we hear things like “you aren’t good enough” or “you can’t do anything right” it doesn’t make us want to try. Instead, we hold ourselves back, worried that we won’t be able to do anything right. If we don’t try, we can’t fail. If we isolate ourselves, we can’t let anyone down.
So, while once perhaps a survival tool, when the inner critic begins to dominate our thinking it no longer serves as a survival function and can lead to or exacerbate depression and anxiety, as well as prevent us from living our lives fully.
How can you get your inner critic under control?
1. Notice when it comes around:
The first step to being able to stop the constant judgment from your inner critic, is to first recognize it when it comes around. When you hear that little voice telling you “you can’t do anything right” don’t just take it to be true. Stop a moment and remind yourself “this is my inner critic. It isn’t telling me the truth.” It’s important to remind ourselves that while the inner critic feels truthful to us after living with it for so long, what it is telling us isn’t actually a reflection of reality.
2. Challenge the voice by reframing the thought:
Once you’ve gotten the hang of identifying the voice when it comes around, don’t leave it unchallenged. If your voice says “you’re not smart enough to do this” respond to it! Say “I may not be the smartest person in the world, but I am competent and capable of trying. If I struggle, that’s completely normal and I am able to ask for help if I need it.”
3. Explore where the voice came from:
Are the judgments that come from the inner critic what you truly think of yourself? Or have they been learned from someone else? Being able to recognize that the thoughts and aren’t coming from you will help you to see that the inner critic is just an unwelcome guest offering an opinion you didn’t ask for. And when we remember that we are not our inner critic, we are able to release ourselves from finding truth in what it tells us.
4. Practice self-compassion:
When your inner critic rears its head, it can be hard to feel good about yourself. Whether you believe what it is telling you or not, hearing cruel judgment of yourself never feels good. Self compassion is an important component to counter the damage done by the inner critic. When you express compassion toward yourself, you offer yourself kindness, understanding, and support. When the inner critic says “You can’t do this” self-compassion says “If you can’t, then that’s okay. You are still worthy of love, respect, and happiness.”
It is likely that your inner critic gained its voice when you were in a painful or difficult place in life. Starting as a protective tool, it has now warped into a destructive one. But having this harsh inner critic doesn’t have to lead to misery. Remember to have compassion for yourself by understanding that the inner critic may have developed as a survival tool to avoid punishment or other painful situations.