It’s the voice in your head that says, “You’re gonna blow it” when you’re waiting to be interviewed for a coveted job. And it’s the thought that grabs you in the middle of the night and says, “I can’t believe you said such a stupid thing.” while replaying a conversation you had with a friend. Most of us are prone to some level of self-criticism. Sometimes it can be so brutal and incessant that it can seem like there’s a character who lives inside your head completely devoted to trashing your dreams. And sometimes the criticism is more subtle; popping up out of nowhere and quietly nagging you about your shortcomings.
Psychologists call the self-critical part of ourselves the “inner critic”, but being a psychologist didn’t make me immune to inner criticism. I spent years grappling with a harsh inner critic who scolded, mocked, and degraded me. Listening to it wreaked havoc on my confidence and kept me from taking risks. I now understand that it’s not really possible to completely rid myself of inner criticism, but that doesn’t matter because I learned how to tame my inner critic using strategies adapted from mindfulness and compassion-based cognitive therapies.
Today I’ll share these strategies with you. If self-criticism has ever bothered you or held you back, here’s what to do to conquer it, so you can live more freely and feel better about yourself.
1. First, you need to notice the self-criticism.
Psychologists are fond of saying that “If you can name it, you can tame it”. When you notice you’re feeling bad about yourself, tune into your thinking and check if your inner critic is wagging its judgmental tongue. Then, simply tell yourself, “I notice that my inner critic is here now.” Without this awareness, inner criticism can hijack your mind and you’ll have no options other than believing the critic. Even if it seems strange, this first step puts you back in control.
2. Ask yourself who’s really talking?
We internalize negative messages we hear when we’re young. Maybe one of your parents had harsh words for you, or you had an unkind teacher, or there were mean kids on your playground. When you identify the original source of your critical thinking, try calling it by name. For example, if your critical teacher was named Mrs. Smith, you can respond to her voice in your head by telling yourself, “That’s not me; it’s Mrs. Smith.” It’s important to separate yourself from your inner critic. Even if you can’t identify someone who criticized you in the past, at this step you can still remind yourself that, “This isn’t me talking; it’s my inner critic.”
3. Accept the inner critic.
I know this sounds nuts! Why would you accept your inner critic when it has nothing on its agenda other than berating and sabotaging you? The simple reason is that when you fight it, you increase its power over you. As Carl Jung originally stated, “What we resist, persists”. So tell your inner critic, “Even though I don’t like what you’re saying, I accept that you’re here.” I’m not telling you to listen to its ugly words, just to acknowledge them. You may notice that when you acknowledge your critical part, it softens.
Interestingly, most psychologists these days, myself included, believe that our critical inner-parts originally developed to protect us from some threat! For example, a perfectionistic inner critic may have the goal of protecting you by keeping you from making mistakes. I find that understanding that the inner critic thinks it is being helpful, (albeit in a harsh way that is no longer useful), can help with accepting self-criticism when it shows up.
4. Try a little tenderness.
When your inner critic lashes out, it can cause you to feel ashamed, discouraged, or beaten down. Experts say that compassion is the antidote to shame. When your inner critic hurts you, you can soothe yourself by saying, “My inner critic is attacking me now and it hurts. May I be kind to myself.” By offering yourself these words of tender compassion, you can ease your suffering.
5. Fight back!
You’ve separated yourself from your inner critic, weakened it by acknowledging it, and soothed yourself with compassion. That well-intended troublemaker might be neutralized already! But if you’re still feeling the sting, it’s time to fight back. The inner critic often acts like a bully who retreats when you stand up to it. So, ask yourself, “Is my inner critic telling me the truth?” and search for evidence that contradicts that criticism. It might not be too hard because the harsh words of your inner critic rarely stand up to scrutiny.
6. Forgive yourself
Even if there’s some truth to its criticism, your inner critic always exaggerates your flaws and transgressions, and has no interest in the self-compassion or forgiveness you need in order to grow. If you find that you’ve made some mistake or recognize a personal flaw, it’s ok. You’re human; we all make mistakes and we all are imperfect. Forgive yourself, correct your mistake if you can, see what you can learn from it, and move on.
7. Now, choose kinder words
Your inner critic has been spewing negative propaganda about you to you, and now it’s time to build a new habit of replacing that critical talk with warmth and compassion. Find the kind and supportive words you would use with someone you care for, and start repeating them to yourself with the same relentlessness your inner critic has used in the past. When you notice the words of the inner critic, use that as a trigger for your new habit. (Check out this post for a lesson in how to use neuroplasticity to change habits). For example, if your inner critic called you a “failure” for not getting a job, you can commend yourself for your courage in applying for the job, and remind yourself that “everyone stumbles sometimes, but keep going and you’ll eventually succeed and be stronger for it.”
The Bottom Line
You may have an inner critic who has brought you down, but you don’t have to be its victim anymore. Based on personal and professional experience, I can tell you that by recognizing it, naming it, offering yourself compassion, and fighting back you’ll be in a position to replace your “inner critic” neural habit with an “inner champion”, build your confidence, and thrive.