Have a think back to how you spoke to yourself the last time you had “one of those days”? You know those days when from the moment you open your eyes you sense that it’s going to be an uphill battle. You struggle to get out the door on time, the traffic is a nightmare, simple tasks feel like a slog, and you start to wonder if bad luck is actually following you around.
Often on days like this our inner critic comes out to play.
What is our inner critic?
Our inner critic is that voice in our head that has a cold, demanding, harsh, punishing or mean quality to it. Sometimes it’s a subtle presence and other times, especially when we feel like we’re not measuring up in some way, it can really flare up.
If you suspect you might have an inner critic chatting away back there, this blog will help you get to know this part of yourself a little better.
Why would you want to get to know your inner critic though?
Our inner critic can sometimes bubble away in the background, largely unnoticed. This is despite the fact that it drives SO MANY of our thoughts, actions and emotions. Your inner voice has a major impact on how you feel about your relationships, your past, your future, the world around you and most importantly, how you feel about yourself.
The first step towards keeping your inner critic in check is, you guessed it, getting familiar with this part of yourself. Getting to know your inner critic is not just about figuring out what you say to yourself, but also how you say it.
What does your inner critic tend to say?
Next time you feel like your inner critic might be in operation, try tuning in to some of things that you repeatedly say to yourself. You might notice phrases or full sentences.
What sorts of things does your inner critic tell you that you can’t do? Or shouldn’t do? Or aren’t capable of? Or don’t deserve? What sort of person does your inner critic say you are? What does your inner critic have to say about how other people see you? What about your future, what is your inner critic’s opinion on that?
If your inner critic is a little more subtle and you’re not sure when it’s kicking in, it can help to compare your self-talk with how you speak to people you care about. How would you feel if someone you loved spoke to you this way? If you’d feel hurt, embarrassed or trampled on, this is probably your inner critic in operation.
How does your inner critic speak to you?
What’s the tone of your inner critic like? Is it cold, sarcastic, nagging, belittle, mean or demanding? How about the volume? Do you ever feel like you’ve got someone inside your head shouting instructions or demands at you? Again, if you’re not sure here, it can help to compare the tone and volume of this part of yourself to how you speak to people you care about. Would you use this tone or volume with them?
What does your inner critic make you want to do?
What does your inner critic make you want to do? Do you find yourself wanting to eat, drink alcohol, stay away from other people, yell at someone, quit, avoid, criticise or blame others, work overtime, procrastinate or shut down? What else do you notice yourself wanting to do when your inner critic is flaring up? Does your inner critic lead you to interact in ways that are guarded, passive, arrogant, aggressive or superficial?
Be curious about whether these behaviours and responses are a way of coping with the painful feelings that the inner critic stirs up. For most of us, the inner critic brings up a lot of shame. Shame is one of those really uncomfy emotions and so some of these behaviours might be a way of coping with the shame that comes up.
What if your inner critic is actually helping you?
It’s common for people to have some hesitations about trying to tone down their inner critic because they actually feel like this part of themselves is helpful. How about you? Do you ever feel like there are times when your inner critic is actually your ally?
Be your own devil’s advocate and try unpacking those times when your inner critic seems to be working for you. Are there concrete, tangible ways that this sort of self-talk benefits you or does it just feel like it does?
Sometimes people worry that without their inner critic driving them they will lower their standards or become unmotivated. Even if your inner critic does seem to motivate you, it’s important to reflect on whether this is the kind of relationship you want to have with yourself. It’s possible that the inner critic actually resembles the voice of someone you know (past or present) such as a parent, sibling, partner, teacher or bully. You may have learned this way of motivating yourself through them.
Is there a way that you can still motivate yourself and be firm and accountable, without being harsh and mean to yourself? How else might you approach yourself when you need a little push along? Again, it can help here to think about what you say to others when they need some cheerleading and motivation.
What if your inner critic wasn’t running the show as much?
If you were making choices based on what mattered to you rather than what your inner critic tells you “should” do how would your life look different? Would you tell people what you really thought more often? Would you apologise less? Would you defend yourself and your decisions less? Would you speak up more? Would you say “no” more? Would you structure your day differently? Would you do things that you enjoy, but aren’t necessarily “good” at (like singing, dancing, painting, cooking or sport)? Would you spend less time with certain people?
Approaching your inner critic in a mindful way
As you become more attuned to your inner critic you might notice it popping up everywhere; sometimes in places you didn’t even know self-criticism was at play. This realisation can bring up all sorts of uncomfortable and painful emotions and so understandably it’s common to try to suppress, ignore or push away self-critical thoughts. Unfortunately though, no matter how hard we try controlling our mind in this way isn’t really possible. In fact, research suggests that when we try to push down thoughts they actually end up becoming louder and more overpowering. This is a psychological phenomenon known as the rebound effect.
Experiment with approaching your inner critic in a mindful way.
Mindfulness involves paying attention to what’s unfolding within you (thoughts, feelings, sensations in your body, urges) and around you, without judging it. So try noticing what your inner critic has to say, but without buying into what you notice. Have a go at stepping back and just observing the inner critic as it unfolds. Name your thoughts as they arise and resist the urge to try to change them or push them away. Practice observing your mind in a detached and non-judgemental way.
How to embrace your inner critic
For most of us our inner critic will be around in some shape or form for the rest of our lives. It’s a part of who we are and has been gaining momentum throughout our lives. Reducing the impact of your inner critic involves accepting this reality, while still persisting with efforts to try to shift the impact it has on how we feel about ourselves.
Many people ask us how to stop or silence their inner critic to get freedom from it. Although there doesn’t seem to be a magic bullet for switching off the inner critic, when you become more mindful of this part of yourself you might find that this part becomes less of a driver in your life. You might even become aware of “choice points” or forks in the road. These are moments when you can choose between the path that the inner critic is directing you towards and a different path that’s in line with your values and what matters to you most. A really simple example here might be choosing between leaving work on time so that you can cook yourself dinner or staying late so that you can get ahead on some work. The inner critic will tempt you to stay late, but if one of your values is to live a more balanced life, leaving early is where it’s at.
If you’re not sure of what your values are, you can read more about how to identify these in our past blog: The Key to Building a Meaningful and Satisfying Life: Identifying Your Values.
Getting some support and guidance around your inner critic
It can be confronting (but rewarding!) shining a light on your inner critic. Sometimes it can help to have a caring person by your side as you get to know this part of yourself. If you think it might help to have some support and guidance from one of our experienced psychologists get in touch about booking an appointment with our lovely Support Team. You can also call us on (03) 9376 1958.