I’m watching an educational series about how to help people navigate COVID-related anxiety—a familiar activity for me as someone who values learning and growth as a clinician. The speaker confidently shares some of their most useful techniques and the successes they’ve had with clients in therapy. This therapist knows so much more than I do, I say to myself. I wonder if I’ll ever be half as good of a therapist as they are. I have such a long way to go.
Meet my Inner Critic—the perfectionistic voice within me that seems to enjoy reminding me that I’m just not good enough.
If you’re reading this, there’s no doubt in my mind that an Inner Critic resides somewhere in your brain as well. Perhaps its ammunition or tone is different than my own, but I’m sure it's there.
In today’s post, I’ll share some tips and tricks about how to work with your Inner Critic.
First Thing’s First: What is the Inner Critic—and Why Do I Have One?
As the name suggests, the Inner Critic is the voice inside of us that likes to put us down, and there are a number of theories about why it exists.
One hypothesis says “inner voices were once outer voices.” That is, if you grew up with people in your life who frequently put you down in some way—whether it was a parent, coach, bully, or sibling—the idea is that these messages became internalized and caused you to believe that they were true. As such, you continually feed yourself the same propaganda out of habit and to avoid cognitive dissonance—the feeling that what you believe is different from reality.
Research also confirms that those who have experienced childhood trauma(s) or undergone Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—such as experiencing/witnessing abuse, growing up with a caregiver with substance abuse issues, and other hardships—are more likely to use words like “failure” or “useless” to describe themselves in adolescence and adulthood.
I personally believe that Western culture fuels our Inner Critics as well. For decades, advertisements have continually reminded us of what we could have but don’t or what we should be doing but aren’t. Add social media to the mix—where we’re constantly able to compare ourselves to anyone and everyone at all times—and the concept of not being hard on ourselves seems almost unachievable.
Here are some of the defining features of the Inner Critic:
It downplays your successes and hyper-focuses on any perceived failures
It feeds you criticisms that are disproportionate to the situation
It uses overly harsh language (i.e. you’re an idiot, you’re disgusting…)
It’s extremist (i.e. you’ll never be able to do that…)
Its voice sounds conclusive, non-negotiable, and 100% factual (i.e. there is no way you would ever be able to do that in a million years and assuming the opposite would be ridiculous)
What to Do With Your Inner Critic
Accept that every single one of us has an Inner Critic.
While a lot of people I work with feel as though they’re “abnormal” for having an Inner Critic or see it as a sign that they have “no self-worth,” the fact of the matter is that a critical voice resides in each and every one of us. Truly, all of us. And there’s actually a reason for this: back in the day (like, way back), the only goal our hunter-gatherer ancestors had was to survive, period—and a huge part of their survival depended on working with others and being part of a group. Being unable to do this meant being ostracized and going it alone, which would literally end in death. We’re psychologically wired to worry about how we measure up to others, whether or not we’re good enough, and if we fit in.
The point is: there’s nothing abnormal about having an inner critic; what’s important is that we don’t let it stay in the driver’s seat all the time. Rather than hating it, wishing it would go away, or seeing it as a sign that we have “no self esteem,” we need to accept that we are actually wired to detect threat and compare ourselves to others. When we can practice some acceptance around this, less of our energy goes into fighting reality and more of it goes into responding to the Inner Critic in a helpful way.
2. Have some appreciation for your Inner Critic. (Yes, you read that correctly.)
A lot of people have a very toxic relationship with their Inner Critic, either feeling extreme hatred towards it or attributing all of their successes to it. Neither approach is helpful.
What does help is acknowledging that the Inner Critic is part of your brain’s very hardwiring (which helps combat feelings of hatred) while also understanding that it isn’t the most trustworthy source (which combats feelings of unhelpful loyalty). I like to frame the Inner Critic as an unreliable narrator: it has its views of the world, but it’s only offering one perspective—a perspective that’s often highly dramatic and illogical.
Additionally, remembering that its main motivation is to help you succeed or keep you safe can be comforting. When I help people get curious about their Inner Critic versus bashing or admiring it, we usually discover that it has some well-intentioned motives. Some people tell me that their critic has helped motivate them during depressive episodes or that it has pushed them out of their comfort zone for the better. We mustn’t approach our critics with the same same black-and-white attitudes that it uses to approach life!
Fun fact: studies (1, 2) have shown that therapists who have healthy levels of self-doubt and humility actually help their patients the most over the course of therapy. They exuded greater compassion, increased openness to patient feedback, and more of a willingness to “correct the therapeutic course in order to help clients more effectively with their challenges.”
The point is: our Inner Critics are not all bad, so don’t villainizing them probably isn’t useful.
3. Rename your Inner Critic.
If “Inner Critic” sounds inherently harsh to you, try calling it something a bit gentler or kinder. Some people have re-named their critic “The Disciplinarian” or “The Protector.” Play around and see what feels right to you.
4. Get to know your Inner Critic and learn to respond appropriately.
Therapy is a great way to become curious about your Inner Critic so that you can make better choices for yourself. Indeed, I often help people differentiate between the kinder, wiser voices within them versus the voice of the Inner Critic. Together, we discuss what this critic particularly likes to pick on, what buttons it knows how to push, and how it pushes these buttons, too.
For example, my Inner Critic loves questioning my abilities as a therapist and frequently hyper-fixates on patients who have made rude comments in session during moments of anger or upset. It tells me to forget about every success I’ve had or every person who has given me positive feedback. And usually when it pushes my buttons in this way, I'll experience intense feelings of panicked self-doubt that lead me to replay said negative comments over and over in my mind, continually asking myself about what I could have done differently. As I'm sure you can imagine, this process isn’t exactly helpful.
But the good news is that articulating what your Inner Critic says and does helps you gain the ability to notice it from afar over time rather than fusing with its ideas and beliefs. (This is essentially the core of mindfulness, by the way, which is to observe your thoughts and feelings rather than attaching to them.)
From there, you can respond differently. Now that I’ve had a lot of practice with this, I’m able to say, “Ah, hello Inner Critic. Yes, I see you doing your thing but I’m not going to engage with you today.” Other things you can tell yourself are:
Thanks for trying to keep me safe, brain! I know this is what you’re wired to do.
That’s my Inner Critic talking, not me.
Wow, what a dramatic story my Inner Critic is telling me today! That’s a creative one.
There’s no “right” or “wrong” way to respond; it’s more-so about what helps you in the moment. Whether it’s telling this voice to “piss off!” or take a totally neutral “yup, my brain does this” approach, experiment with some responses and see what works best for you. The most important thing is that you develop the skill to notice the critic and respond rather than taking what it says at face value.
5. Develop and nurture a compassionate voice, too.
If you have an Inner Critic, it’s important to develop another voice that’s more compassionate and kind. Balance is key.
Self-compassion is all about being kind and understanding towards yourself in moments of hardship or difficulty. If you’re not sure what this sounds or looks like, imagine how you respond to a dear friend when they’re struggling. The qualities that you bring to these moments—like being non-judgmental, empathetic, and caring—are same qualities to practice giving yourself, too. An effective, simple way to start developing this voice is to ask yourself, “Would I say this to a friend?” If the answer is no, you have no business saying it to yourself!
5. Practice, practice, practice.
Becoming someone who is less critical towards yourself doesn’t happen overnight. (Trust me, I know from experience.) Just like you have to work out regularly to see results, you have to practice this stuff frequently to reap the benefits. Be intentional about all of this. Here are some ideas of what this might look like:
Journal about moments you saw your Inner Critic pop up during the day and write down what you could have done differently.
Check in with yourself throughout the day and assess how frequently your Inner Critic has shown up.
Do some mindfulness meditations to get in the practice of noticing thoughts rather than fusing with them.
Make a list of your accomplishments at the end of each day as a way of training your brain to focus on the good rather than the bad.
Name the Inner Critic when it shows up (i.e. “That was an Inner Critic thought!”) Even if you don’t change your response at first, just noticing these moments is a HUGE first step
The Bottom Line
While many people come to therapy asking me how I can help them “get rid of their Inner Critic,” I believe they’re asking the wrong question. The question isn’t ever about how we can “get rid of” certain parts of ourselves, but rather how we can relate to them differently—how we can be more compassionate to them, how we can “buy into them” less, or how we can lean on other parts of ourselves that might be more helpful and reliable.
Spending your time thinking about how much you hate (or love) your Inner Critic or how much you wish it weren’t around is a poor use of your time and energy. Acknowledge that it’s there, get curious about it so you can get to know what its tricks are, and spend your efforts developing your critic’s counterpart, whether this is a voice that’s more compassionate, kind, or simply more realistic and accurate.
Share some of your reflections on this post in the comments below! Whether it’s sharing how you’ve developed a better relationship with your Inner Critic or reflections about what you’ve read here today, I love hearing from you!
If you or someone you know is struggling with a particularly relentless Inner Critic, click here to contact us or email firstname.lastname@example.org for individual, couples, and family psychotherapy and nutritional counselling in Markham, Vaughan, and online.