Most of us are familiar with that inner voice that tells us “I’m not good enough”, “I will fail”, “I haven’t prepared enough”, “I’m no good at that” “They will see through me” “I’m still fat despite following that diet”
We can be overly critical of ourselves, and most people at some point in their life have experienced such self-doubt. This can be despite success in life. We may be happily married, have raised children, be successful at work or be popular with our friends, but still have that little critical voice nagging at us, causing stress and anxiety.
The little voice in our mind can either spur us on to greater achievements, or demolish our self-confidence. Our inner critic can tell us “You failed the exam because you didn’t study enough”, and this can make us determined to study and pass the exam the next time, and thus lead to success. Alternatively, if we are walking up to the stage to deliver a presentation, and the inner critic tells us “You haven’t prepared enough, they’re going to ask questions you can’t answer, they will see through you”, we will likely perform poorly.
That negative inner talk (whether it spurs us on to greater effort, or convinces us that we are going to fail) can become a self-fulfilling prophecy!
What is an inner critic?
Each of us has an inner critic, which is only too happy to tell us where we have gone wrong, or when it thinks we will fail.
If we listen to how it sounds and the words that it uses, it may sound like people from our past – such as caregivers, teachers, other people of influence, and even the society that we live in. We may recognise certain criticisms, phrases, or a tone of voice used by our inner critic which was also used by these people from our past.
The inner critic originates from experiences with people from our early life. As we get older, we unconsciously accept or internalise how these people speak of us, what they believe us to be capable of, and how they treat us. Our inner critic can also pick up on how other people in our group (family, race, religion, etc.) are treated by individuals and society in general, and we can find that these statements are also played back by the inner critic.
Usually the inner critic is continually gathering evidence to back up the negative messages that we initially received about our personal worth and abilities. It can make us notice the negatives in situations, as this backs up the original negative comments from our earlier life.
However, the good news is that we can use the inner critic to help us improve. We can think of our inner critic as a misguided advisor who is trying to help us improve and protect us. It has good intentions, but often comes from a position of fear – fear of failure, fear of making a fool of ourselves, fear of being hurt, fear of being anxious or stressed. The inner critic can help by pointing us towards areas where we may want to improve.
But to do this we need to tame the inner critic, change our relationship with it, and not automatically believe what it says.
How to make use of your inner critic
It doesn’t matter what our previous relationship has been like with our inner critic – this can be changed.
1. Develop an awareness of your thoughts
Thoughts can be fleeting, but we can practice becoming aware of what we are thinking. Catch the negative inner critic as well as the more positive thoughts. It’s useful to note when and where our inner critic is most active, as well as the type of thoughts and emotions that it produces. For instance, it may be most active when we are “on show” – at a party, giving a presentation, talking to the in-laws, and create negative thoughts and stressful emotions.
Be aware that what our inner critic is telling us is not necessarily our own viewpoint. It is likely to be coming from what people in authority (caregivers, parents, teachers, society etc.) said to us when we were younger.
One way to highlight the difference between our thoughts, and what is coming from our inner critic is to use “You” rather than “I”. For example, a thought like “I’m not good enough” can be changed to “You’re not good enough.” When we do this, we may even remember who said this to us. This will help us identify the source, and realise that these are not our own thoughts – they came from someone else, someone in authority when we were younger.
The inner critic also tends to talk in specific ways – using absolutes such as “always”, “should”, “have to”, “must”, “never”. It can also speak in the past tense – “I should have”, “I’ve never been able to”, etc. These are clues that it is the inner critic talking, not us speaking.
2. Replace inner critic talk with more accurate statements
It is possible to change the critical inner talk to more realistic, positive statements. (We don’t need to change it to overly positive statements).
As an example, if “ Betty” finds herself thinking “I never do well at interviews”, she can change it to the second-person “You never do well at interviews” as explained above. Then she examines the statement for truthfulness and balance. It’s likely that she performs well at some interviews, or performs well at specific parts of the interview. As an example she could say to herself “I do well in interviews when talking about technical problems I’ve solved at work, but need to brush up on explaining my management skills”. If she finds she is thinking the old (critical) thought in the future, she can replace it with the new, balanced statement.
This may take some time and effort initially, but if we make a habit of challenging the old inner critic statements, we should find that it gets easier to recognise the critical statements, and that we feel more positive. We may still find some skills and abilities that we need to improve, but the list of these will be realistic and based on what we really think, not what our inner critic tells us. We are likely to feel less stressed and anxious, plus more positive and confident.
A helpful tip is to write down the statement from our inner critic, and also write down the evidence “for” and “against” the statement so we can look at objectively. We may well find that the original critical statement is partly or completely wrong!
Another tip is to treat ourselves as we would treat a friend. If a friend felt that their business presentation did not go well, we wouldn’t say “You’re hopeless at presenting. Everyone was laughing at you because you looked so awkward”. But these are the things we can say to ourselves!
Talking to a friend in that situation, we might say “You looked really professional, and dealt with the questions really well. Perhaps just brush up on your timing for next time”. We can talk to ourselves in the same kind and encouraging way.
3. Make a list of personal positive qualities
Make a list of personal positive qualities. Some people do not realise that they have any positive qualities, but they most certainly do. If we cannot think of positive qualities, think of what friends say about you. We may know that we are good at certain things. We can also take note of positive feedback (e.g. at work or socially). We can even keep a gratitude journal, agreeing with ourself that we will note three positive things each day. This counteracts the inner critic, and gives us more ways to refute what the inner critic may “tell us”. The inner critic will always be there, but we can disagree with it, and not just accept what it tells us.
4. Decide what we want to do
Realise that we do not have to follow our inner critic. We can consider what it is telling us, and may find that we can learn from it. If it tells “Betty” “I am a hopeless cook”, then she can consider if she needs to improve a specific area of her cooking skills. She may then decide that she wants to learn how to bake cakes, or cook Chinese food by attending night-school (or just reading a cookery book).
It is also very important to be compassionate towards ourselves. The inner critic’s voice comes from when we were younger, and less powerful. Consider what the younger “you” might have needed – such as encouragement, love, acceptance. We can show these qualities in our interactions with ourselves. Accept that we are trying our best, and encourage ourselves to improve in what we want. Show ourselves self-love and compassion.
5. Stop ruminating about the past
It’s tempting to beat ourselves up about mistakes. If we make a mistake it’s easy to keep replaying it, thinking how much we messed up. This only makes us feel worse, and knocks our self confidence.
This is very different from calmly thinking how we could do better next time, or how we can correct the mistake! Once we have learnt what we can from the past situation, and worked out how to improve, rumination is not helpful. This is when we can show ourselves compassion and love by accepting ourselves as not perfect, but still worthy of love and respect.
Balance self-acceptance with self-improvement and self-confidence.
Our inner critic can spur us on to improve many areas of our life, but if we let it get out of control its negative and unrealistic comments can damage our self-confidence, performance and esteem.
By using the ideas in this blogpost, we can tame our inner critic so that it works for us, and works to our advantage.
If you would like some help in taming your inner critical voice, please contact me, Lisa Billingham, for an appointment or a free confidential chat on how I can assist you.