The second part of this blog is not intended to be instructional or definitive. What follows is a series of questions and ideas to help you to learn more about your inner critic. Knowing your inner critic is the first and most crucial step to harnessing it.
Unpack those times when the 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? Do you fear that without your inner critic you’ll become unmotivated? Even if occasionally your inner critic does seem to motivate you, is this the kind of relationship you want to have with yourself? Is there a way that you can still be firm and disciplined with yourself, without being harsh and punitive?
Maybe after observing your inner critic for a while, you genuinely feel it has a motivating quality. If this voice really is your inner critic though, chances are you also feeling judged, attacked and trampled while being “motivated”. On a really tough day you might even feel belittled and shamed by this type of self-talk. So your inner critic might be motivating you, but at what cost to your self-worth?
Perhaps you tell yourself you’ll work on quietening your inner critic once you’ve achieved more in your career, or once you feel better about your parenting, or once you’ve found a partner, or once you have a certain amount of money. The longer the inner critic is allowed to run the show unchecked though, the more entrenched and habitual this voice becomes. Even after you have ticked off goals that your inner critic told you that you could never achieve, it is still unlikely to quieten. It will still be there insisting that you need to do more and be more. Quietly (or sometimes loudly) reminding you that the person you are right now is not enough.
The inner critic is particularly likely to come out when you face difficult periods in your life. This is when we all tend to go back to habits, old behaviours that we learned a long, long time ago. Behaviours that sometimes feel etched into our brain. The irony is when the going gets tough the last thing you need is a bully whipping you into shape, depleting and diminishing you with all it’s demands. Instead you need compassion.
What does your compassionate voice sound like? How does it compare to your inner critic? What gets in the way of you being more compassionate with yourself? Do you fear that you’ll let yourself off the hook completely? Do you worry that if you’re compassionate with yourself you will become lazy, unmotivated or undisciplined? Compassion is not the same as passively giving in. Compassion is being firm and accountable to yourself, while also being kind and accepting. If you’re interested in learning more about self-compassion, take a look at our recent blog reviewing The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions.
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 at this point 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 distressing thoughts they actually end up becoming louder, more overpowering and often downright intrusive. This is a psychological phenomenon known as the rebound effect.
Your inner critic isn’t all bad. It evolved for a reason, but as an adult it might not be protecting you or serving you in the way that it was when it first came about. In what ways might your inner critic have served you in the past? Who and what does your inner critic protect you from now?
What does your inner critic make you want to do? When your inner critic makes an appearance do you find yourself feeling pulled to binge eat, drink alcohol, isolate yourself, yell at someone, quit, avoid, criticise or blame others, self-harm or shut down? 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; the shame that your inner critic triggers in you.
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?
As you work on your inner critic be mindful of your inner critic critiquing your efforts with digs like “you really should have a better handle on this by now”. After all, getting caught up in criticising yourself for not doing a “good enough” job of working on your inner critic means that once again the inner critic is running the show. You’re criticising your inner critic. It’s a sneaky little thing the old inner critic!
The suggestions in this blog are not intended to be magic bullets for demolishing your inner critic. Your inner critic didn’t appear overnight. It’s been gaining momentum your whole life. For the majority of us, chipping away at it is really the only way. For me, working on my inner critic means having it take the centre stage less frequently (although it still seems to be lurking there behind the scenes most of the time). Perhaps for you it might mean having your inner critic drive your decisions less or giving your inner critic less fuel. Or maybe it’s about observing the self-talk without buying into it, or trying to turn down the volume of this part of yourself.
For most of us our inner critic will be around in some shape or form for the rest of our lives. It’s apart of who we are. Truly harnessing our inner critic involves accepting this reality, while persisting with efforts to try to shift it’s impact on how we feel about ourselves.