One of the areas I frequently work on with my clients is learning how to deal with their inner critic. All of us have this critical voice inside of us, to a greater or lesser degree, but we’re often not entirely aware of it. Even if we are aware of it, we may not fully understand how it developed, the function it serves or how to get rid of it. Today’s blog post is dedicated to answering these questions and at the end you’ll find a video with an exercise to practice combatting your inner critic.
Where Does this Harsh Inner Dialogue Come From?
Many of my clients are surprised to discover that their inner critic resembles the voice of a parent or other authority figure that was important to them while growing up. When we tap into this fact they might say something like:
But I’ve tried so hard to NOT be like this person…why can’t I escape them?
The reason here is that our inner critic develops when we’re quite young. Try to think back to when you were a little kid. Each of us has within us a sort of mini security guard that’s trying to help us figure out how to successfully navigate this world. This is how your inner critic starts. It points you to things that may get you in trouble, keep you safe, earn praise and recognition, or cause you to be rejected. So, if its initial function is to keep you safe, where do things go wrong?
Why the Inner Helper May Turn into the Inner Bully
This internal dialogue can start to become highly critical for a number of reasons. For instance, if the behavior of your parents or other authority figures was highly unpredictable. Sometimes, when you drew a picture for them, they responded with praise. However, other times, they ignored you or responded in anger. Or maybe sometimes you misbehaved and had no consequences, whereas other times you misbehaved and were grounded for a week.
When we aren’t sure how others in our environment are going to respond, it’s actually helpful for us to try and predict and anticipate how they may respond so as to not get hurt emotionally (or in some cases, physically). But as the years go on, this type of warning erodes your sense of self-worth and you lose sight of the fact that this voice is supposed to serve a protective function.
Other things that can contribute to this critical voice becoming even stronger are the following:
- If there was no distinction between behavior and identity. Having an adult tell you that a behavior is unsafe, impolite, etc. is very different than them telling you that YOU are a bad boy or bad girl.
- If adults in your life labeled certain tastes, preferences, opinions, behaviors, etc. as sinful. In this case it would be wise for your inner critic to speak up if the consequence of behaving badly could include upsetting not only your parents, but also a higher power.
- If your parents or other adults criticized you frequently. In this case your inner critic would try to prevent you from doing things that could lead to this criticism, or warn you of the harsh words you might receive so as to prepare you for the blow.
Now what? How to Start Combatting Your Inner Critic
Many people respond to their inner critical voice by trying to fight back, as though it were a playground bully and they were standing up for themselves:
Don’t say that to me! That’s not true! I don’t believe you!
However, most educators will tell you that behind the cruel words and actions of the playground bully is often a child who is hurting and scared. This is why the approach I take with clients in combatting their inner critic is to to remember the original function of that inner critic and start practicing self-compassion in response to that voice. Remember, your inner critic is trying to protect you, but it’s voice is just misguided.
Try to think of your inner critic as your scared, inner child who is trying to keep you safe. Would you tell yourself as a child to “shut up” or “just stop it!” Hopefully you would respond to them with a kinder, warmer, encouraging voice:
I know you’re scared. It’s ok to be scared, but let’s try it anyway.
Check out my video below where I explain the inner critic and end with a suggestion for one way you can practice self-compassion in your everyday life and start combatting your inner critic. If you like it, please subscribe to my YouTube channel so you won´t miss any of the new videos I upload.
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The truth is that it will never feel enough. And this is not a pessimistic statement. This is the essence of human condition – always searching, driven by an illusion of perfection.
But we need to learn to calm that voice, reason with it … Can I do better? Sure, but let’s enjoy the current result and do even better next time!
This article! All of these… I’m so impolite and not nice to myself, but I’m working toward kindness and patience. Trying to achieve my goal of not looking for perfection. Thanks for this entry, I’ve found it very helpful.
I´m so glad you enjoyed it Flor! And it´s wonderful to hear you´re working on making some changes with your own self talk. It´s a long process, but I always remind my clients (and myself!) it´s about progress, not perfection.
Yes! This comes up so often in my work too. I really like the idea of inviting our inner critic to a cup of tea. That poor thing must be so exhausted from all the yelling and warning and trying to protect us!
Thank you for the positive feedback Sonia! I think this topic is so interesting because even clients who come to therapy to work on very different things might find that their inner critic/negative self talk has some influence on their thoughts and behavior.