Coping with your inner critic

Most of us have a judging mental voice that I call the inner critic. It comes out of nowhere to let us know, loudly, when we (1) have screwed up, (2) are screwing up, or (3) might be about to screw up.

I’ve gotten to know this voice pretty well. However, I’ve also spent a lot of time studying and learning how to tame it. What follows are a collection of tools I’ve used with myself and my clients over the years. I hope that you find something useful if you’re struggling with your own critical voices.

Top 5 Things to Know About the Inner Critic

  1. Almost everyone has one. Some are louder than others, and some people have gotten better at making peace with theirs.
  2. It was formed at a young age. As a little kid, you probably noticed that you got rewarded when you were “good” and got punished when you were “bad.” In the beginning, adults did the judging for you, but eventually you created your own internal judge to keep you in line even when no one else was around.
  3. Its fundamental purpose is to keep you safe. The implicit promise is that if you’re always “good,” you’ll be worthy of love and never have to experience pain or rejection. Therefore, if you ever experience those things, you just aren’t trying hard enough. The pain it causes is justifiable because it keeps you safe, like an adult jerking a kid out of a busy street. It might hurt in the moment, but it’s better than being run over. Except the inner critic sees cars everywhere, even where they don’t exist.
  4. It can’t follow through on this promise. The whole “Just be perfect and you’ll be safe and loved” line is a scam at worst and wishful thinking at best. Painful things happen, and the inner critic will take those things and use them as retroactive evidence that you fell short. You will never be able to meet its standards.
  5. You can’t get rid of it or shut it up permanently. However, you can lessen its impact in your life by using one or more of the following strategies.

1) Stop buying into its implicit promise.

Now that you know it can’t promise success, acceptance, and security, stop feeding it!

I understand that self-criticism can be a hard habit to break, but seeing it as an unhelpful pattern rather than a virtue interrupts the cycle.

The inner critic will always be around in some form, but when you stop actively buying into what it says, it loses a lot of momentum and power. Sometimes it really is that easy.

Still skeptical about whether it’s worth giving up? Maybe you really do need it to to stay motivated. I respectfully disagree – read why in my article on self-kindness as an effective job-searching strategy.

2) Accept and defuse it.

When you’ve stopped buying into its dubious “wisdom” and accepted that it will always be a part of your life, you can stop fighting it.

Think about how much mental and emotional energy has gone into trying to shut it down or live up to its impossible standards. What would it feel like to opt out of the whole mess and just move on with your life?

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy gives us lots of tools for “defusing” the inner critic. When we stop taking it so seriously and start seeing it as something separate from us, we can spend our energy doing things we actually care about.

Here are a few defusing techniques to try:

  • Imagine its monologue as a crappy mix tape. What are the top 10 tunes? Then when it starts playing, you can say, “Oh, there’s my ‘I’m a failure and doomed to die alone’ tape!”
  • Play the thoughts in your head but imagine them in silly voices. How does the “You’re totally inadequate” thought feel different when Donald Duck is saying it?
  • Picture a stream with leaves floating by on the surface. Put each thought you notice on a leaf and let it drift away.
  • Imagine your negative feelings as a beach ball that you’re trying to keep submerged under water. Notice how hard it is to concentrate on anything else. What would it be like to let go of the beach ball and allow it to float in a corner of the pool? It’s still there, but it’s a lot easier to swim and relax than before.
  • Give your inner critic a face and a name. Who or what do they remind you of? When they start talking, ask yourself, “Is this really someone I want to take advice from?”

Note: A major tenet of ACT is that feeling better isn’t the point, although that often happens when you defuse from your painful thoughts. Ideally, you’d notice the critic was active, do what you need to do to create some space between yourself and it, and then go on with your life. You don’t want to devote too much time and energy to arguing with a mixtape, after all!

3) Open a dialogue.

This takes a slightly different attitude towards the inner critic than the ACT tools. While Accepting and Defusing treats the inner critic like a fundamentally mindless voice that runs on autopilot, Dialoguing comes from the point of view that the critic has good cause for what it’s doing and can be reasoned with.

This approach asks you to accept that you have different parts within yourself that want different things (like when one part of you wants to exercise and another wants to watch TV).

When you accept that the inner critic has its own needs and desires, it’s easy to see that its main motivation is fear. If you let yourself be satisfied with who you are, who knows whether it would be good enough? The inner critic isn’t going to take that chance.

A basic approach to reaching an agreement with your inner critic:

  1. Listen to what it’s afraid of and all the things it’s been doing to try to keep you safe.
  2. Respond to the fears with compassion and the efforts with appreciation.
  3. Come up with some alternate ways of dealing with the fears that don’t make you feel like crap.
  4. Ask the inner critic what it thinks and listen to any objections that come up.
  5. Continue to negotiate until you come up with a plan that satisfies the inner critic and makes it feel safe enough to take a break.

This approach is really well-suited to working with a coach or therapist. If you’re doing it by yourself, I recommend journalling. One surprisingly effective technique is to use your non-dominant hand for the critic and dominant hand for the interviewer.

Coach Havi Brooks has a unique and playful way of talking to her “monsters,” as she calls them. Check out her blog posts Not All Monsters Like Cookies; The Negotiator, the Monster, and the Scribe; and Monster-Watching: Some Notes.

An important thing to keep in mind here is that you want to be talking to your inner critic from the kindest, wisest, most patient part of yourself. Think of a nurturing parent, a wise friend, or a supportive teacher. If you’re having trouble accessing those qualities, check out the next approach.

4) Develop compassionate inner resources.

In addition to your inner critic, you have a positive counterpart. I call it the healthy adult; some people call it your inner wisdom or your inner mentor. This is the part of you that always acts with compassion and wisdom. It knows the truth: that there is nothing wrong with you.

One way to tap into this resource is to recall times when this part of you was present to make good decisions. Let yourself relive those memories.

What qualities did you exhibit? Love, kindness, patience, good boundaries, courage, perspective, and groundedness are all qualities I’ve heard from clients over the years. How does it feel in your body when this part of you is really present?

Hypnosis is a fantastic way to get in touch with this part of yourself – check out my stress-relief and self-confidence session if you’d like to experience this in a really concrete, empowering way.

Another way is to imagine yourself 20 years in the future, all grown up into the person you always hoped you’d be. What would that person say or do? How would they act? What suggestions would they make?

Author Tara Sophia Mohr has a beautiful guided meditation to take you through this process, available here (free in exchange for your e-mail).

A third way is to take the love and kindness you feel towards someone dear in your life and direct it inwards. How would you treat them in this situation? How would they treat you? Sometimes it’s much easier to access compassion and understanding for others than it is for ourselves.

Finally, a quick and dirty way: fake it till you make it. Ask yourself, “How would I act if I loved myself completely and unconditionally?” Do whatever the answer is.

5) Finally: be a scientist.

The opposite of judgment is curiosity. When you notice the inner critic coming up, get curious. Start gathering data. When do you notice its voice being particularly loud? Is it a constant presence, or are there certain situations that trigger it? The inner critic isn’t especially complicated – the thoughts that come up tend to follow certain patterns.

I’ve found a journal especially useful for staying in scientist-mind.

Here are some prompts to get you started if you’d like to begin taking your own field notes:

  • I’m noticing that…
  • My inner critic is especially loud when:
  • Underneath the criticism, I’m really afraid of:
  • If I stopped being so hard on myself, I’m afraid that:
  • What’s helpful in dealing with my inner critic:
  • What’s not helpful in dealing with my inner critic:
  • Internal and external resources I can count on:
  • What would be helpful to remind myself of?
  • Healthy ways to distract myself from my inner critic monologue:
  • I envision my inner critic as…
  • What do I need right now?
  • What am I believing that it’s not okay for me to need, want, be, have, or do?
  • What would it be like to accept myself exactly the way I am right now?

So there you have it.

There are lots of ways of dealing with this voice in our head. Whether you see it as an enemy, a misguided coping mechanism, a scared little kid, or just a tape loop, this part of you is here to stay – so you might as well make peace with it.

Obviously, this is an incredibly broad overview about a complex topic. Nevertheless, I hope it gives you a place to start and some ideas for things to try. Whatever you do, don’t let your inner critic turn your self-compassion practice into another stick to beat yourself with!

Unlearning the patterns of self-criticism and replacing them with self-kindness isn’t easy for all of us. I remember thinking, “What would I do with myself if I’m okay the way I am?” I was invested in looking for problems to fix beause I thought that was the only way to make progress.

But when I remember to approach my life with curiosity, compassion and humor, it’s amazing how much gets done – no stick needed. Go ahead, try it out and see what happens. As Cheri Huber says, “If it doesn’t work, you can always beat yourself up twice as hard tomorrow!”

Inner critic making it difficult for you to make progress on your career goals? Schedule a complimentary strategy call with me to discover how coaching can help you move forward. 

Recommended Reading on the Inner Critic:

  • Cheri Huber, There Is Nothing Wrong With You
  • Kristen Neff, Self-Compassion
  • Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
  • Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
  • Tara Sophia Mohr, Playing Big
  • Russ Harris, The Happiness Trap

image credit: freeimages.com/Marcelo Gerpe

I help smart, motivated people who feel stuck in their jobs and are ready for a change. Explore the article library, upgrade your career search with my free guidebook, or learn more about me and how I can help.

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