Updated: Jan 15, 2021
We all have that inner critic in us. The nagging voice that is living inside our head talking incessantly. All day long, it is judging us for how we look, what we do (and don’t do), what we eat, how we talk, what we say, and on and on. It questions our every decision and undermines our accomplishments, leaving us engulfed in feelings of inadequacy, shame, and guilt.
The inner critic can really wreak havoc on our self-esteem, confidence, and the quality of our day-to-day life. When we are at the mercy of the inner critic, we feel that we just can’t do anything right. We question our worth, and often we compensate by either over-exerting ourselves (“You’re not doing enough.”) or not trying at all. (“What’s the point? You’re just going to blow it. You always do.”)
It’s easy to hate on the inner critic. Who doesn’t want to reject that bully spewing out vicious comments all day long? We would love to get rid of that nagging voice so that we can function in life without the handicap of constant self-doubt. But the fact is, the inner critic has been with us for most of our lives, and it is not going anywhere. If we try to shame it, ignore it, or ostracize it, it just comes back with vengeance.
The inner critic is one of the dozens or even hundreds of parts that make up our psyche. Every part, even those that we don’t care for, has a history, a story, and an important purpose. Typically, the inner critic became first activated during a time of distress to protect us from pain. Perhaps it had come to our rescue during our childhood when we thought we needed to be a certain way to be loved or accepted. Looking underneath the inner critic’s harsh exterior, we often find that it has a positive intent to keep us from making mistakes or protect us from embarrassment. But what was a necessary defense mechanism to help us out in our childhood is now hindering us from reaching our highest potential as an adult.
In order to have a truly healthy psyche, we cannot hate or reject some parts of us. When we can’t accept ourselves for all of who we are, we walk around with a mask hiding those parts of us that we deem undesirable. This breeds even more shame and a sense of separation from ourselves and others.
A far more effective way of relating to the inner critic is to try to understand its role in our lives, accept it for what it is, and even thank it for helping us cope with all the disappointments we have endured. We get curious about when and why the inner critic came into our lives, really listen to its desire to help us in some way, empathize with its intent to serve, and then begin to build a different relationship with it based on compassion, communication, and mutual respect.
Exercise One: Embracing the Inner Critic
In my one-on-one coaching work, I use a technique called “Embracing the Shadow” to get to know the inner critic. We want to create a safe space for the inner critic to be seen, heard, and understood. Typically, I invite the inner critic out to share its side of the story. While this is normally an experiential process done through coaching, you might find it helpful to write out dialogue in the form of a script between you and your inner critic. In the process, you imagine yourself as your inner critic and let its voice come through your writing. Allow words to freely flow from the inner critic’s perspective and let your imagination and creativity run wild.
Step One: Catch the voice of the inner critic when it appears.
Step Two: Invite your inner critic to share its story and purpose. Picture yourself as a neutral interviewer. Set aside any judgment or opinion you might have. Let your inner critic speak uncensored. Listen with curiosity, openness, and compassion. Notice what bodily sensations and emotions you experience as you listen to your inner critic. Some of the questions you might ask are:
When did you first come into my life? What were the circumstances that led you to me?
What is it like to be you?
What are your gifts?
What role do you play in my life?
What do you need?
What is your deepest yearning?
What are you most worried about?
What would you like to be appreciated for?
Step Three: After the dialogue, reflect on what was said and integrate the experience:
What was it like to listen to your inner critic? What is the impact of the conversation on you?
What do you appreciate most about your inner critic?
Notice the energy you are experiencing as you reflect.
What would you like the relationship with the inner critic to be like going forward?
The exercise often brings people to a place of appreciation and gratitude for all that their inner critic has done to help them, even if its approaches are outdated. It opens the door to a new partnership, in which you and your inner critic work together as opposed to against each other. Having ongoing conversations with your inner critic deepens your respect for each other over time. When you become aware of your inner critic’s presence, acknowledge its concerns, but also let it know that you now have the skills and competency to handle any life situation. As the inner critic begins to trust that you have your life under control, it becomes less guarded, relaxes its grip, and allows you more freedom to enjoy your daily life and pursue your dreams.
Exercise Two: End-of the-Day Affirmation
This simple exercise has helped me turn that harsh voice inside my head into my inner cheerleader. For several years, every night I note in my journal notable activities I have accomplished that day. Earlier this month, I added a new section “Affirmation/Celebration” to acknowledge myself for the big and small things that I do every day. On days when I’m not particularly productive, my inner critic is having a field day. I beat myself up for being lazy and push myself to do more. But when I sit down at night to write down my affirmation, I am able to be compassionate to myself and turn the criticism into encouragement. Some of the affirmations I have written in this scenario are:
“I release outdated thinking that efforts equal results.”
“I strike a healthy balance between doing and resting.”
"I honor my body's needs and give myself the gift of rest.”
On a day when I tried a new work approach, and my inner critic was busy pointing out all the things that were not perfect, I wrote: “I celebrate me for my courage and willingness to step outside of my comfort zone.”
It’s only been a few weeks since I started writing these affirmations, and I already sense the shift in me. It’s not that my inner critic has gone away, but I am now better able to see the bigger picture and cheer myself on for all the hard work that I do that usually goes unacknowledged. More and more, I am even able to playfully nudge my inner critic and get her to begrudgingly admit that she’s actually proud of me. Just like any relationship, it takes time and effort to nurture trust and understanding. But befriending your inner critic and turning them into your inner cheerleader is one of the deepest ways to nurture self-love, self-worth, and compassion.