Calming your inner critic
By Nicola Williams BSc (Hons) PGDip MBACP Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist Published in the Counselling Directory on 10th April, 2021
How would you feel if you had someone following you around, criticising you, pointing out every little mistake, relentlessly calling you names such as inadequate or useless? What if this went on day after day, week after week, perhaps for years? He may go quiet occasionally, but before long he’s back, with his persistent negative commentary.
When asked this question, most people respond by saying they would feel pretty bad. Persistent criticism can make us feel low, self-conscious, anxious, overwhelmed, and exhausted. So, what is the difference when these messages come from within our own minds?
Something that has become abundantly clear both within my personal and professional life, is the painfully negative impact of the inner critic. Whether talking to a friend who is feeling vulnerable, or with a client struggling with low mood, anxiety, low self-esteem or any other manifestation of distress, this little critter always seems to be present. Sometimes he is waiting in the background, sometimes he is whispering quietly, and other times he is stamping his foot, demanding to be heard.
Who is he, and why is he always so unpleasant? Why don’t we have a nice little friend in the background telling us how wonderful we are? Well, unfortunately the brain is hardwired to notice the negatives. The number one instinct in every human being is survival and keeping ourselves safe. In the modern world this does not just mean physical survival, but emotional and social ‘safety’, and our inner critic is instinctively trained to pick up on, and make us profusely aware of, any messages and cues that suggest this could be jeopardised.
Our inner critic often develops because of messages we receive in childhood, from the way we are spoken to by others, cultural messages we receive from those around us, or even due to what is not said (and our wonderful capacity to ‘fill in the blanks’).
We may internalise situations we have experienced, or make assumptions that are not necessarily true, but which influence our developing view of ourselves, others, and the world around us. Wherever he came from one thing is clear, once this little critic has made himself at home, he tends to stick around. Unless, that is, we decide he’s not welcome any more, and start the process of taking back control.
So, how do we do this?
Acknowledge Initially, it may be doing the opposite to what is instinctive. How often do we try to ignore this inner voice, push it away, silence it? How would you respond if you wanted to get your voice heard and were being ignored? Would you become louder? More insistent? The inner critic wants to be heard, whether it is replicating the voice of someone from your past, or desperately trying to ‘warn’ you of a perceived danger. So perhaps start by acknowledging it. This does not mean we have to believe his words, but acknowledge you have heard him. Give him an identity This can be easier if you give him an identity. What does he look like? Give him a name. You can even draw him if you like. Just remember, he has no power or ability to harm us, he is just annoying and insistent so let the identity mirror that. Perhaps he looks like a funny little monster, a bug jumping around in the background, or a schoolyard bully who will back off as soon as stood up to. Give him a benign, unthreatening name to acknowledge him by.
Let him be there, and stop the struggle What do bully’s love more than anything? Attention, validation and to have an impact! What happens if you do not try to escape the bully, do not show him you are upset, and just carry on your day? Similarly, if the inner critic is trying to warn you of danger, he wants to be heard. Let him warn you. Just do not get caught up in it. Just because he is loud and insistent does not mean his words have any value or truth to them. Let him carry on in the background but focus on what is important. (e.g. Imagine you are spending time with loved ones. The TV is on in the background. You can hear it, but you do not have to focus on it, listen to it, or get caught up in the plot of the programme. You are aware of it, but you are focusing on what is important to you. Eventually the TV just fades into the background).
Challenge There may be times you will find it useful to challenge your critic. Does what he is saying really have any substance? Do you recognise the voice, or where it comes from? Do you have evidence contrary to what he is saying? Perhaps write a list of reasons he is wrong, or use a thought record to put his statements ‘on trial’ to come up with a more balanced viewpoint.
Defuse See thoughts and resulting feelings for what they really are (random words floating about in your mind, images and sensations, not facts or real danger). When you notice the critic, stop, step back and observe. If you are noticing the thought “I am useless”, try saying to yourself “I am having the thought that I am useless”. You can distance yourself even further from the thought by saying “I am noticing that I am having the thought that I am useless”, or “I’m noticing that my critic (insert name) is calling me useless again”. If you recognise that he is trying to warn you of ‘perceived’ danger, thank him but make it known that there is no need for the warning. Eventually he will get the message and quieten down.
Practice relaxation It is useful to remember how our mind and body impact on each other. Troubling, anxiety ridden thoughts can activate the sympathetic nervous system. If our body gets ready to fight or run every time our critic begins his script, your mind will think it is doing a good job because you have reacted (or at least your body has). In addition to targeting the critical thoughts, it can also be useful to utilise skills that directly impact the body itself. Breathing techniques and relaxation practice can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, bringing the body back into balance, and into a state of rest and digest, giving your critic the message that he is just not needed.