When you mess up in a meeting, or you’re out at a party and you feel uncomfortable around someone, or you miss a sales target, you might well hear yourself saying any of the above. This is your inner critic talking and the dialogue she or he has with you is what psychologists call ‘negative self-talk’. (In CBT it’s called Automatic Negative Thoughts or ANTs.)
Up to 70% of some people’s mental chatter — those with low self esteem — comes from the inner critic; they have a negativity dominance (as opposed to a compassionate self accepting and positive inner voice).
Your inner critic serves a purpose
But why an earth do we allow this nasty little inner voice, this critical parental figure to continually put us down and hold us back?
Our inner critic attacks and undermines us in order to save us from shame — the shame of failure, humiliation and embarrassment. Shame has been termed the ‘master emotion’ — an all power force that can both drive us and hold us back. It can drive us to succeed for fear that failure will bring shame, or it can stop us dead in our tracks, keeping us stuck in a cozy, safe shame-avoidance environment in which we don’t ever place ourselves in hot situations that might bring shame on us.
Let’s look at these two ways that shame can shape us…
Your inner critic drives you on – but exhausts you
We need to look back to our childhood to find the origin of our shame when our parents or caregivers withheld their approval and love (albeit unconsciously) until we behaved in a certain way. For many, we may have only ever been showered with applause and hugs when we won a race or got an A grade, creating conditional love. We were loved for what we achieved and not for who we were. And this explains why, when we underperform, it’s most likely that your inner critic takes the form of a parental figure. The inner critic drives you on in order to avoid the rejection and disapproval of others. It also acts as a pre-emptive strike saying,
“Come on, succeed — shame on you if you fail. Shame on you if you don’t get that promotion. Shame on you if you’re not the best!”
If you have a strong inner critic, when you do achieve a goal, when you get promoted for instance, she won’t let you enjoy it for too long because she’ll tell it was luck or conditional, or as psychologist Leon Seltzer says “the inner critic won’t let you see past achievement as ‘real’ for fear, if you do, you’ll slack and end up a ne’er-do-well”.
The problem is that driving yourself on to avoid feeling worthless gets exhausting. When you’re driven to succeed to keep your inner critic in check then you’re primarily motivated by a fear of failing someone else. And that leaves you in a position where you are forever seeking others approval. “Like me, love me, be impressed by me!” You’re primarily driven by extrinsic motivations, and not the healthy intrinsic ones.
Your inner critic also keeps you in your nice cozy comfort zone
Shame can also have the opposite effect to motivating you — it can completely demotivate you. So if shame makes you feel exposed and worthless then you’re going to want to give it a wide berth — and you may look to withdraw from all those situations that our inner critic tell us you’ll fail at.
Shame turns your inner critic into a bodyguard who wants to keep you safe from humiliation. Your inner critic is saying ‘Shame’s not on the list, shame’s not coming in’. So you end up withdrawing from new challenges or experiences, and not just the difficult ones at work — you may also find yourself stuck in your comfort zone in your personal life, seeing the same old friends, going along with what others say and think for fear of being different, of being shamed an outsider and having other people’s approval withdrawn.
How to tackle your inner critic
Silencing your inner critic is not easy. In fact, learning to live with him or her is a more realistic approach. Here are a number of techniques for tackling your inner critic, several of which I use with participants in my How to Build Unbreakable Confidence online workshop.
1. Draw and name your inner critic
I ask participants to draw out their inner critic. Many draw their critic as an authority figure like a judge, other people as a strange animal — a parrot that squawks out the same old belittling phrases and comments is popular.
Then I ask participant to name their critic, and the names I’ve heard include: ‘The Old Hag’; ‘The Judge’; ‘The Poisoned Parrot’.
If your inner critic is an authority figure, and authority figures are insecure and prize power above all else, then they hate being ridiculed. Ridiculing those in authority by giving them silly names or caricaturing them in a cartoon can help you lessen your inner critic’s sense of power.
2. Note down what your inner critic says to you
Think of a specific situation when your inner critic always appears. As an example, let’s say a manager, Michelle, hates presenting to a room full of people. Her inner critic would say:
“I’m going to look like a fool, again, in front of all these people. I’ll get flustered, panic, lose my train of thought then stand there like a dummy while people look at me with pity.”
If you’re unsure about what your inner critic says, think about the things you say to yourself that you wouldn’t say to a good friend or a child. Or keep a journal of each and every time you berate yourself. (You may well be surprised just how often you put yourself down.)
3. Replacing your inner critic’s defensiveness with a growth-orientated voice
Your inner critic will be trying to protect you from perceived harm and stop you from doing something.
Michelle’s inner critic would say:
“You’re gonna lose the respect of your colleagues, and they’ll think you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
But once she’d analysed what her inner critic was protecting her from then she could turn the perceived negative outcomes into positive ones.
“You’re gonna lose respect” becomes… “By presenting, I’m sharing some really important information with my colleagues, and this will earn their respect. And if I want to progress in my career, I need to be good at presenting.”
In effect, you’re looking to overcome on objection by finding the positives. You’re replacing your inner critic with a growth-orientated inner voice. And by doing this you’re seeing challenges as an opportunity for self improvement — rather than allowing your inner critic to restrain you.
4. See mistakes from an objective, third-position
This may sound weird, but talking about yourself in the third person can help you analyse your mistakes from an objective, rational position. So, instead of:
“I made a real hash of that presentation, again. I panicked and got flustered and people didn’t know what I was talking about”, Michelle would say:
“Michelle’s presentation didn’t go as well as she’d hoped. I wonder why she gets flustered?”
It’s a technique used in NLP to remove heat and emotion from a situation, and also you to analyse a situation in which your inner critic — who is only ever an emotional beast — took over.
5. Rewrite your story plot – this time with a useful, happy ending
This leads on from point 4, and again, you need to think about yourself in the third-person. So you add in another step, which is to rewrite your story. And social psychologist Timothy Wilson, believes this can help you rewrite a negative experience.
In every (half decent) novel, story and film there is a moment when the protagonist suddenly realises how to overcome the obstacle standing in the way of his/her goal — the protagonist has an epiphany. Think about what your inner critic recently labelled a disaster or an obstacle that stops you from doing something important, and turn this into an imaginary turning point in your life story.
So, Michelle could say to herself:
“For Michelle that presentation was the moment she realised what flustered here, and she started to build the confidence to stay calm.”
6. Put your inner critic in the dock
The vast majority of negative self-talk is an exaggeration, so challenge your inner critic to come up with real evidence. Turn the tables and put your inner critic on trial — be the prosecutor!
In response to Michelle’s inner critic saying “You’re gonna lose respect”, she might say to her inner critic:
“I’m not sure you’re right about that as I’ve spoken in front of audiences before, and they’ve always responded with interest and respect.”
If you’re going to put your inner critic on trial, think like a barrister. What are facts and what are your inner critic’s subjective judgments about you that won’t stand up in court.
7. Replace self-judgement with self-kindness
For many, our inner critic drives us — drives us to be perfect and iron out all weakness. But by putting ourselves on a pedestal, our inner critic fails to recognise that we’re human, and as humans we’re imperfect, we fail, make mistakes, and have serious life challenges.
By replacing self-judgement with self-kindness you are forgiving your failings and foibles, and instead of putting yourself down, start to treat yourself with warmth and unconditional acceptance (while taking on board the possibility that certain unhelpful behaviours need tweaking).
8. Develop a sense of common humanity instead of isolation
A symptom of low self esteem and a harsh inner critic is that we become inward looking and isolated — we ruminate about our failings and constantly analyse ourselves. But a great deal of research is now showing that compassion to others is a key element to building self esteem. By connecting with others we develop a common humanity, which acts as a counterfoil to our lonely self-imposed psychoanalyst’s couch. Showing compassion to others starts with self compassion, and this requires you to celebrate being ordinary. Develop this perspective of yourself as a flawed but connected, ordinary human, and your inner critic will start to lose her voice. For more on this looked at my previous blog on self compassion.
9. Take some mindfulness meditation
My final tip to get your inner critic under control is mindfulness meditation. This can help you develop non-judgmental awareness and the ability to stay aware of the present moment – without involving the inner critic. There are some simple and highly effective mindfulness and self compassion exercises on Kristin Neff’s website
How to tackle you inner critic is a module in my How to Develop Unbreakable Confidence online course. My online course uses personal case studies, research and exercises from the fields of positive psychology, cognitive therapy, person-centred therapy, and neuroscience to help you develop greater self esteem and self compassion.
Peter Willis, founder and online tutor at Unchainyourbrain.org
- SHAME AS THE MASTER EMOTION OF EVERYDAY LIFE: Thomas J. Scheff, Ph. D., and Suzanne M. Retzinger, Ph.D, UCSB
- Psychology Today, April 2019, Silence your inner critic, Jena Pincott