The “inner critic” is a way our minds tend to operate when we are not paying attention. It has the potential to dominate our lives, so if we want to live with more freedom and intentionality, it is crucial to understand and challenge this force.
“I shouldn’t have said that, I never learn”, “He is so successful, I will never be like him”, “I should be more loving and understanding”, “I really should go to the gym, I’m so lazy”, “I wish I was more …”.
Would you talk this way to a friend? Hopefully the answer is obvious. And yet most of us do this to ourselves on a daily basis. When we look at it, this type of self-talk is a form of aggression that we inflict on ourselves. But before we go to counter attack, it is important to recognise that this inner voice has a purpose.
An outdated strategy
The inner critic is a part of us (or, specifically, a part of our “superego”) that is almost as old as we are. It is a strategy that we developed in childhood to protect us from getting hurt or ostracised. At this stage of our development, we are quite sensitive to our environment. We take in feedback and information from interactions with our parents, teachers, peers, bullies, society and culture at large. Over time, we learn to internalise these voices and create guidelines for how to deal with life. This inner guidance serves to keep us safe, accepted and functional when relating to family, friends, teachers, at school and so on. As a child, these rules and standards help us be more independent in the world. We no longer have to have our parents with us at all times.
As adults, however, these strategies have become outdated. Although the voice finds a way to apply its judgements to new “adult” aspects of our lives, it still talks to us in much the same way. It no longer serves us to compare ourselves incessantly with others or to judge ourselves harshly for stepping outside supposed ideals from the past. We need to be able to venture out into the unknown, to explore and express ourselves more freely. And this is precisely what the inner critic prevents us from doing.
A voice that keeps us stuck
Many of us are so used to this voice that we often don’t realise that it is there. We listen to it as if it is telling the truth. We buy in to its stories to the point where we start identifying with it – we mistake it for who we really are.
Another common trap is projection, where we judge qualities in others that we cannot stand in ourselves. We pretend like the “ugly” behavior or quality is only in the other person and we blame and criticise them so that we don’t have to face it in ourselves. Or we might project our self-judgement onto others, telling ourselves that they judge us when in fact it is all in our heads.
“I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am ”
– Thomas Cooley
Regardless of its expressions, this energy and way of relating limits our possibilities to learn, grow and connect.
1) The first step is to recognize and isolate the voice of the inner critic without judging it. We need to make it conscious. We need to see how it operates, how it influences us, how it limits us. Keep an eye out and see if you can spot it! Become like a detective, investigating with curiosity and clarity. Look out for the word “should” – it is a hint that the critic is at work. Perhaps the presence of the critic can be felt as an energy of being attacked. Perhaps feelings of shame, guilt, fear, physical tensions or contractions. As we get to know the inner critic in this way, we can begin to isolate this forceful part of our mind.
2) Once you are in the presence of the critic, disengage from it. Don’t buy into its narrative, and don’t identify with the victim of its attack. The process of isolating the voice of the critic – and disengaging from it – is like pulling the plug to its energy source. It may help to use techniques such as RAIN (to stop and Recognize, to Allow, to Investigate and realize Non-identification) in order to get some distance and remember that this is not who you ultimately are.
3) When you are no longer identified with the critic (or its victim), remember your longing and intention to be free from criticism. You may reflect on the harshness of the critic – would you allow a friend to be attacked in this way? Feel the hurt that this way of relating is causing. With self compassion, feel the tenderness and connect with the will to protect yourself from this energy of attack.
4) Next, challenge the inner critic from a place of inner strength and determination. Don’t try to argue with it. Going to war with this voice is like throwing fuel on the flame – it will only give it more power. Instead, simply dismiss it. Don’t allow it to control you or the way you feel toward yourself. You may need to experiment to find strategies that work for you, perhaps by finding a forceful defense, a gentle nurturing quality for you inner child, or using humor and sending the critic on a vacation.
5) Once you are no longer in the grip of the critic, savor the experience. Connect with your inner experience. How does it feel to be free from judgement and criticism in this moment? Allow yourself to feel your inner authenticity and vulnerability. This vulnerability is the portal to inner strength and guidance. From this place, you will find the spaciousness and freedom needed to create better strategies for meeting your deepest needs. Strategies that come from a deeper sense of who you are, and that allow you to live a more intentional life.
(Thanks to Steve Harvey for the photo and Byron Brown for post inspiration.)
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