The voice inside your head that calls you an idiot when you make even the littlest mistake could be standing in the way of your success and happiness. No one is unaffected by this voice. We all hear it—and it’s incredibly negative and destructive.
Inner critics can be cruel, harshly criticizing their hosts for imaginary failings and minor faux pas. That isn’t just unpleasant—it is counterproductive. Faced with frequent, heartless criticism from within, we may conclude that there’s no point making an effort or taking a chance because we’ll just mess it up.
Why start a new relationship when the voice in your head informs you that you’re incapable of holding on to a partner? Why try to invest for the future when the voice says that you’ll just mismanage the money?
This negative voice can become the filter through which you see yourself. It both drives your behavior and then later berates you for it.
Example: The voice seduces you in a friendly-sounding way, telling you to just stay home rather than go out to the party that you planned to attend. Later, the voice screams at you that you’re lonely, unwanted and have no friends. In the same way, this ugly voice can drive some people all the way to drugs and alcohol, suggesting that they have another drink or hit…then later criticizing them for their stupidity and weakness in partaking.
But you are not doomed to be beaten down by this voice. By learning where your inner critic actually comes from and ways to weaken or disregard it, you can release yourself and find happiness…
The Roots of an Inner Critic
Your inner critic did not begin inside you—it probably traces back to criticism you heard from someone powerful who was in your life when you were a child, such as a parent, teacher, older sibling or peer. Your interactions with this person left your childhood “self” feeling inadequate. Children also learn through observation—not just words. You may have grown up hearing a parent regularly speaking harshly to himself/herself. Children internalize their parents’ voices.
Example: A girl who lived with a mother and grandmother who were vocally critical of their own bodies grew up to be a woman whose inner critic said tremendously hurtful things about her own appearance. A man whose father felt like a failure grew up to view himself as one, too.
Overcoming an Inner Critic
You can’t silence your inner critic by giving in to it—that just feeds it and makes it stronger. Instead, freedom lies in paying close attention to when it talks to you and then acting against it by taking some positive risks.
Example: The next time you see someone you like, ignore the voice—take a chance and ask the person out. The first time you resist the voice, it may get louder, shouting that you’ll fail…but if you persist, eventually it will fade into the background.
These five strategies can help you fight back and find a way to take risks. You have the power to quiet that inner critic’s voice and reduce its impact on your life…
Separate the voice from your own thoughts. If you had a horribly unpleasant neighbor who constantly criticized you, you wouldn’t take those criticisms seriously. You would dismiss him/her with an eye roll. Your inner critic deserves similar treatment. When it raises your fears and lowers your confidence, tell yourself, That’s just my inner critic again.
Give its opinion the weight it deserves—little or none. It’s a vestige of an old self. Think about it—would you run your life or make decisions based on what you thought as a child? Of course not. And yet that’s what you’re doing when you let your inner critic get the upper hand.
Ask yourself, What do I really think? Step outside yourself, and take a “third party” look at what’s going on. This further separates your feelings from the inner critic’s feelings. Use first person “I” sentences when considering your true opinions but not when reflecting on the inner critic’s words.
Example: You miss a flight. Your inner critic tells you that you’re disorganized and can’t do anything right. After reflecting for a moment on this, you might respond with, I make mistakes like anyone, but I actually get lots of stuff right. In fact, this is the first flight I’ve ever missed. The lines were longer than normal.
Try to identify your inner critic’s triggers. When your inner critic overreacts to a seemingly minor matter, there’s a good chance that it actually is reacting to a similar incident that occurred in your past. It helps to identify the root source.
Example: You hear less than full agreement when you voice an opinion at a neighborhood association meeting. Your inner critic tells you, No one cares about your opinion—it’s worthless. Perhaps this overreaction occurred because you were the youngest child in your family and your older siblings never valued your opinions.
Learn self-compassion. People who endure cruel inner critics often believe that self-criticism is a path toward self-improvement and assume that the voice is there to motivate rather than destroy. In fact, harsh self-criticism is more likely to convince you that you are not capable of self-improvement than it is to lead to growth. Self-compassion (the ability to be kind to yourself even when you are suffering and to be nonjudgmental toward yourself) is more likely to lead to self-improvement—but self-compassion is a skill that people with scathing inner critics often lack.
Strategies for developing self-compassion include positive journaling and meditation to focus your attention on where you want to go and who you want to be. With your eyes closed, take a few deep breaths and try to be mindful. Meditation strengthens your ability to stop over-identifying with negative thoughts and feelings. They don’t define you.
Ask yourself, So what’s my next step? Inner critics often focus their gaze backward at their past mistakes, constantly reinforcing their shortcomings. Focusing on a single, achievable next step can kick-start positive momentum and break the cycle of negativity and rumination created by an “error.”
Example: You eat a bowl of ice cream when you’re supposed to be on a diet. Your inner critic says you’re fat and lack the discipline to lose weight. There’s no point focusing on the past—you can’t “un-eat” the ice cream. Instead, ask, What’s my next step? It might be to throw away any remaining ice cream…or to plan out all of tomorrow’s eating in advance to reduce the odds of impulsive snacking.
Also: Another question that can shift focus from the unchangeable past to a more productive future is, What would I do differently next time?