Have you heard of the inner critic?
It’s that voice in your head that says:
You can’t do it.
You’re not good enough.
Nobody likes you.
You’re a fraud.
It’s depressing to listen to your inner critic.
When your inner critic runs the show, your relationships, work and self-esteem plunge. It seems like you can never do anything right, no matter how much you try.
Enter: feeling crappy, anxious and burnt out.
However, can you believe that your inner critic wants you to be happy?
Let me explain.
Where does the inner critic come from?
According to Hal and Sidra Stone in Embracing Your Inner Critic, your inner critic formed in childhood to protect you:
“[Your inner critic] developed to protect your vulnerability by helping you to adapt to the world around you and to meet its requirements, whatever they might be….
It makes you acceptable to others by criticizing and correcting your behavior before other people could criticize or reject you. In this way, it reasoned, it could earn love and protection for you as well as save you much shame and hurt.”
The “requirements” that make you acceptable to others can come from your parents, caregivers, teachers, religious leaders, friends, media, society and past hurts.
So, if your family taught you that it’s inappropriate to show your emotions, your inner critic will criticize you when you do so. If your teacher put you down, your inner critic will push you to work harder.
On a bigger scale, our society promotes a certain image of success that your inner critic constantly compares you with.
Your inner critic might demand that you:
- look impeccable at all times
- not be too emotional, needy, loud, opinionated or selfish
- always smile and be kind to others
- must never ask for help to avoid appearing weak
- do everything perfectly and never make mistakes
- ignore or play down your wins to remain humble
- work hard with little or no play
- the list goes on and on…
We live in an uncertain world and can’t do much to control outside circumstances.
That scares your inner critic, who wants to ensure you’re loved and accepted. So it attempts to control you by molding you into the world’s criteria.
The inner critic, the source of shame and low self-esteem
While it has good intentions, the inner critic tends to go on a power trip and abuse you:
“Like a renegade CIA agent,…. the Critic oversteps its bounds, takes matters into its own hands and begins to operate on its own agenda.
The information [your weaknesses and imperfections], which was originally supposed to be for your overall defense and to promote your general well-being, is now being used against you, the very person it was meant to protect.
At this point, the Inner Critic makes you feel dreadful about yourself. With your Inner Critic watching your every move, you become self-conscious, awkward, and ever more fearful about making a mistake.
You may even stop trying because the Critic tells you that you are going about things all wrong and will undoubtedly fail.”
Your inner critic wants to minimize your pain above all else—even if that means avoiding the necessary risk it takes to change for the better.
Worst, many people unconsciously identify themselves with their inner critic’s voice, which further disempowers them: You’re stupid → I’m stupid.
When I was little, my dad would sometimes explode out of frustration when he couldn’t help me understand a difficult concept for homework. I interpreted the situation like this: I’m stupid. That’s why I don’t get it. I made dad yell.
If you can’t tell when it’s your inner critic’s voice, you’ll more likely believe its mean remarks.
What’s more, the inner critic collaborates with a team of “selves” (or aspects of our personality). The mains ones are listed below, but there are many others.
Each of these “selves” could be beneficial, but when they get out of control, they create more harm than good:
- The Pleaser puts others’ needs before yours and makes you attractive to others, so that they treat you kindly.
- The Rule Maker evaluates what kind of traits are acceptable (e.g. hardworking, successful, cheerful) and unacceptable (e.g. lazy, angry, sloppy) and sets rules for you to follow.
- The Pusher motivates you to work harder, faster and better and assures your success.
- The Perfectionist sees every moment as an opportunity to look, act and be perfect and drives you to redo everything till it’s impeccable.
When you don’t live up to your inner critic’s standards, you feel inadequate, unlovable and flawed at your core.
The thing is, no one lives up to their inner critic’s standards: Its demands just aren’t realistic. And when you reject any aspect of your personality—the good or the bad—you’re harming yourself.
We’re all human. We have “defaults” and make mistakes. To feel happy and fulfilled, we need to stop judging ourselves and embrace who we are.
As kids, we didn’t know better. We didn’t hear You’re good enough. You’re beautiful as you are.
But it’s never too late—you can learn how to accept yourself now, so that you have a choice in how you show up in the world.
So, how do you take back control?
The first thing is to realize that you are not your inner critic nor its collaborators, The Pleaser, The Rule Maker, The Pusher, The Perfectionist. The personality that you developed to protect yourself is just a tiny part of who you are. It’s not all of you.
Most of us have confused our identities with our coping mechanisms, which limits life to your inner critic’s rules.
However, now that you’re aware of your inner critic, you’re in the perfect position to lessen its power. When you distinguish who you are from your inner critic, you can begin to live life on your own terms.
Take it from Hal and Sidra Stone:
“[That‘s when] we have real choice about what we do in life. Then, and only then, are we in a position to truly care for ourselves.
The separation from your primary selves is the first step in developing an Aware Ego. This Aware Ego is not a self. It is a “you” that is not dominated by any self or set of selves. It is able to contain all the opposites that you are, to accept and to honor them appropriately….
[The Aware Ego] gives you the ability to discover the complexity of your feelings and the richness of the many selves that inhabit your psyche. It also enables you to…. reclaim the unique human being that you were born to be.”
So, believe it or not, you’re not broken or flawed. You just believed your fearful inner critic for too long. Its show is over now.
It’s your turn to lead.
3 ways to deal with your inner critic
Now that you understand what the inner critic is and how it works, reclaim your power with these tips.
1) Notice your inner critic
You might want to name your inner critic the bully, the gremlin, the judge, the ego, Miss Know-It-All, your parent’s name or something else. Naming your inner critic separates you from it and gives you some power back.
Throughout the day, notice when your inner critic rears its head: Oh, there goes Miss Know-It-All! Here are 9 ways the inner critic attacks you:
- Blaming → It’s your fault things go wrong.
- Comparing → Why can’t you be like her?
- Setting unreasonable standards → It’s not perfect, start over.
- Reminding you of your mistakes and failures → You never learn, do you?
- Discouraging risks and change → You’re going to fail anyway.
- Brushing off wins → You were lucky.
- “Shoulding” → You should (not) be/do ____.
- Insulting → You’re dumb, weak, ugly.
- Shaming → You’re not good enough.
Make it into a game and see how often your inner critic complains. When does your inner critic show up? In front of the mirror? At the start of a certain task? Before going to bed?
Get your free 5-page playbook below and jot down these moments, as well as your inner critic’s remarks. Acknowledging your inner critic instead of reacting to it dwindles its power.
2) Uncover the roots
Your inner critic’s criticisms may sound true and definitive, but they actually come from the judgments of the people in your life.
Hal and Sidra Stone suggest using the following questions to uncover the roots of your inner critic. Stay objective by asking yourself:
- Does this statement sound like someone I know? Think of parents, other family members, teachers and the different people who influence(d) you.
- When do I first remember being concerned about this issue? Revisiting the first time you felt hurt about this issue helps you heal and break the cycle, so that you can move on. Also, check out: 5 Reasons Why We Hold On to the Past + How to Let Go
- What were your parents’ favorite judgmental comments about you? For a lot of us, our parents’ criticisms still dictate our behavior today. Discerning which comments affected you negatively allows you to start detaching yourself from them.
- What are the worst characteristics that a person could have, according to your current friends? We all feel some pressure to uphold a certain image of ourselves in order to please and impress our friends. Figuring out what you disown about yourself allows you to better embrace the whole you.
With time and practice, you’ll get good at identifying your inner critic. Resist the desire to fight back or ignore it though. When your inner critic criticizes, it’s actually a cry for help, or an alarm, that signals possible pain, rejection, shame or abandonment.
So, take a deep breath and say to it (in your mind), I hear you judging, Miss Know-It-All. What’s this really about?
Even though it sounds weird, converse with your inner critic and listen with empathy. Keep asking, What’s this really about? or What’s underneath that? until you find out its underlying fears. Get to your inner critic’s soft spot, that feeling of vulnerability where walls have fallen and defenses lowered.
“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” —Brené Brown
Here’s an example of an empathetic chat with your inner critic:
The key to calming your inner critic is to validate its fears, as unreasonable as they may seem.
Have you noticed that kids get more upset when you try to fix or squash their feelings? Oftentimes, kids just need you to empathize and hold them as they feel difficult emotions.
The same applies to your inner critic—compassionately listen to it so that it feels heard and understood, which will help diminish its whining.
Whatever you do, don’t criticize, punish, belittle or brush off your inner critic, as that strengthens it! Teach your inner critic how to respect you by respecting your inner critic. Need personal guidance? Check out my 4-week coaching package The Self-Compassion Program.
It takes time + practice to let go
So, don’t beat yourself up when your inner critic chimes in. It might feel like an eternal 2-steps-forward-1-step-back process.
And when you’re super stressed or vulnerable, your inner critic can even flare up again. (It’s normal.)
Just keep going. In due time, you will transform your inner critic and it’ll become your ally.
You’re not its victim anymore.
You can feel worthy and discover who you really are.
What marvelous gems will you find?
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.