8 min read
This voice can be relentless, metastasizing into an endless stream of personal critiques that troll and harass you into the night. -Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
This voice can be relentless, metastasizing into an endless stream of personal critiques that troll and harass you into the night.
-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark
Do you have an inner critic that bosses you around all day and makes you feel like crap? Maybe you replay events over and over again in your head and ruminate over every little detail, beating yourself up for your mistakes. If any of this describes you, keep reading.
Before we dive into taming this negative self-talk, though, I’d like you to first take a step back and imagine that your self (the conscious sum total of your personality, background, and memories) is not really a single thing at all, but is instead made up of multiple parts or mini-selves, each of which has its own voice.
Of course, here I’m not talking about hallucinatory kinds of voices, but rather highlighting that we all have running internal dialogues, and the voices that make up this self-talk often have a unique tone and character of their own.
You might have an inner-self that motivates you and tells you to, “Get back in there, champ!” when life gets hard. Existing alongside it, you could also have a sober internal voice that warns you to “Be careful!” when danger is looming ahead.
For many of us, there is a critical inner voice that has risen up loudly above the others. And if you let it, this voice can be relentless, metastasizing into an endless stream of personal critiques that troll and harass you into the night.
So, how do you begin to negotiate with this bully in your brain?
Here are 5 tips for starting the process:
1. Recognize the havoc that your inner critic creates in your life.
When I encounter a client with a strong inner critic, I’ll usually start by asking them to describe how it feels to have this nitpicky, harsh internal dialogue running in their head all day long.
Consideration of the question itself represents a slight but important shift in perspective. For starters, it highlights that there’s an internal audience of other inner voices or parts of the self that have to listen to the barrage of insults and criticisms spewing from the inner critic.
It also highlights that over-indulging in self-criticisms has real consequences. Maybe your inner critic makes it harder for you to concentrate at work or school. Or it could mess with your confidence and throw you off your A-game.
At the very least, when the critic’s volume is turned up to the max, it’s safe to say that it’s depriving you of moments that could otherwise be peaceful or joyful. And there is often very real hurt and disappointment over these losses that come at the expense of an overly active internal critic.
So, take stock of all the ways that your inner critic interferes with your life, and if it helps, write it out in a list.
2. Resist the urge to completely silence your inner critic.
Thinking about all the ways your inner critic interferes with your life, it might be tempting to decide that you should simply work to silence or shut it up it in some way.
Unfortunately, critics don’t usually go away that easily. They have a way of sticking around. And attempts to white-knuckle it and shut a critical voice down tend to have the paradoxical effect of making the self-criticisms even louder and more persistent.
So, what do you do instead? More on that next.
3. Make demands but be willing to negotiate with your critical self.
Accepting for now that your internal critic might have some important things to say (more on that later) and isn’t willing to completely go away forever, consider what kind of relationship you would like to have with this part of yourself.
In a mental health counseling situation, a therapist might actually encourage a client to visualize their inner critic sitting in an empty chair and speak to it from the part of themselves that has been suffering under it’s barrage of attacks.
It often takes a little while to get into the swing of it, but such an exercise can help people to get a handle on the competing feelings and needs of the different parts of themselves. And in several studies, these empty chair dialogues have been shown to heighten self-compassion and improve emotional well-being.
But even if you’re not able to pull up a couple of chairs with a therapist for one of these exercises, it can still be a useful practice to have a conversation or two with yourself, speaking from the multiple perspectives of these internal voices.
You might start by considering the relationship you’d like to have with your inner critic. What do you need from this prickly part of yourself?
Would you like it to loosen up and give you a break? Be a little nicer and stop over-reacting to every little thing? Or maybe every once in a while you just want some credit and acknowledgement for what you’re doing right?
Make your wish list and see what emerges.
4. Walk a mile in the critic’s shoes.
It may sound counterintuitive to do so, but it can be helpful at this stage to channel your inner critic and find out what it has to say about all of this.
Why is it so hard on you all the time? What does it want from you? And crucially, what would it be like for your internal critic to actually loosen up and give you a break?
This last question is an important one, and it often elicits a mix of feelings. For many, even though there is a part of them that would very much like to let go of negative self-talk, there’s also a sense of discomfort about getting rid of it all together.
What would happen if I never had anyone inside keeping me in line? Would I ever get anything done? Would I stay in bed all day long? Would I be sloppy and mess everything up?
Take a few moments to consider what concerns or fears you might have about allowing your critic to turn down the volume a few notches. What do you imagine might happen? What kinds of feelings does that provoke?
It can also be helpful here to explore the origins of your inner critic. Often it has a familiar voice and takes after a parental figure or another important person from your childhood.
Who does your critic remind you of? If it seems to have a familiar voice, how can this recognition help you to most effectively respond to your critic?
5. Work to soothe your inner critic.
Considering how your inner critic can hurt you but also sometimes alert you to important issues that need more attention, see if you can start a dialogue with yourself about negotiating peace amongst your multiple selves.
Are there ways you can reassure this critical part of yourself? Can some comfort be offered in exchange for a reprieve from it’s harsh and demanding ways?
Try to figure out what your critic really needs from you when it starts to pipe up. And generate a list of compassionate self-statements you can have ready, whenever it seems like your internal critic is getting upset.
Such statements are obviously most effective when they are tailored specifically to you and your most pressing concerns, but for the sake of example, you might tell yourself:
Maybe I made some mistakes, but I’m learning from them.
I’m doing my best and all of this negativity isn’t helping.
I know this issue is important, and I will take it more seriously if you can loosen up.
Hurting me isn’t making anything better.
We’ll get there. Be patient.
I have to start somewhere.
Don’t lose site of the forest for the trees.
Stop beating me up and let’s focus on the big picture.
Come up with a list of these self-statements and have them armed and ready whenever you feel like you need to be more compassionate toward yourself. And if you give it a try, let us know how it goes in the comments below.
Kelly, A. C., Zuroff, D. C., & Shapira, L. B. (2009). Soothing oneself and resisting self-attacks: The treatment of two intrapersonal deficits in depression vulnerability. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 33, 301-313.
Shahar, B., Carlin, E. R., Engle, D. E., Hegde, J., Szepsenwol, O., & Arkowitz, H. (2012). A pilot investigation of emotion‐focused two‐chair dialogue intervention for self‐criticism. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 19, 496-507.