Making peace with your inner critic
Tips & tricks / by Sarah Nolan
We all have that voice inside our head that casts doubt on everything we do, and for many of us, learning to deal with this voice can be difficult. But it doesn't have to be. Instead, we can take steps to create a new voice of positivity, confidence, and self-belief. Sarah Nolan shares her tips on making peace with our inner critic.
You know that nagging voice inside your head? The one that speaks with a tone of authority as it criticises and critiques everything we do in our daily lives? Maybe for you it's a voice that points out all of your flaws when you look in the mirror, or one that reminds you of a social faux pas you made when you were younger.
That voice is what is termed our 'inner critic'. It is a voice that serves as a safety mechanism to prevent us repeating 'mistakes' that have caused us to feel shame or embarrassment in our past.
However, despite its protective purpose, it can take control of our lives if we're not careful, fuelling the self-criticism and loathing that go hand-in-hand with mental health issues like depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
Doing away with this critic is pretty much impossible, but we can learn to make peace with it. Here are some steps you can take to tame and control that voice.
Step 1: Give your critic an identity
What does your critic sound like? What characteristics does it have? Does it take the form of someone from your past? If it had a name what would it be?
Taking a few minutes to try and create a full picture of your inner critic is the first step to being able to control how it affects your life because by doing so, we can separate ourselves from our critic, allowing us to distance ourselves from what it tells us.
You can even go as far as creating a visual character for your inner critic – perhaps a green-eyed monster or a figure from your distant past. This can really help you notice when it is your inner critic speaking, in turn giving you the power to decide whether or not they are saying something reasonable and whether you want to engage with what they're telling you.
Personally, I see my critic usually as a swamp monster, all covered with mud and weeds, trying to get me to stay inside, to not try anything new, and to not look like I’m ‘trying hard’ so that I don’t have to face the embarrassment of possible failure. Whatever yours looks like is completely up to you!
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Step 2: Listen to and record what your critic has to say
Although this may sound counter-intuitive, one of the most surprising things you can do to help control your inner critic is to actually listen to what it has to say. And by doing so from an objective perspective, it can help you figure out why it's saying it in the first place.
One of the best ways to do this is to write down some of the things your critic says. Once you do this, you can question the intentions behind the words: what is it that our critic wants to get out of us? Do they want us to succeed and do our best? Do they want to help us fit in and prevent us from ‘standing out’? Or are they trying to stop us from trying new things out of a fear of failure?
Going through this process can help identify any patterns in what it's telling you, where its criticisms could have originated from, and perhaps even reveal triggers that could be coming from your everyday life. Armed with this kind of objective understanding of what your critic tells you means that you can also begin to build a case against its criticisms...
Step 3: Respond and challenge your critic
Which brings me nicely onto the next step: responding to and challenging your inner critic.
Now you have a better idea of where its intentions come from, the weight you give its criticisms suddenly becomes a lot lighter. If, for example, you went for a job interview and your inner critic starts telling you that you did badly, you can now consider the feedback from a more informed position, asking questions like "is this criticism based on a past experience?" or "how much actual evidence do I have that this is truly the case?"
In some instances, the criticisms you hear will feel like they're based on evidence. But, with the more distanced relationship you have with your critic thanks to steps 1 and 2, you can instead use its words as an opportunity for growth. Try to instead take the feedback and ask yourself questions like “what can I learn from this?" or "what can I do next time to improve?” As long as you approach the conversation in a more open and engaged fashion, the words of your critic will never feel as strong ever again!
Step 4: Build a new voice based on compassion
Now that we've identified our critic, listened to what it has to say, and cross-sectioned each and every criticism it's thrown our way, the final piece of the process to making peace with your inner critic is to create a new one. But instead of a critic, this voice is a cheerleader, a voice that has your back at all times and helps relieve you of the mental burden an un-silenced inner critic can bear you with.
It should be a voice based on self-compassion, one that listens to how you feel and considers what it can do to help. If we're in a difficult situation, whether at work, school or social, ask yourself questions like “what can I do to help myself in this situation?" or "what is it about this that is upsetting for me?”
Forming this new voice of compassion can be difficult, particularly if you've been listening to your inner critic for much of your life. So to help speed up this process, you can try practicing some positive affirmations or finding a saying or mantra to repeat to yourself if you ever make a mistake or feel embarrassed. Over time, your new voice of compassion will become commonplace.
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Time to grow
I have no doubt that there have been times when your inner critic has protected you from ‘embarrassing myself’ or from ‘standing out too much’. And in those instances, you could say that your critic has served you well.
It's when we find ourselves giving too much time and importance to what our critic has to tell us – stopping ourselves from saying something because we don't want to feel embarrassed, doing something new because we don't want to fail, or having our own voice for fear of standing out – that we leave ourselves little room to grow. But hopefully, with these steps in mind, you'll have the power to do just that.