Most of us have an inner critic: a part of our psyche that likes to bring us down, criticise our best efforts, and even bully us into believing we’re not good enough. It carries out a running commentary on our lives, putting a negative spin on our achievements and our aspirations. Its impact can leave us feeling hurt, demeaned and powerless.
What is the inner critic?
The ‘inner critic’ is a term in popular psychology to personify the negative thoughts we have about ourselves. The inner critic is generally an amalgam of the negative and critical comments we may have received from parents or teachers, or even siblings and peers, while growing up.
Think of the inner critic as a script you downloaded when you were very small, from people who you felt at the time were more powerful and more knowing than you.
That script may include phrases such as:
- “Who do you think you are? You’ll never amount to anything.”
- “Don’t bother with that. You’re not good enough anyway.”
- “Do you think your fat tummy looks good in those tight jeans?”
- “What have you done? What’s wrong with you?”
- “Sit still and shut up. Be seen and not heard.”
- “You may have got an A in history. But why only a B in maths?”
Your parents/teachers/authority figures may not have been deliberately abusive. Yet subtle or consistent criticism can forge deeply held, negative beliefs about yourself. The original script that played out in your childhood can stay on repeat, even now that you’re a grown-up. The inner critic really shouldn’t have power over you any more, but its influence can be hard to shake off.
When the inner critic has power, you may find that you…
- Doubt yourself, looking externally for validation and never really receiving it.
- Procrastinate, leaving projects unstarted and/or unfinished.
- Keep yourself small, for fear that any effort will be useless anyway.
- Are obsessed with the issue you were criticised for in the first place (eg, being fat, a ‘bad’ sister, selfish, lazy, untidy. The list can go on…)
- Are driven to show the inner critic is wrong, working harder and longer to prove yourself. But not succeeding.
- At heart, you believe you are unlovable.
- Become critical yourself, picking fault in the efforts and behaviour of others.
- Identify with the inner critic, believing it’s a core part of your personality.
How to diminish the power of your inner critic
1. Get to know your inner critic
Take the first step by tuning into the voice of your inner critic. When it is speaking to you through your thoughts or feelings, take a moment to listen in. What’s its voice? Who does that voice belong to? What does it sound like? Note down what the inner critic says, and when it says it. Whose voice is it really? If not yours, then whose? What triggers activate your inner critic? This will be a process of hearing the voice/feeling/thought that starts to put you down.
2. Separate from your inner critic
To do this you will have to externalise it. What we mean by this is get your inner critic out of your head. You can do this by continuing to write down what it says. You may want to draw an image of your inner critic (and you don’t need to be an artist to do this). Taking a look at the ‘thing’ that’s been bullying you can diminish its power. It can also help you understand it. Seeing your inner critic as an ‘it’ – as something separate from you – is the first step to stop identifying with it.
3. Cultivate inner kindness
Self-compassion is the opposite of criticism. It’s the antidote to all those years of feeling criticised. It’s the healing that can soothe the wounded part of you. Inner kindness won’t happen overnight. To work with the negative thoughts from the inner critic, challenge its claims by writing down a positive thought that supports you. Let’s say the inner critic says: “You are useless. You’re always running late and ruining things for yourself.” You can respond with: “I am a busy person trying to fit a lot of things in. I’m in demand and doing my best to meet deadlines.” This can help you to take ownership of the “I”.
Keep doing this to reinforce a more loving frame of reference. Giving your inner critic a softer, cartoony voice can help with this. When it tries to take over your thoughts, you can diminish its power by making it sound ridiculous.
4. Reframe your relationship with your inner critic
You don’t need to compliantly follow the will of your inner critic. You are your own person. Consider that the inner critic might be there for a purpose. Sometimes your inner critic may have a point: it may be a sounding board, a devil’s advocate, a protection against something wilful or destructive. Tune into it. Hear what it has to say. Finally, make up your own mind about what you think, feel and do.
If your inner critic is still running rampant in your psyche, and you’d like to rein it in, then speaking to a therapist can support you. To make an appointment, email [email protected] or call 020 8673 4545. Therapy sessions are available seven days a week at our Clapham and Tooting centres.
Ask about our low-cost options if you’re on benefits or low income.