It’s always there, in the back of your mind, picking on you and nagging at you. Our inner critics can be fierce and cruel. They can prevent us from trying new things or doing something that requires vulnerability. They tend to focus on the negative and worst possible outcomes. For anyone living with a strong inner critic, the experience can be extremely limiting and upsetting.
For most people, attempts at overcoming their inner critic involves vacillating between trying to ignore it and fighting it. You may have even tried balancing it out with positivity. While these approaches can work, they’re often temporary. Trying to fight, quiet or ignore our inner critic often creates an internal battle of wills, leaving us feeling worn out and hopeless.
The good news is, you don’t have to live with your inner critic’s voice nagging you every day. But rather than learning to control or defeat your critic, you’ll need to do something seemingly bizarre…befriend it.
How does it start?
Inner critics develop for a variety of reasons. In some circumstances they’re the internalized messages we received from others as a kid. If you had parents who were always putting you down or themselves down, you probably adopted this language yourself. The mom who’s always talking about her weight in front of her daughter (even if she’s not talking about the daughter’s weight) can become the internal voice for the daughter as she considers her own body image. The parent who’s critic of their child’s grades, can also become an internalized voice. Of course, we can develop our inner critic in other ways too.
What’s the point of our inner critic?
Think of your inner critic as someone putting a magnifying glass on negative events, in efforts to help you. A mean, critical voice telling you not to say that, wear that, do that could be trying to save you from embarrassment; something it knows from experience, brings you pain. Learning to understand our critic can be key in minimizing its impact.
Why would you want to befriend it?
When we approach with empathy rather than reaction, we learn more about ourselves, including the hows and whys of our thoughts and behaviors. Befriending our critics means learning to understand our critic and not getting sidetracked by our own reactions to what it’s saying.
Tools for befriending our inner critic:
- Learn to identify it – if you hear a voice in your head calling you an “idiot” or suggesting that you shouldn’t try because you’ll only “fail,” acknowledge that. Recognize this as your critic and say “oh my critic is here!” This helps give you a little space between yourself and the critic.
- Take a deep breath and mentally step back – Getting space from our inner critics is important in helping us become more objective and less influenced by its words. You can widen this space by taking a few slow, deep breaths. This helps your body step back from more heightened “fight or flight” reactions and into a clearer mind space.
- Notice what other feelings come up – Creating awareness of your reactions to your own feelings can help you learn about your inner process. Remember that positive voice that some people have in reaction to their inner critic? The one that says “oh look on the bright side!” If you imagine your critic as a grouchy, mean person sitting in a room, the positive voice would be a happy, go-lucky person who comes in to change their mood. Sometimes this works, and other times it doesn’t. But the role of the positive voice (or another negative one) is to attempt to manage or get rid of the critic. While the attempts can be helpful, they get in the way of you “befriending” your critic.
- Listen to the critic – Let’s go back to the image of your grouchy old critic sitting in a room. Now try imagining placing yourself in that room with it. Be sure to ask those feelings that come up in response to your critic to give you some time with just your critic or else they’ll continue to get in the way. Now let’s befriend it by listening to it and learning about it. Try asking:
- What’s your job?
- How do you try to help me?
- How can I help you?
- Is there anything else you want me to know?
After you’ve begun to befriend your critic you will probably notice the critic starts to soften and ease up. If you’re not finding this, try going back through the steps paying careful attention to any reaction you may have to your critic, or any attempt to “control” it. Remember this back and forth is what creates our inner battle of wills.