Countering your inner critic
Listening to the inner critic and taking on board its comments harms not only our mental health but also our ability to get work done. Thankfully, psychological science has found ways to reduce the power that it has over us.
Our inner critic is the voice inside our minds that reminds us of our flaws and failings. Some people hear the inner critic in the first person, making judgemental comments such as ‘I’m so stupid’ or ‘Why am I so useless?’ Others hear the critic in the second person – for example, ‘You’re so stupid’ or ‘Why are you so useless?’
Here, we suggest five ways to help reduce the power of the inner critic and regain control of our thoughts and actions.
1. Recognise and thank your inner critic
The pioneering psychologists behind a modern, research-backed form of psychological therapy called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) point out that the inner critic is only trying to protect us. The inner critic probably evolved thousands of years ago in order to protect our ancestors from physical dangers such as predatory animals or other aggressive humans with comments such as ‘You’re not running away fast enough!’ or ‘Why aren’t you stronger?’ For many people in modern times, though, the inner critic has just got too good at its job – too overprotective and too critical.
So, ACT psychologists recommend not arguing with the inner critic but instead thanking it for its (misguided) efforts to protect us. When your inner critic tells you something unhelpful or upsetting, say to this inner voice something like ‘Thank you, mind’ or ‘Thank you for letting me know, mind’.
Thank your inner critic silently – and do it sincerely with gratitude and appreciation. The inner critic is trying to protect you in its own blundering fashion. So, avoid being sarcastic or aggressive towards it.
Thank your inner critic and you may help to create some distance between the critical thought and the part of your mind that hears the critical thought. As a consequence, you may feel less bothered by such negative thoughts.
2. Defuse negative thoughts
In technical therapeutic language, individuals are described as being ‘fused’ with their thoughts when they have negative thoughts that are inseparably linked to distressing emotions. For example, consider a person called Maria, whose inner critic might keep repeating the thought ‘I’ve failed and I’m so embarrassed’, leading her to feel depressed and unhappy.
Thankfully, it is possible to defuse critical thoughts – to separate the words from at least part of their emotional impact. To do so, label your negative thoughts by first thinking the phrase ‘I am having the thought that…’ To defuse Maria’s thought, she could think to herself ‘I am having the thought that “I’ve failed and I’m so embarrassed”.’
Psychological studies have found that simply labelling critical thoughts as thoughts by using this exact phrase reduces the believability of critical thoughts, as well as the distress associated with them. People often find that they can then think about the thought less – they can, to an extent, let it go and reduce the distress associated with it.
If you hear unhelpful messages such as ‘I am stupid’ or ‘Everyone hates me’, try defusing them and reducing their hold over you. Label them as mere thoughts by using the statement ‘I am having the thought that…’ and then describing to yourself the critical thought you had.
3. Name your critical stories
Sometimes, your inner critic may send you messages that you have heard many times before. These critical stories could be about specific mistakes or events – for example, you recently said something badly wrong in a meeting or you were once fired. Other critical stories may be about more general failings such as believing that you are not clever or assertive enough.
In these circumstances, defuse recurring critical messages by giving them names and then reminding yourself that you have heard them before. For example, your inner critic may keep making comments such as ‘Other people here are smarter than I am’ and ‘Everybody else seems so much more determined’. You could group them together and decide they are just part of the same ‘I’m not good enough’ story.
Then, when you hear your inner critic making either the same or related comments, you can tell yourself: ‘Ah, I recognise this one. It’s the “I’m not good enough” story again.’ Once you have acknowledged a story, you may find it easier to disengage with it and think about it less.
4. Send yourself self-compassionate messages
Many people who experience anxiety or depression believe that they should listen to the inner critic’s fault-finding comments – or that they deserve to be punished because of their inadequacies. Some people even believe that paying attention to their inner critics might motivate them to do better. However, research has shown that the opposite is actually true.
When you hear your inner critic’s judgements, first thank it or name the stories. Then, consider sending yourself self-compassionate messages instead. Imagine what one of your kindest friends might say to you. Alternatively, bring to mind a famous individual that you believe to be caring and compassionate – and imagine what this person might say to you.
Think of this person as your inner cheerleader or inner coach. When imagining this person’s supportive comments, use the second person – ie using the word ‘you’. So, this voice might say things like ‘You can get through this’ rather than ‘I can get through this’.
Most importantly, consider the findings from the psychological research. Being more compassionate to yourself may not only help you to feel better – it may also lift your performance.
5. Name or visualise your inner critic
You may sometimes get so fused with your inner critic that you feel as if you have no choice but to listen to and be influenced by it. However, another technique for defusing from this voice is to name it and imagine it as a separate person or entity from yourself.
By giving your inner critic its own identity, you can remind yourself that it is only one voice. When you ask your inner coach to send you positive messages, that is another voice.
So, consider giving your inner critic a name – perhaps using language that captures how harshly judgemental it can be or the fact that it is just a silly, unhelpful voice that you should ignore. I’ve had clients name their inner critics things like ‘moaning mini-me’, ‘the crybaby’, ‘nitpicky’, ‘Mister Regret’, and so on. If you like, you could also imagine what it looks like. Summon up a vivid mental image that helps you to distinguish it very clearly from how you actually look – perhaps one that captures the unhelpfulness or ugliness of its comments.
Name this voice to remind yourself that it is only one voice in your mind – and not the core, most essential part of your mind. Mentally push this named voice to the sidelines so that you can instead get on with the things that matter to you.