Calming Your Inner Critic

We all have an inner critic, a part of our personality that temporarily appears to judge, evaluate and at times demean, although we don’t all relate to it in the same way. Some have a hard time discerning when it’s useful to pay attention to negative feedback and when it’s just noise. Others choose when to listen and when not to listen to the inner critic, knowing that it’s only a thought, not a reality.

While the inner critic can help us evaluate where and how we might improve, it can take things to an extreme with relentless fault-finding, berating, comparing, scolding, and shaming. If the inner critic obsessively talks to you about you in this way it takes a toll on your mood, self-esteem, resilience, and inner compassion. A harsh inner critic can, in fact, be debilitating.

Shifting Focus

Some people embrace their inner critic believing it is the only way they can be motivated. The truth is we are not well motivated by punishment. With punishment and demands, we’re forced to submit or rebel, so it may change behavior but never in the way we would like. Research shows that self-compassion is a much more effective motivator. Inner compassion nurtures, supports and drives us toward our goals.

For some, the inner critic shows up as a form of blaming oneself for past suffering in an attempt to control or prevent future suffering, It’s as though blaming and beating oneself up is preferable to any sense of uncertainty or lack of control, yet we all know we can’t and don’t always have control over our fate. Needlessly blaming ourselves is not going to change this.

A better approach is to shift your focus away from self-criticism and blame to recognizing what priorities and values you want to live by. When your behaviors are driven by values, by what is most innately rewarding and meaningful to you, they’re much better motivators than the inner critic.

Try making a list of your values, taking into account the many different aspects of your life: family, friends, animals, health and fitness, work, money, play, creativity, community, social justice, spirituality, the environment and planet. Think of the person or persons you admire most. What traits do they embody that you would like to develop or further within yourself? Keep a journal to track the things you do that line up with your value system; these are the things that make you feel worthy.

Getting To Know You

Why get to know your inner critic? Because anything we resist persists. If you passively continue to listen to the criticism, you will feel terrible, so why not make friends with your inner critic?

“The problem isn’t about having an inner critic – the problem is listening to it non-critically.”

Michael Yapko

As Michael Yapko, Ph.D., explains, we want to learn to “answer the inner critic in a way that minimizes its negative impact and maximizes what it can teach you about yourself and ways of managing your internal atmosphere.”

You can begin by getting curious about how your inner critic came about. Was it learned from a family member? Whose voice is it? Can you understand its protective function? Was there ever a time it served you? Have there been times it prevented you from doing something you wanted to do? Did you ever regret listening to it?

Next give a name to your inner critic. Now notice where it lives in your body. Perhaps it feels like shame, and if so, how do you recognize that? Maybe it resides in your head? You can move the critic’s voice from your head to your big toe so it’s muffled through your shoe, as Yapko suggests.

Peter Levine, PhD, recommends adding the phrase “I have the thought” before repeating what the critic has just said. This helps distinguish that this is a thought, not a reality. Become aware of the body sensations that occur when you say, “I have a thought that…”

The Critic’s Protective Function

Dan Siegel, MD, teaches that our inner critic is connected to the SAM process – Scan, Alert, Motivate – an ancient protective mechanism, a danger-alert system that has kept us and our ancestors before us alive with wisdom, skill, and persistence. He calls it the checker and has a four-step process to work with it.

First, become aware that you have a voice that’s acting like an inner critic.

Second, give it space to express itself rather than trying to ignore it because you can’t. Recognize that the voice, the checker, may be driven in part by SAM.

Third, engage the checker by asking it questions such as “Tell me what’s on your mind.” You have a dialogue with it, and instead of getting angry, you thank it for helping to keep our ancestors alive. Through this process, you grow a new relationship with the inner critic.

Fourth, you negotiate with it if needed, for example “I see your intention is to protect me, here’s what I’m willing to do”. Finally, you can invite it to take on a new role such as researcher or inner protector. And who doesn’t want an inner protector who’s collected wisdom over millions of years!

We want to appreciate the inner critic and, at the same time, make a boundary because it’s nearly impossible to feel calm and confident when our inner critic is dominating our thoughts. We don’t have to agree with it; it’s just one of many potential perspectives. With practice, we can learn to distinguish when it’s worth listening to and when it’s time to turn down the volume.

For an exercise in mindfulness and to learn a bit more about the inner critic, check out my post, Befriending Your Inner Critic.

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