An inner critic can be thought of as an aspect of ourselves that holds the criticisms, disapproval, injunctions and complaints that we have internalized over time. When our inner critic is active, we get low and feel “less than”. Sometimes the voice of the inner critic is so convincing that we jump to the conclusion that others are judging us harshly as well and feel even worse.Our colleague and author, David Bedrick, offers some important insights on working with inner criticism to glean value from an often unpleasant experience.
“You’re too fat, skinny, sensitive, insensitive, talkative, quiet, accommodating, needy, angry, sad, logical, emotional….”
The list, the assault, goes on and on. Sometimes the critical voices in our heads never stop; they are never satisfied. In fact, most of what people call low self-esteem is actually a result of incessant inner criticism. While boosting ourselves up is always good when we are not happy with ourselves, this may be equivalent to telling a bullied child that they are beautiful and wonderful only to send them back to school to be bullied again the next day. A sustainable resolution requires dealing with the bully; a sustainable resolution to low self-esteem requires dealing with your inner critic.
While the inner criticism and judgments we suffer from are often harsh, mean spirited, and ignorant, it doesn’t mean they have no use at all. Learning how to engage with the different types of criticisms we suffer from is key.
What does this intervention look like? Here are three types of critical voices (I call them inner critics) and ways to make a real difference in the power those voices have over our lives.
- Inner Critic As Truth Teller
Not all inner criticism is flat out wrong; sometimes there’s a grain or more of truth contained in it. However, often our inner critics are not very good at giving us this feedback in a way that is helpful and constructive. Critics need to give us specific information with specific suggestions about what to do in order to change. When the criticism just makes us feel badly or gives us suggestions that never seem to work, no matter how logical the criticism may seem, then we need to challenge our inner-critics to be more direct, intelligent, caring, and helpful.
For example, if your inner critic were to say to you, “You’re not keeping up!” To learn more, you might ask, “Where am I not keeping up enough? Is it with my ambitions, my self-care, my relationships?
If your inner critic has given you “advice” before and you have never followed through, then you need to challenge your critic by saying, “Why do you think your advice never works? And don’t just tell me that I’m lazy or undisciplined; instead, alter your advice to help me achieve the change you are suggesting.” This is important because inner critics can stick to their advice, or criticism, for years and years and never consider the possibility that their advice is just not helpful. Unfortunately, many of us are so used to accepting the advice and truth of our critics that we readily believe our critic’s explanation of why the advice is not working—an explanation that blames us not the critic.
In order to go one step further when your critic is a truth-teller, begin to use this same truth-telling capacity in giving feedback to others; in other words practice giving other people direct and useful criticism. So instead of having generalized criticisms and judgments of other people, practice honing in on exactly what your judgments are and what you would suggest in order for people to improve. Developing this skill is critical in organizations, in schools, in our families, and in our intimate relationships.
Learning to be a truth-teller with others uses up some of the energy of this kind of inner criticism, lessening the power it has to turn only against us.
- Inner Critic as Ally to Our Authenticity
Some inner critics criticize us as we begin to express our true selves—as we come out more as our selves. In other words, they keep hitting us right where our spirit or authenticity begins to show. For example, if you are a free spirit, your critic may attack your lack of discipline. If you are more non-linear in your approach to life or more focused on the journey than the destination, your critic may attack you for not being more linear or goal-oriented. If you are a feeling-oriented person, your critic may attack you for not being more rational or logical.
You will not silence this kind of critic by resisting it, ignoring it, telling it to shut up, or by attempting to think positively. If you try these strategies, the critic will keep re-emerging like Lazarus coming back from the dead, over and over.
In order to make a more sustainable cessation, you must come to know and live those parts of yourself that your critic is most against, the aspects of you that your critic most fiercely judges. Think of it like a person who is really jealous of a gift you have and therefore can’t stand the fact that you have started to express that gift.
For example, if you have a particular kind of intelligence, then the jealous person might say, “Stop trying to be so smart.” Or if you are reaching for a goal in your life that a person is jealous of, they might say, “You’ll never make it,” or “Your goal is impractical.” It is almost as if the critic is there to point to who you really are, urging you on.
The great poet, teacher, and author Maya Angelou used this kind of criticism as motivation to write her first book. She was was told by her editor that writing an autobiography was “almost impossible”; that she shouldn’t even try it. It turned out that James Baldwin told her editor, “If you want Maya Angelou to do something, tell her she can’t do it.”
- Inner Critic as Ally to your Power
Some critics are just against you no matter what you do. They don’t have a truth to tell you and they aren’t allies for your authenticity. They just don’t like you.
They usually don’t have one theme for their criticism, instead they criticize everything you do. If you eat a bowl of ice cream, they say, “You shouldn’t have eaten that ice cream.” If you don’t eat the ice cream, they say, “Why didn’t you go for what you wanted.” If you speak up, they say, “Why did you have to say that?” And if you don’t speak up, they say, “Why didn’t you speak up?” In short, you can’t win no matter what you do.
However, there is an important quality of these kinds of critics—they are usually fierce, persistent and strong. They stick with their assault, year after year, resistant to being changed. They are like the proverbial immovable object which needs to be met by the irresistable force. What is the irresistible force? YOU!
This critic demands, so to speak, that you wrestle with it, fight with it, as a way to get stronger. It is only when your power equals its power, it is only when you realize that it’s power is your power, that a sustainable peace can be achieved.
The bad news is that this task is difficult and doesn’t usually resolve in short order; in fact, it can take months or even years. The good news is that you are not only freeing yourself from this kind of criticism, you are becoming a much stronger person who can take on many of life’s difficulties with more power, resolve, fortitude, and commitment. As you learn to engage in this wrestling match, you will not only win the battle with your critic, you will be rewarded with a gift that you can access to win many of life’s battles.
Inner criticism is epidemic; it is one of the biggest, but most hidden forms of violence. It is nothing to take lightly. It can keep people lonely because of their discomfort with relating to others. It can keep you from expressing yourself—your beauty, your intelligence, you gifts. It can take the joy and confidence out of even the best of us. And, make no mistake—it can kill.
To take on such a fierce opponent, one must study it. Simply trying to be positive, to be kind to oneself, or to “just say no,” will often not suffice. Get to know your critic, take it seriously, and develop the ability to make a sustainable change in this part of your life. You won’t be disappointed.
This article was originally posted April 30, 2015, in PsychologyToday.com.