You know the voice. That one in your head that throws little doubts in your path. You’re no good at this. Why even try? Just give up. That little voice questioning our value is our inner critic.
But what is our inner critic?
First, let’s talk thoughts. We experience our thoughts in two forms, auditory and visual, and one way we experience auditory thoughts is an inner voice we can listen to like anyone else’s voice. But it is not just any voice – it’s us talking to ourselves – a sort of inner narrator to our lives. And frequently, this inner narrator can also be our harshest critic.
It’s not only the words that this inner narrator uses to judge us, but a tone that can be downright mean. This critic may be very familiar, or you may not even notice it droning in the background, but on some level we’re still listening, nonetheless. This undercurrent of critical chatter can be a powerful force in weakening our inner strength and lowering our sense of self-worth.
Are there ways to ignore it?
We have a few options in working with this inner critic. One is to ignore by redirecting our attention away – literally listening to something external – or engaging other sensory doorways of vision, taste, smell or touch to distract ourselves from our inner narrator. Sort of like the way we can use a white noise machine to drown out other noises. This can be a functional short-term solution, but it is not sustainable over longer periods. We need more tools in our “managing the inner critic toolbox” than just ignoring.
How do people move past a critical internal narrative?
For a sustainable approach, the first step is to acknowledge the internal chatter. Taking a step back and listening to both the words and tone of this inner narrator. From this place of awareness, we have a few options. We can reality check what the critic is saying against actual evidence. This is especially important with the “shoulds, nevers, always” kind of thoughts, like “I’ll never be good at this” or “I always embarrass myself.” It’s important to remind ourselves that thoughts are not fact, even when we feel like they are.
Another approach is to offer ourselves some compassion. How would you speak to a close friend or a child? In that scenario, you would never say, “yeah you’re the worst. Just give up.”
Instead, try intentionally extending yourself the same kindness you would to a dear friend. Say to yourself, “I did do my best, this was beyond my control, I do deserve happiness.” This can soften the harsh edges of the inner critic and begin to bring balance to our inner conversation. The challenge is not to turn it into an inner debate – just balancing. If you find your critic retorting with “but…” repeat the compassion.
Finally, a mindfulness approach is to simply observe the statements from a safe distance. We do this by applying a label to the thoughts – “judging, critic, self-defeating” – choosing a label that has meaning for you. You can even get creative: “there’s my Thought Gremlin, at it again!” When we label thoughts or thinking traps like this, it exposes it to the light of day and lessens its capacity to stick around. After a while, these thoughts may even start to get kind of boring “oh, you again.”
Can you change how your inner critic acts over time?
In many ways, our inner critic took years to hone. And it was learned. So, the good news is that anything learned can also be replaced. From a brain perspective, the old adage “neurons that fire together, wire together” fits here. When I let the inner critic run rampant, it has free rein to yack away all the time. As we acknowledge its presence and start to practice giving space for our inner cheerleader and comforter, we reinforce that voice to eventually get more airtime and the critic less. Just like Nielsen ratings – the one with the higher ratings prevails!
By Paul Deger, MA, LPC, PT
Mindfulness Facilitator and Product Manager, Moment Health
Paul Deger has over 30 years’ experience in healthcare. He earned his undergraduate degree in physical therapy at Marquette University. As a physical therapist, Paul has practiced in both inpatient and outpatient rehabilitation settings, specializing in neurological disorders. He furthered his studies in motor learning and control in the graduate physical therapy program at the University of Pittsburgh.
Paul then shifted focus from physical to psychological health and completed his graduate studies at Naropa University, Boulder, earning a Master’s in Mindfulness-Based Counseling Psychology. On retreat, he has also trained in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli of the Center for Mindfulness at University of Massachusetts Medical School and studied in sangha with Lloyd Burton, Dharma teacher from Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Recognizing the impact of spirituality on health, Paul more recently studied pastoral care at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.