How to stand up to your Inner Critic
One day, sometime during your teenage or young adult life, a sinister figure snuck in through the backdoor of your mind. Maybe you remember the exact moment: that painful break-up, the loss of a job, or a failed application to Cambridge.
Perhaps you have no memory of a specific event. Perhaps your application to Cambridge was successful, you are in a stable relationship and you you’ve reached the top of your career-ladder. And yet, that figure still managed to sneak in, draining the joy from any accomplishment or success, constantly putting you down, judging your every move. All of us have a version of that condescending voice living in our minds:
Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to: Your Inner Critic.
How to identify the Inner Critic
Your Inner Critic can take the shape of a voice, a person or thought-process. It is a part of your mind that can make you feel inept, incompetent, miserable, useless, or lazy, or it may be keeping you from feeling a sense of pride in your achievements. We also refer to the inner Critic as negative self-talk, an inner bully, or the judging voice.
For some, this voice is loud and mean:
“Get up, loser! Why are you so lazy!?”
“You can’t do anything right!”
“Is that ALL you managed to do? Why do you even bother trying at all?”
“You are worthless!”
For others, it may be more subtle and dismissive:
“You are just lucky you won that trophy. You won’t be so lucky next time.”
“Don’t get too big-headed now. Pride cometh before the fall.”
“Is this really the best you can do?”
“Oh, you hit your target? meh.”
The Critic is often loudest when life is going well:
Right after you land a dream-client: “They only signed because they’re desperate!”;
on your third date, when the sparks start flying: “This is going too well. She must be stringing you along!”;
just as you reach your goal-weight: “You lost weight? I couldn’t tell, podgy!”
The irony, is that if you heard someone speak to a friend the way your Inner Critic speaks to you, you would not stand for it. And yet, most of us don’t stand up against our Inner Critic.
You shouldn’t take the bullying anymore
I know it’s hard to live in your own head. Our minds have this peculiar habit of magnifying our flaws, and hiding our gifts from ourselves.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I love playing piano. I find great joy from simply letting my fingers run across the black and white keys, improvising soothing melodies. And yet, while I enjoy playing for myself and for others, there is always one unpleasant audience-member in my mind. He used to pipe up whenever I sat down to play, and he would get especially loud when I try to compose something:
“Why are you wasting your time with this?!”
“CLEARLY you are not a professional musician!”
“Here we go again! Wow, how original, Albert. yawn”
This is my Inner Critic, also known as Mr. Peanut Gallery. Nowadays, I don’t hear him that much, and when I do, I kick him out of the auditorium before he even finds a seat. He doesn’t belong there.
You can learn to do the same. No, you should do the same. Because if your Inner Critic is not contained, (s)he will inevitably affect your work, your mental health and even your relationships.
Life without the Critic
Imagine you can get to the end of a week, and simply enjoy all the achievements you’ve had, without anyone knocking your trophies down and berating you.
Imagine you can have a bad day, and just have a bad day. No hard feelings. No excessive guilt. You cut yourself some slack, and you’re back on the field tomorrow, fighting ready.
Imagine you treat yourself the way the dream-parent would treat their child: praising them for their messy drawings, and cheering them over the finish-line (even when they are in 5th place).
It is possible. But it requires a strategy. One of my most precious memories, is of a client of mine who managed to stand up to his Inner Critic. I still remember how he walked into the sun-kissed coaching room, tears in his eyes. As he sat down, he put his hand to his heart, and said:
“Albert, for the first time in 40 years, I was able to just love myself. It was such an incredible feeling. I was just lying on my bed, rested my hands on my chest, and felt this deep sense of warmth and appreciation for myself. It was incredible.”
I want you to experience that same, deep appreciation for who you are.
The strategy to disarm the Critic
The Inner Critic is sly, manipulative and smart. It is a part of your mind that was originally there to help you, but through the years, this agent went rogue. They know all your weak-spots, vulnerabilities and secret compartments, which is why you need to be smart, and pro-active when you push-back.
Identify the voice
The voice of the Critic can sound like the voice of reason. It often sounds clever, authoritative, and can even sound like sensible advice (at first). Your Critic may even be an actual voice of someone from your childhood – a mother, father or teacher – or it could be your own voice. See if you can catch the Critic in the act, by noticing:
- Small ways in which it dismisses your achievements: “Oh, anyone could have done that.” / “That must have been luck.” / “Yes, but…” (Yes, but is SUCH a common way in which the Critic shows up, so keep an ear out for this phrase – not just in your thoughts, but in your words.)
- Judgements: “You should…”; “You should have…”; “Why didn’t you…?”;
- Accusations: “What’s wrong with you?”; “Why can’t you get it together?”; “You’re worthless!”
Personify the Inner Critic
Once you start noticing this voice, it’s important to distance yourself from it. The inner critic isn’t you. The inner critic doesn’t hold true opinions of who you are (although it can feel that way). It is just an unhelpful, and often over-powering part of your mind, that you have given WAY too much control.
Create a little distance between yourself and this part of your mind, by giving your Inner Critic a silly nickname. I encourage you to even visualise what the Critic’s voice sounds like, and what it looks like. Some people envision their critic as an evil cartoon-character, a tiny drill-sergeant or an angry gnome. Dress them up, make them harmless, make them look funny and make them small. This exercise may sound silly (and chances are that your Inner Critic is piping up right now: “That is ridiculous!”). But, trust me, it is incredibly powerful.
(My Inner Critic is Mr Peanut-Gallery: a tiny, stubby, sweaty man who carries massive boxes of pop-corn around, yelling insults at me.)
Step into your power and start pushing back!
Once your Inner Critic has a name, a face, a look, a voice: it is much easier to push back. Otherwise, it will just feel like you’re fighting yourself in the dark. This isn’t Fight Club: it’s bootcamp for your mind.
- “Shut up!” Yes, by saying this out loud, you activate a new neural pathway that acknowledges your own power, and capacity to stop the critical voice. You put a stake into the ground, refusing to take the Criticism.
- Visualise the inner critic next to you on the floor, and just shush him.
- Say out loud: “Mr Whiney Face (or your chosen name), can you keep quiet!? I’m trying to work! You are NOT helping – you’re interfering.”
- Grab a pen and paper, imagine your version of the Critic is sitting on the couch, and say: “Okay, okay, clearly you have a lot on your mind. Let me take down notes while you speak.” then, write down everything the critic has to say. When they’re done, say thank you, and discard the piece of paper.
- Build a case against the Critic. You could also do the same exercise: let the Critic talk, take notes, and then – instead of discarding the paper – start building a case against every point raised. You will be surprised how irrational, unrealistic and extreme the Inner Critic’s opinions can be.
- Argue against the Inner Critic with: “So, how is that helpful? If you want me to do better, how about something that is constructive?” or “Come back when you have something to say that I can actually USE. Now LEAVE!” or “Is that really true? Think a bit more clearly now. You’re being irrational. What would a reasonable helpful response sound like?”
The gist of it, is that you can be playful, creative, sassy, aggressive and powerful. You can use your imagination, your wit, your skills against the Critic. The power of the Inner Critic lies in deception. Once the Critic is exposed, the noise of that berating voice starts sounding silly.
Cultivate the Inner Nurturer
The Critic is only one character in our minds. Unfortunately, for many, this character is often the loudest, and tends to run (and ruin) the show. Another way to work against the Critic, is to develop the other characters. Maybe you have a memory of someone in your life who was a nurturing figure to you? It could be your mom, gran, aunt or dad, or it could even be a character in a movie, or a friend who made you feel supported, cared for and loved. Someone who, when you think of them, gives you the feeling that you are good enough just as you are; that nothing about you needs to change or improve.
Make this character as vivid as possible. You can amplify them to a big mother figure, a giant fluffy bear or just a normal-sized human. In the same way that you minimise the Critic and make it a comical character that can’t be taken seriously, you do the opposite with this character: Give them a voice, authority, power and presence.
When you hit a low, and the inner critic pipes up, imagine what your Inner Nurturer would say. If it’s hard to imagine, think about what you would say to someone else if they feel down, or if they beat themselves up. Think about what you would want to offer a friend who feels they can’t do anything right. Ask yourself: “What do I want to hear?”
At first, developing your Inner Nurturer may feel strange, insincere, or even uncomfortable. That is absolutely normal. As with any new skill, you will initially feel clumsy, self-conscious and awkward. And yet, nurturing is one of the most fundamental qualities of being human. When you were born, your first instinct was to be nurtured and fed. You can trust the same instinct is still alive in you, and may just need to be dusted off and cultivated.
Collect your badges of honour
Another strategy of the Critic, is to dismiss all our accomplishments. When I work with people on this issue, it is fascinating how easily and quickly they can tell me all the ways they could have done things better. When I ask “What did you do well this week?” they go quiet. Their mind draws a blank and they have to think hard to try and remember any achievement. Not because there’s nothing there, but the Critic has hidden all their trophies in the basement of their mind, often with the phrase: “You don’t deserve them anyway!”
Don’t let it happen! Claim back your accomplishments!
Spend 2 minutes at the end of each day, writing down your accomplishments. What counts as accomplishments?
- Any act of kindness
- Any good action you have taken.
- Any task or chore you had done, when it was hard to do at the time. (One day, an accomplishment may be closing a deal, on another day, it may be getting out of bed.)
- Every action, gesture or achievement you were commended for by colleagues, friends and family.
- Any skill, or positive quality or attribute.
The key here, is to give yourself excessive credit: Give yourself kudo’s for taking it slow. Give yourself a star for not punching your unreasonable manager in the face. Your Inner Critic will start to pipe up LOUDLY if you do this. It will try to dismiss every compliment, diminish every achievement and discount any success. IF that happens, WELL DONE. It means you are actually putting up a real fight against that bully, and it is a fight worth winning.
What happens if you don’t stand up for yourself
Many of us recognise our inner critic. We say: “It’s relentless”; “It’s just the way I am”; “I’ve just always been hard on myself, but I’m not like that with anyone else.”
Most people don’t have a strategy to fight back. They don’t even try. Some of us feel attached to the Critic – we believe that it is this voice that pushed us to succeed in life, so we may fear standing up to them.
This is simply not true.
The truth is: if you don’t start working actively to bring balance and nurturing into your mind and experience; if you don’t put Mr. Peanut Gallery in his place, it could lead to:
What happens to a 15-year old boy who struggles to play football, if you criticise him for every mistake? If everyone on the side-line is dead quiet, and only screams at him when he makes a mistake, can you imagine how well he will play? When no-one cheers him for the goals he shoots? It would break his confidence. If not in one match, it would erode him over time, and he would give up on football altogether. Criticism doesn’t work. Encouragement and motivation does. So, the same rules apply to you: if you don’t kick that inner-critic off the field or at least put him in his place, the voice will beat you down until you give up on yourself.
Perfectionism sucking the joy out of life
Have you ever gone to a restaurant with a hyper-critical person? Isn’t it awful that, just when you bite into the flavoursome snack, they start listing ALL the ways in which the food here is ‘average’: “This is way too salty…”; “that is not nearly as good as…”; “I could have made this at home…” That whiney voice takes away all the enjoyment off the experience. What do you do with that person? You stop inviting them out. Do the same with your Critic. Stop inviting them to every event. They only have one purpose: to suck the enjoyment out of every experience.
There is research to back this one up, but common sense can tell you that, if you live with someone who always breaks you down, your mood will eventually crumble. If that someone lives in your head, you better make a plan to evict them, or at least shut them up!
Break-down in relationships
It takes a lot of energy to keep all that negative energy inside. When we are tired or stressed, our Inner Critics start slipping out. What we think of ourselves, we start projecting on others: and the people closest to you will suffer. Don’t let it get to that point! You can fight back. Just start to take a stand.
How I can support you
If you enter a boxing ring, you need a coach. The coach teaches you techniques, makes sure you stay fit and hydrated, and helps you defend your blind-spots. The coach also trains you on how to understand your opponent.
Sparring in our minds with a hefty force like the Critic, can be much harder than external fights: it can be tricky to know your opponent, and differentiate between the helpful and unhelpful aspects of yourself. If you go at it alone, you run the risk of giving up, or beating yourself up more: “Why can’t I do this Inner Critic thing right!? I’m so useless!”
My role is to help you strategise your approach, so you can be precise, efficient, smart and resourceful. I also help protect you from yourself! As part of the process, I often introduce embodiment techniques, and specific blocks that may be keeping you from standing up for yourself.
If you’ve read this far, I would love to do a free 30-minute sample-session with you. No cost, no commitment: I just want you to get a flavour of what the work might be like, and give you a few pointers on how to stand up for yourself more effectively.
You have a lot to offer the world. More importantly – you have a lot to offer yourself. Don’t miss out – put on those boxing gloves today, and let’s win this!