No one ever told me that I have an inner critic. I thought that voice in my head was just me.
But it’s not me. And it’s not you.
You know the voice I am talking about. The one that thinks everyone else has their lives totally together, that you are one misstep away from total embarrassment or failure, or worse, you already embarrassed yourself or failed and everyone is judging you and there’s NO RECOVERY.
…At least, that’s the spiral that my voice sometimes takes me down. My little imperfections = total inadequacy, according to my inner critic.
This post is about learning to recognize, separate from, dialogue with, and understand your inner critic. I feel like a lot of us are drawn to “quick tips” and “simple steps” lists online when it comes to achieving full happiness. I remember when I thought if I could just find the secret “thing,” I’d figure out how to feel amazing all the time. But it doesn’t work like that, and I’m glad.
Engaging with your inner critic is a daily practice, one that takes patience and a lot of self-love. Learning to engage with yours will make you stronger and wiser than you ever knew you could be. It will also help you learn acceptance, which then leads to a state of peace and sanity. Some of what I’ve learned is simple, but remember that simple is never the same as easy.
First, you must recognize that you have a voice that is your inner critic. What does it say to you? When does it say these things, i.e. what are its triggers? What are its expectations? What feelings arise in you when you listen to it? What are your physical symptoms when you listen to it?
The first time I was able to recognize that this voice was not me was when I started listening to The Lively Show. Jess differentiates between our ego and intuition in the sense that the ego is the fearful “lizard brain” part of our minds and the intuition is the deep well of wisdom we all have–the heart or the spirit, maybe. In Jess’s conception, the ego is deeply afraid of the unknown; it’s the part of our mind that used to prevent us from running away from the tribe unprotected because we might become dinner for a lion. Nowadays, we don’t have lion attacks to fear, but we still fear the unknowability of becoming separated from “the tribe,” so to speak. We fear ridicule, judgment, failure, etc.
I very much subscribe to Brené Brown’s thesis that shame is at the center of all our fears. She explains that shame is essentially the fear of being unlovable. It’s the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Does this resonate with anyone? Because it does with me.
I can boil down everything my inner critic has ever said to me to the basic fear that if I put myself out there, try something new, show my authentic self, or put myself in a place of vulnerability where I become open to judgment from others, the whole world will find out that I am not worthy, that I am not lovable, that I am not good enough, that I am a fraud.
If you find that most of the time you feel bored or numb or stuck or sad, you might be letting your inner critic run the show. You might be letting your inner critic “protect” you from your greatest life because your greatest life involves pursuing your ambitions, speaking up, and putting yourself out there in a way that risks failure, rejection, or criticism. Putting yourself out there against your inner critic’s wishes risks subjecting ourselves to judgment from the stands, and if it’s judgment from the stands that you fear or that you let crush you, then you don’t act or speak up.
My inner critic looks to the future and tells me I’m not smart enough to share my idea in seminar. Not prepared enough to teach my class. Not credible enough to give my presentation. Not skinny enough to get away with those jeans. Not interesting enough to reach out and try to make friends with that person.
She also looks to the past and asks, why did you say that? They’re all judging you. They’re all laughing at you. I can’t believe you thought that was a good idea. He or she hates you now. You have ruined that relationship. Everyone now knows you’re a failure and a fraud.
My inner critic is worried about what other people think. She is obsessed with what other people are doing, and she believes everyone else is happier, more successful, and more confident than I feel–therefore, I must be doing something wrong. She is my harshest critic, saying things to me I would never say to anyone else. She expects I will fail. She thinks I should have done something differently. She’s afraid of the future. She doesn’t know what’s coming and, really, wants to protect me from the unknown. She think we live in a black and white world: either I’m a massive success or a massive failure, unbelievably gorgeous or disgustingly unattractive, amazingly intelligent or barely functioning, super productive or totally lazy. There are no in-between states.
She is the voice of no. Not good enough. Don’t.
She criticizes me for listening to her in the first place. And she has the ability to make everything seem ten times worse than it actually is. My worry level is about a two? She can ratchet it up to a ten in five minutes, no problem.
The feelings that arise for me when I let her run the show are so soul-crushingly painful that I become paralyzed with inaction. My whole body tenses up, especially my face. I used to be plagued with terrible colds, headaches, insomnia, pain in my jaw from clenching my teeth, and a racing heart. But not anymore.
The good news is that once you recognize your inner critic, you can begin to separate from the voice. Separating from mine has opened up my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined six months ago. I’ve found a few ways to separate from her in order to free myself up for action, belonging, and love.
First, I defined who my inner critic is. Tara Mohr, among many others, suggests creating a character for the voice in order to differentiate it more clearly. This character will be different for each of us. Some women describe a mean-looking woman standing in a kitchen, gesticulating wildly with a spatula. Others imagine their own version of Regina George. Some women even imagine a man, like an older professor figure or boss. Still others realize the voice is that of their own mother. I recognized that the voice of my inner critic is a 15-year-old girl, maybe even me, who is deeply afraid that the world is going to find out that she is not lovable or that she is not smart. She’s a scared, unconfident teenager who wants everyone to like her.
By imagining this character, I actually start to feel sorry for my inner critic. I see that she’s afraid and just trying to protect me. Like a teenager, she just wants to fit in.
Through empathy with her, I’ve been able to reality-check her and show her that putting myself out there doesn’t make the world stop spinning. Separate from your own voice, find out who he or she is, and ask what he or she wants for you. Try to see how what she wants is holding you back from your dreams and ambitions, from feeling joyful and fulfilled every day. If I hide to appease this girl inside me, I will feel stuck and unfulfilled for the rest of my life. And I don’t want that. I don’t want to let fear dictate my actions.
You can also try mapping out what your critic thinks is going to happen vs. what realistically will actually happen to separate yourself from the voice. Remember that your thoughts about your circumstances create your experience. Here’s an example:
Letting the critic dominate
- Circumstance: You’re about to give an important presentation.
- Thought about that circumstance: I am going to royally screw this up and everyone will know I’m a fraud.
- Feeling that results from that thought: Fear, shame, sadness.
- Action you take as a result of that feeling: Avoid practicing the presentation because you can’t face your own potential “failure.”
- Result: Maybe not as great a presentation as you could have given.
Separating from the critic
- Circumstance: You’re about to give an important presentation.
- Thought about that circumstance: This is scary, but I know that I can prepare and do the best I can. I can’t worry about the reaction in the stands; I will focus on what’s in my control.
- Feeling that results from that thought: Determination, acceptance, willingness, courage, peace.
- Action you take as a result of that feeling: Practice the presentation a few times, smile at yourself in the mirror, do a few power poses, take deep breaths.
- Result: A presentation that goes totally fine.
Once you’ve separated from the critic, the more you can dialogue with her, the better you’ll get at managing your relationship with her.
Creating the character is a great first step. Whenever she starts talking, you can say hello, using a name you’ve made up for her. Or, you can simply say, “Hello, voice of impending doom. So nice to hear from you.”
Name your emotions. Name your triggers. Labeling and naming dissipates the power of our feelings, enabling us to act when previously we would have frozen up. Some like to keep a notebook and record the circumstances that make the critic show up, as well as what it says, and the feelings that arise around its monologue. Then they write down why the voice is being unreasonable.
Brené suggests a few other ways of engaging with our shame or fear of shame. Can you acknowledge your hurt without running from it? In other words, can I acknowledge to myself what exactly I am worried about–what I think will happen or did happen? Can I momentarily lean into that feeling, and then move gently away from it? Or, can you acknowledge your hurt without hurting back? In other words, can I recognize what I’m worried or angry about without beating myself up? Or without beating up someone else? If you get an email that seems to undermine your competence, do you immediately start in on the self-lecture? “Mallory, you really screwed up on this one. Should have accounted for that issue in the original email. Idiot.” Or do you fire an email back to the person, letting them know just what you think of his or her competence? Are either of these responses super productive?
(Note: this happened the other day in my side hustle of tutoring. I walked away from the email, and a few hours later, the person emailed back, apologizing for what may have come off as undermining me. I didn’t lecture myself, and although I felt angry for a time and really wanted to fire something snarky back, I didn’t. And it fixed itself.)
In dialogue with your critic, you can also cultivate an awareness of your typical shame response. Brené describes three common ways we all deal with shame.
- Moving away from others by withdrawing, hiding, silencing, and keeping secrets.
- Moving toward others by trying to appease and please.
- Moving against others by trying to gain power over them, being aggressive, using shame to fight shame.
Do you recognize your own response there? I am a hardcore appeaser and pleaser. I used to try to mask my sense of my own imperfections by trying to be everything to everyone. The best friend, the best student, the best teacher, the best girlfriend, the best daughter, the best tutor, the best cook, the best at the gym… Guess how long someone can sustain that? Yeah. Inevitable breakdown.
You probably know others who fit into the other response types: those who are deeply guarded, never showing vulnerability, or those who often try to dominate the room, dominate the outcome, or cut you down to make themselves feel better.
You can also ask yourself if you typically judge and cut down others. Dig deep, get really uncomfortable, and ask yourself if you do that because they’re holding up a mirror to you. Does someone else’s success highlight your perceived lack of success? What is your typical reaction?
If you can recognize these responses and get into dialogue with yourself about them, you can start making moves toward more healthy responses to your inner critic. The final step I recommend here is just reaching out and connecting. Call or text a trusted friend and OWN YOUR SHAME. Let them know what’s going on. Bathe in the warmth of sharing your story with someone you know is going to empathize with you. Not someone who’s going to say, “Oh, you poor thing,” or “You’re overreacting,” or even someone who will offer advice. State that all you want is support and find someone who will say, “Yeah, girl. Been there. Let’s get it out.” Nothing feels better than knowing we’re not alone, that someone else gets it, and that we will be okay.
(And yes, I recognize the gendered nature of seeking support vs. seeking solutions. Just be sure to tell your interlocutor which you’re seeking. And what you’re seeking may shift as the conversation progresses.)
I remember when I started my MA and then when I started my PhD, the two biggest turning points for me in terms of coping were finding that person (or that tribe of people). When you find the person to talk to, the one who says, “Yeah, I’m experiencing or have experienced all those things you’re feeling, I get it, it’s the worst, let’s talk about it,” you feel a sudden sense of relief wash over you. You know you’re not alone.
Understand that your inner critic, your ego, whatever you want to call it, just wants to protect you. It’s deeply worried about the unknown and about rejection, and it wants to prevent you from experiencing pain. But understand that with self-compassion, you can put yourself out there, and even if you do experience setbacks, it’s not the end of the world. You’re not kicked out of the tribe.
Here are a few ways I’ve come to understand and relate to my inner critic:
I thank her for her concern, but then let her know I’ve got this. Instead of trying to fight her, I see her as my ally. “Hi, again. Listen, I’m so grateful you showed up today. I know this is going to involve putting our authentic selves up for judgment, but you know what? It’s going to be okay. I’m okay. You’re okay. Thank you.”
I consider what’s in my control. I listened to this amazing guided meditation on Insight Timer the other day about the emotional turmoil that comes with forcing action through willpower or Big Effort. It asked what the point is of working ourselves into a frenzy over something so unreliable and uncontrollable as the reactions of other people or the future. You must investigate the object you’re attached to, see how unreliable it is, how you can’t control it, how it’s not yours, and let it go.
Chel Hamilton has a great guided meditation on this as well. She suggests that to create positive pictures of the future, we let go of what other people are thinking, feeling, or saying about us. Instead, imagine yourself doing concrete, positive actions that are part of the process, rather than the result. If you’re worried about a presentation, imagine yourself greeting the audience and smiling, clicking through your slides, calmly going through your notecards, and closing. That picture is all within your control. Don’t imagine the audience or their thoughts.
I detach from outcomes and results. Leaning into process rather than outcomes is a great way to understand and relate to your inner critic as well. The critic is most often concerned with results. But you can concern yourself with process and let go of results. Imagine that something doesn’t lack the qualities you think it should have. It just is. I could tell myself I’m not getting through my exam reading fast enough. Or, I could say the current pace of my exam reading just is. I don’t assign a value judgment to it; it’s neither good nor bad. This helps me get my momentum back.
I also understand that feelings don’t last forever. Have you ever had a feeling last forever? Most likely not. I accidentally shared the class website for the class I’m TAing for before the semester started, and the old final was on there. All the students downloaded it, and the instructor was miffed at me because now we have to write a new final. Did I totally wallow in embarrassment when all of this was coming to light? Yes. Was I able to detach from the feeling knowing it would go away and we would all move on soon? Yes. In the past, I would have berated myself all day, probably cried, climbed into bed and ignored the world. But I just moved on knowing everyone else would, too.
Can you objectively narrate events to yourself? Rather than jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, can you just state what’s happening? “I shared my blog with some friends today.” Not: “I shared my blog with some friends today, and now everyone is going to think I am weird and possibly incompetent.”
I ask for what I need. Rather than living in fear of rejection or derision, I simply ask for help. I ask for support. I admit my mistakes. I ask others, and I ask myself. I’ll write whole journal entries in the morning asking myself for compassion when the critic is gaining steam. Rather than assuming my advisor is going to think I’m a complete idiot, I tell him I don’t know which of the seven novels by this one author I should put on my exam list. And guess what happens when you ask for help and support? You usually get it. And what doesn’t happen? Rejection and derision. At the very least, someone might deny you help. But they won’t tell you that you’re a failure and a fraud. I promise. And guess what happens when you admit you made a mistake? Everyone moves on.
Congratulations if you made it this far! This is probably my longest post to date. It took me four days to decide what material I wanted to include and then write the thing. Normally, I can write a post in the span of a long morning. I’m not sure what made it so difficult to write this. I think I attached a lot of importance to this topic because I know it’s something everyone struggles with, and it’s something I’ve done a lot of thinking about, so I had more resources to turn to and it felt kind of overwhelming.
I want you, dear reader, to know that if you can recognize, separate from, dialogue with, and understand your inner critic, you will start to feel more peaceful overall. It’s not that I am suddenly this super confident, aggressive go-getter, never feeling any shame or pain. I just accept situations for what they are. I don’t judge them as good or bad; they just are. My thoughts, and my thoughts alone, are what determine the reality around my circumstances as well as my emotional state related to those circumstances, which in turn affects my actions.
I have gained a lot of control over my emotional state and thus my life since identifying my inner critic. I hope you can, too.
My next post is going to be about the voice inside you that is the opposite of the critic, the voice that can save your life. Stay tuned!
And talk to me in the comments! Do you know your inner critic? How do you deal with it? Will you try any of these strategies? Thanks, as always, for reading.