How To Talk To Your Inner Critic

What is the “Inner Critic” and how can you counteract its nefarious ways? 
“You’re not good enough.” 
“Everybody’s talking about you.” 
“Uh, you’re such a loser.” 
While these phrases might remind you of the boisterous mocking of the “Plastics” from the cult classic “Mean Girls” (am I dating myself?), these phrases are actually meant to refer to the insidious whispers many of us hear inside our own heads. And if this resonates for you, take solace in the fact that you’re not alone. But what exactly is this frustrating judge and jury in our minds and what can we do to loosen its grip?  

What is the Inner Critic? 

Imagine a young sapling, tender and fragile, swaying in the wind. The sapling needs a stake for support to grow upright, to withstand the gusts and breezes. As language develops, an internal language begins to form and becomes that supportive stake, helping you navigate the winds of life. It’s there to help guide your growth, discern safe from unsafe and “right” from “wrong” (or at least, what you’ve been told fits those delineations). But over time, as the winds grow stronger and more complex – swirling with expectations, comparisons, and judgments – that  supportive stake might become a restrictive tether, stunting your growth rather than aiding it. This is the formation of the inner critic. You see, the inner critic is not inherently malevolent. It’s born from a place of protection, a sentinel guarding against potential hurt and harm. But as we gain more experiences with negative outside voices, and more experiences of internalizing the judgements and evaluations that often precede these voices, our inner critic grows, oversteps its boundaries, and it morphs into a barrier, holding you back from blooming fully into your authentic, vibrant self. 

“So, how do I deal with it?” 

The first step is in knowing that it’s there. In cognitive behavioral therapy, the thoughts of the inner critic are categorized as one of a number of Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs), or the form of thinking that just happens, rather than the form of thinking that you make happen. And in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, the conscious ability to separate ourselves from these  thoughts and see them as words in our mind, rather than Capital “T” Truth coming down from  on high, is known as Defusion. Both of these modalities rely on a version of “mindfulness” or the non-judgmental noticing of inner thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
To better understand the difference between your thoughts, let’s do an experiment. Right now, take a moment and imagine a purple elephant. If you did, you just engaged what is often referred to as your “directed” thought-process, or the act of sending your thoughts in a specific direction at a particular goal. Now, what thoughts arise when I say: “Sadness.” 
This engages your far more prevalent automatic thought process. Any number of “sad” things might have come to your mind, and don’t worry, I won’t run through a list of examples. Suffice it to say, there are a seemingly infinite number of paths your brain might have followed after reading the word “sadness,” and on any given day or at any given time, it will follow any number of them. Those are automatic thoughts. Your inner critic is one manifestation of, generally inward focused (but also at times other focused) automatic thoughts. Meaning, they arise without you meaning or wanting them to. But now that you know it’s there, you have a choice in how you interact with it. 

Really? I have a choice? 

You bet. Let’s return to the concept of Defusion. See, most of us just take for granted that the  voice in our head is telling us the truth. It has wisdom to share, and if that wisdom just happens  to be that “I’m a loser,” well, then I’d better listen. But what if it wasn’t telling you something  you had to listen to. What if it’s no different than any other time your inner voice speaks up, like  when it kicks up song lyrics? You’re certainly not going to listen to it demand that you’re “livin’ on a prayer,” right? So why believe it when it says you’re a loser? 
If the concept of choice is still a little uneasy, let’s try another experiment. Picture a set of noise canceling headphones. Envision yourself sliding them on, tuning into the melody of your authentic and directed voice, while turning the volume down on the inner critic. You can’t stop  it from talking, but you can learn to tune it out and focus on what’s important to you. And if this feels challenging, don’t worry. It’s a skill and skills take practice.  
When dealing with the inner critic, it’s really all about acknowledging its presence, understanding its origins, and then gently yet firmly setting the boundaries. You’re saying to yourself: “Ah, I see it there, and I know what it is and what it’s doing. I’m going to pay attention to what’s important to me over here now.”  
As you navigate this path of acknowledging, understanding, and redefining, remember to cradle yourself in compassion. Remind yourself, “I am learning, I am growing, I am enough.” Let this be your mantra, a gentle balm to the stings of the inner critic. Bear in mind the words of renowned psychologist Carl Rogers: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” 
If you’re ready to take control of your inner critic, click here to learn more about the many wonderful therapists here at Lifeologie Counseling. Working with an expert is the best way to understand how our minds work and learn practical skills to make challenging internal experiences like the inner critic a pain of the past.

About Richard Aab

Richard Aab, LCMHCA, has a BFA in Theatre from NYU and received his Clinical Mental Health Counselor, M.Ed. (Master’s in Education) from North Carolina State University. He is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate (LCMHC-A) and Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). Richard has a deep commitment to working with individuals overcoming developmental and childhood trauma, and he combines cutting-edge, neuroscientific research with traditional existential and behavioral therapeutic modalities. He is supervised by Elizabeth Grady, LCMHCS, and sees adult clients by telehealth.

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