All of us have an inner critic and many of us are unaware of how strong this inner critic is and its influence on us.
The inner critic’s voice is the automatic thoughts that run through our minds so quickly that we often do not actually hear them. The words of the inner critic are like the words on an old tape or record that continues to play in our heads, sometimes playing louder, sometimes playing quietly, but always having an impact on us.
This inner critic can lead to increased anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, difficulties in relating to others, poor performance at work or school, etc. It can also make it harder for you to overcome difficulties or traumatic experiences.
This inner critic develops from our experiences in life and takes on the voices and opinions of others we interacted with as we grew up. It may develop from the things other people actually said to us, such as a sibling saying "You are so stupid" or a teacher saying "Your work is always so sloppy.” It can also come from messages we received by watching other people’s reactions, such as a parent looking annoyed when you approached him or her (the message received being "You are annoying or a bother) or peers ignoring you (the message received being "You are not likable).
Part of my work with clients is to help them begin to slow down their automatic thoughts, the thoughts that occur without any effort and awareness, long enough that they can begin to actually “hear” them and therefore have an opportunity to begin questioning if these thoughts are 100% valid. Frequently these automatic thoughts are very absolute or black and white and they allow no room for any self-acceptance and compassion.
For example, if you are faced with a difficult situation, you may automatically think "I can't handle this; I'm too stupid to figure this out. I’ve always been weak." In reality, though, when you slow your automatic thoughts down long enough to hear and question them, you also know that you have figured out many difficult tasks and that in the past you knew who to go to for help or where to look for the answers.
To begin talking back to your inner critic and squelching the automatic thoughts that diminish your ability to reach goals and live life fully, try the following steps:
Create two columns on a piece of paper. The left column will be for tracking your automatic thoughts or the words of your inner critic. The right column will be for tracking more logical and balanced thoughts - thoughts that are more reasonable and compassionate.
Now, track and write down what the inner critic is saying to you. For example, "You flunk at everything you try. Why bother trying now."
Now imagine these thoughts belonged to a close friend and your friend was sharing these thoughts with you. What could you say in response that would be helpful and more compassionate? For example, "It may be true that you haven't done everything perfectly, but you have achieved goals you wanted to. You have done things in the past well, such as ________, __________, __________."
The final step uses a technique I've written about before in a previous blog post (A New Twist on Anxiety-Reducing Self-Talk) and one that is suggested by PsychAlive (reference and link below). Notice how these statements are written. They are written using "You" and not "I." By writing these statements in the non-first-person perspective (i.e., You may feel stupid, but in fact, you have done many things that prove you are not stupid), and using them in the same way to talk to yourself, it helps to create some personal distance from the statements. This can make it easier for you to actually her and listen to these more helpful thoughts.
These are some basic strategies for conquering your inner critic and beginning to re-write our automatic thoughts. Although these strategies are basic and seemingly simple, they are not always easy to actually do. Additionally, the level of effort you put into these strategies will determine how much you actually benefit from them.
If you are like me, and benefit more when you receive support in what you are learning or when you are trying something new, then please feel free to contact me and ask about how we can work together to begin defeating your inner critic and strengthen your inner compassionate and more reasonable friend.
In addition to this post, you can view a helpful video I came across that also addresses how to conquer your inner critic. This video is called The Critical Inner Voice – WhiteBoard Animation. It put out by Dr. Lisa Firestone from PsychAlive,org. PsychAlive is a free, nonprofit resource created by the Glendon Association. This video also discusses steps very similar to what I suggested above.