The Inner Critic

I’ve noticed a pattern among my clients who have a history of participating in what I call “aesthetic athletics”.  These are activities such as ice skating, equestrian dressage, ballet and gymnastics where mastery and success are evaluated using a subjective assessment of how well the athlete’s performance meets standards of beauty established for the sport.  A “perfect” performance is the goal. I’ve noticed that these clients have very loud inner critics – that is, their inner voices negatively judge and demean them.  This shows up as being very hard on themselves for being anything less than “perfect.” Unlike in aesthetic athletics, there is no common definition of what perfect is – the inner critic’s standard is defined entirely by the individual themselves.  Their inner critic acts like the class bully who berates and belittles them.  They get down on themselves for qualities and abilities that they feel they don’t possess but should possess.  They criticize themselves for not being “better” in regard to the qualities and abilities they do possess.  They are quick to dismiss or minimize their accomplishments.

In my experience as a ballet dancer in my teens, instruction seldom involved praise for what was done well.  Rather, instruction was based on corrections for what did not meet the desired ideal.  In fact, we were encouraged to seek out and crave criticism because we were told that if the teacher took notice of you to correct you, that meant you had potential and were worth him or her taking the time to provide the (negative) feedback.  No wonder we continue to listen to our inner critic!    

It’s not just former aesthetic athletes who succumb to their inner critic.  Everyone has an inner critic to some degree.  If you catch yourself thinking “you should,” “why didn’t you?”, “what’s wrong with you?” or “why can’t you?” that’s your inner critic at work.  The inner critic’s voice (self-talk) is different for each of us. 

Sometimes, the inner critic can be helpful.  For some people, that critical voice may actually be motivating or provide a sense of control.  For others, it may be the voice of reason that prevents them from acting rashly or keeps their ego in check.  I’ve noticed that many of my clients with a loud inner critic are very attuned to the feelings of others, nurturing, complimentary, and kind – perhaps because they know what it feels like to be subjected to negative judgement.

In the extreme, the inner critic can be harmful.  Thoughts influence how you feel and behave.  If these critical thoughts cause fear, guilt or shame, or if the inner critic is constant and persistent, it may cause us to avoid doing the things we need or want to do and can keeps us stuck. That can lead to feeling anxious, paralyzed, withdrawn, burnt-out or alone.  If you find yourself doing a lot of avoiding – which might include procrastinating, engaging in addictive or automatic behaviors (e.g. repeatedly checking your smartphone, or watching excessive TV) or staying constantly busy (to avoid your own thoughts) - your inner critic may be trending toward an unhealthy extreme. 

Here are a few strategies to help deal with your inner critic:

  • As with any pattern or habit, awareness is the first step to recognizing and managing your inner critic.   If you find you are feeling anxious, distracted or numb, try to identify what you are avoiding and why you are avoiding it. Becoming aware of what’s underneath the avoidance may help you to disarm it.
  • Don’t try to eliminate your inner critic – that may actually make it get louder!  Instead, acknowledge and try to understand it.  What does your inner critic say? Does it show up in specific situations? What is important to it?  Listen carefully for when your inner critic is generalizing (“I always”, “I never”), personalizing (“it’s my fault”), or emotionally rationalizing (“I feel X so I must be X”) and gently remind it that these are exaggerations and re-frame the thoughts in a more balanced, realistic manner.    
  • Look more closely at the inner critic.  Just like with the class bully, you may discover fear or insecurity underneath the bully façade.   Ask yourself “what am I afraid of? What would it mean if that happened? And what would that mean?”
  • When you notice your inner critic at work, ask yourself what you would say to a friend or your child if they were having the same thoughts that you are.  Treat yourself as you’d treat a friend.
  • If your inner critic says something that is objectively accurate, remember that you have a choice.  You can let your inner critic bully you into inaction or you can choose to accept your limitation and to work to become better.

While a healthy inner critic can fuel your progress, overly harsh negative self-talk can impede your performance and get in the way of reaching your goals.  As with any polarity, there is a cost to being stuck in a narrow range of behaviors or attitudes at one end of the polarity. Success and satisfaction in life and work depend on our getting to know our inner critic and learning its patterns.  The key is to give yourself the choice to listen to your inner critic when its message is valuable to you and to learn to subdue it when it doesn’t serve you. 


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Debra Doroni is a certified executive and leadership coach. This article is for information purposes only and should not be seen as substitute for medical or therapeutic evaluation and advice.


Sources:

  • Rachel Eddins, “Working with Your Inner Critic,” Psychcentral.com.

  • Amy Morin, "Taming Your Inner Critic: 7 Steps to Silencing the Negativity”, Forbes.com, November 2014.

  • Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., “A Surprising Way to Quiet Your Inner Critic,” Psychcentral.com World of Psychology blog.

  • Wikipedia:  Inner Critic.