Working with Your Inner Critic
How to Get Control of Out of Control Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior
We all have one. An inner voice that expresses criticism, frustration or disapproval about our actions – the inner critic. It might sound like, “you should…”, “why didn’t you”, “what’s wrong with you?”, “why can’t you get it together?”, etc.
The actual self-talk of the inner critic is different for each of us. The frequency or intensity of the inner critic can also be different. Regardless, listening to, or buying into the inner critic can be immobilizing.
It is a cultural norm to believe that criticism or guilt-induced comments will motivate behavior. Perhaps the thinking is that if you realize that your actions aren’t good enough or ideal, won’t you want to change? The critic also gives us a sense of control. So others in our lives may make “helpful”, yet critical comments to reinforce and control our behavior or control their feelings.
The Inner Critic Helps Us Cope with Fear and Shame
We can also use judgmental or controlling thoughts with ourselves as a way of coping with fear, shame, and the unknown. For example, if we’re afraid of being judged by others, we can beat ourselves up and demand high standards as a way to protect ourselves from being hurt by others. The logic is, I have to push you to be better so you won’t get rejected.
Over time, these comments (from both others and ourselves) internalize and become our “inner critic.” The persistent negative self-talk that keeps us stuck.
Unfortunately, this type of communication is anxiety provoking and shaming, which actually does the opposite of motivation. It triggers us to avoid, reduce anxiety and stay safe. Avoidance (reducing anxiety) is not the same as motivation to change. Avoidance generally includes things like procrastination, addictive behaviors (such as overeating, grazing when not hungry, drinking, smoking), checking out behaviors such as constantly checking your smartphone, watching excessive TV, or even avoiding the source of the criticism or shame such as the person, activity, place, or even yourself (i.e., staying busy to stay out of your own head.)
Furthermore, if the messages are shaming, such as “what’s wrong with you,” or “you’re not good enough”, we can become paralyzed. When we feel shame, we feel that something about us makes us so flawed that we don’t deserve to be in connection with other people. Shame disconnects us from others and teaches us to feel alone. As humans, we are hardwired at a cellular level for connection. When we feel shame, these feelings physically make us want to go inside ourselves, withdraw, and can further trigger avoidance behaviors as a way to comfort or soothe. The point is that shame and self-criticism keep us from doing the things we need to take care of ourselves and ultimately find comfort, connection and motivation.
How Do You Recognize and Let Go of Your Inner Critic?
The first step is awareness. Many of us don’t even realize the presence of the inner critic. Catch yourself the next time you’re aware of feeling anxious, distracted or numb. Identify the voice of the inner critic. Identify the situation that may have triggered the inner critic. What are your authentic feelings about this situation? Remember, the inner critic helps you to feel in control. So ask yourself, what am I afraid of? What would it mean if that happened? And what would that mean? Allow yourself space to dig deeper and find your most vulnerable feelings about the situation. This is what the inner critic is protecting you from feeling. Do you really need all that protection? Probably not. You can handle it!
Here’s an example:
Jessica went shopping. She didn’t know her sizes at this store and tried on a few things. She thought, “Ugh, these clothes are tight, they don’t fit, I feel like such a failure, I’m so fat and ugly.”
What is she afraid of? I’ve gained weight, which means I’m a failure. It means I’m old. I’m ashamed and scared of getting older and gaining more weight.
What authentic feelings might she be having about this situation that aren’t related to shame triggers? What are her vulnerabilities? (Identify your vulnerability and feel those feelings.)
Jessica says, “I feel out of control, fear, grief/loss. My body is reacting differently than it did in the past. It’s harder to maintain weight/muscle tone, it feels hopeless. I feel afraid, overwhelmed.
What do you really need? Jessica says, “I can deal with it. Acknowledging my vulnerability prompts me to take better care of my health. When I feel worthless, there’s no hope at all. Shame is not motivating.”
Exercise: Working with Your Inner Critic
1. What are some self-criticisms that you are aware of hearing yourself say? Say it in the 2nd person. For example: You’re such a coward. You’re despicable, worthless. Be careful or you’ll get hurt. You should try harder.
2. How do you feel as you hear that? Get in touch with that feeling…
3. What are you afraid of or afraid of feeling? What are some authentic feelings you may be having about this situation that aren’t related to shame triggers?
4. What are some opposite feelings? What are some reactions to these?
5. What do you say to that voice that says you are useless?
6. What do you REALLY need to take good care of yourself? Or, what is it that you REALLY need to hear?
Express this to your inner critic with compassion in the following steps:
1. Express empathy for the fear and out of control feelings of the inner critic: what you felt in step 3 above. For example, “I understand that you are terrified of getting hurt and feeling rejected. I know you’re trying to protect me from those feelings. (It’s important not to just “beat up” the inner critic, it is after all, trying to help you.)
2. Express your reaction (step 4 above). However, your critical voice is not helping. Please do not talk to me that way. It is preventing me from getting what I need, which is to feel connected to others. I will be ok. I will be able to cope with whatever happens.
3. What I really need (step 6 above) is to reach out and connect with others. I don’t have to be afraid nor do I have to deprive myself out of fear.
Four Questions to Address the Inner Critic or Negative Thoughts
Bryon Katie offers four questions to ask yourself when you have negative self-talk or the inner critic. In her book, Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Katie refers to these questions as “The Work”. They are:
1) Is it true?
2) Can I absolutely know it’s true?
3) How do I react when I think that thought?
4) Who would I be without that thought?
The four questions can be used in everyday simple situations when we’re making assumptions about something to the larger questions of life and self-worth such as “I’m unlovable, I’m wrong, or I’m not good enough.” For example, I am working with a client in my office and construction is going on that produces a loud and consistent banging. I am concerned my client is distracted, unable to concentrate and I am not providing a quiet, peaceful place for my clients to feel comfortable. In essence, I am making up a whole story before I even know if it’s true.
Following Byron Katie’s work, I ask myself the four questions.
“Is it true?” I answer myself yes the noise is loud and disruptive.
Second question is “can I absolutely know it’s true?” I don’t know unless I ask!
Third question is “how do I react when I think that thought?” I respond I get preoccupied, distracted, and concerned.
Fourth question is “who would I be without the thought?” I would be calm and focused.
Katie adds a “turnaround”. One example is to show “how does it apply to you in your own life?” Instead of the client being distracted, I recognize that I am the one who is distracted and unable to concentrate.
We can use these four questions to tackle the more complex negative self-talk such as, “Am I worthy?”
Core Beliefs Leading to the Negative Self-Talk of the Inner Critic
Here are some core beliefs the self-talk of the inner critic might be associated with. Essentially they’re in 1 of 2 categories: the bad self, or the weak self.
Core Belief – The Bad Self:
The bad self is based on shame and the belief that one is not good enough. People might see themselves as:
– inferior, and be ashamed of perceived inadequacy
– bad and deserving to be punished, feel guilty all the time
– incompetent for not being the best or for not being as good as others
Core Belief – The Weak Self:
The weak sense of self is based on fear and anxiety and the belief that one is not able to cope and survive on one’s own. People might have the following beliefs:
– dependent, believing that the self needs others to survive
– unable to support himself or herself
– submissive; I must put others’ needs before mine
– expressing my needs or anger will lead to something bad
– the self is vulnerable
– something bad will happen or I will lose control
– beliefs about connection, deprivation, abandonment, lack of trust, and isolation are all associated with the weak sense of self.
Words used: I’ll never get the love I need, I’ll be alone forever, no one will ever accept me.
These beliefs are neither useful nor helpful. They are generally destructive. Practice listening for clues of these beliefs by paying attention to the self-talk of your inner critic over the next few weeks. Challenge those beliefs! They are not true. You ARE worthy, capable, and deserving of love.
For help working with your inner critic, you can schedule an appointment with one of our therapists in Houston by calling 832-559-2622 or clicking here to schedule an appointment online.
Often, people struggling with perfectionism, procrastination, overeating, binge eating, or compulsive eating, have a harsh inner critic. Group therapy programs can be a helpful resource. Click here to find out more about what is available.
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