Johnathan Thomas, MBA, PhD, D.DIV
Unruly beings are like space.There’s not enough time to overcome them.Overcoming these angry thoughts.Is like defeating all of our enemies.—Shantideva
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 are not 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 are 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 will not 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 do not 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?
How do we understand and confront our own inner critic? How do we talk back rather than sit still for the lies and half-truths?
The first step is awareness. Many of us do not even realize the presence of the inner critic. Catch yourself the next time you are 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 is an example:
Shannon went shopping. She did not 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 have gained weight, which means I am a failure. It means I am old. I am ashamed and scared of getting older and gaining more weight.
What authentic feelings might she be having about this situation that are not related to shame triggers? What are her vulnerabilities? (Identify your vulnerability and feel those feelings.)
Shannon says, “I feel out of control, fear, grief/loss. My body is reacting differently than it did in the past. It is harder to maintain weight/muscle tone, it feels hopeless. I feel afraid, overwhelmed.
What do you really need? Shannon says, “I can deal with it. Acknowledging my vulnerability prompts me to take better care of my health. When I feel worthless, there is no hope at all. Shame is not motivating.”
Note: Shame is the opposite of loving.
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 are such a coward. You are despicable, worthless. Be careful or you will 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 are not 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 and love 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 are trying to protect me from those feelings. (It is 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 do not have to be afraid nor do I have to deprive myself out of fear.
The inner critic is the main culprit. He or she has believed the myth and now seeks to prove it. This internalized criticism-self-shaming-induces us to fear our own inner motives and impulses and to turn against them. We become judges and executioners rather than a caring watchdog for or fair witnesses of our behavior. Inner beliefs become so habitual that we come to believe they are valid. Inner judgments become so habitual that we come to believe they are deserved.
Our importance on the inner critic cannot preclude an honest look at ourselves: We can still grow so much in self-knowledge by being ruthlessly honest with ourselves. We can indeed be arrogant, mean, prone to repetition of mistakes, selfish in our demands of others. We have been this way before and can be again. We seek neither punishment nor full pardon but openness to our ongoing human condition of confusion and misdeeds. We grow SPIRITUALLY when we balance our willingness to admit our flaws with a commitment to keep working on ourselves. Indeed, commitment means continual dedication to the work, not once and for all accomplishment. That dedication is such a clearly lighted and direct path to serenity, sanity, and awakening.
Finally, people with a strong inner critic are often also hypercritical of others. It is a spiritual practice to check in with ourselves, to examine our words and behavior and notice if we are being judgmental. The danger in judging others is threefold:
- We hurt people’s feelings.
- When we see others as stereotypes or jump to conclusions about them, we may not grasp what they have come to teach us. We also miss out on intimate moments with them on noticing how unique, how touching their story is. These are the qualities that can open us to compassion.
- When we criticize, we stand to lose compassion for the difficult conditions that are behind what others may do.
The less we criticize, the more compassion and loving-kindness can arise in our hearts. Could it be that we judge others so that we will not feel the full impact of that power of love? Could it be that others criticize us because they want to love us quite so much?
Meditation: Remembering Your Goodness
If you find yourself ruminating on the things you regret and the mistakes you have made, try this exercise. It will help you redirect your attention and remember goodness within. The point is not to deny your mistakes, but if you keep rehearsing them, analyzing them, creating stories around them, you are simply reinforcing the pain and alienation they have already caused you. When you recognize and reflect on even one good thing about yourself, you are building a bridge to a place of kindness and caring. Standing in that place increases your ability to look honestly and directly at whatever is difficult and gives you the energy and courage to move forward.
When you recognize and reflect on even one good thing about yourself, you are building a bridge to a place of kindness and caring.
- Sit comfortably in a relaxed, easy posture and close your eyes. Now bring to mind one thing you have done or said recently that you feel was kind or good.
- It does not have to be newsworthy! Maybe you smiled at someone or listened to their story, maybe you let go of your annoyance at a slow checkout clerk, maybe you were generous, maybe you sat down to meditate, maybe you thanked a bus driver. It is not conceit or arrogance to consider these things. It is nourishing and replenishing to take delight in the good that moves through us.
- Or you might think of a quality or skill in yourself that you like or appreciate perhaps you are enthused about helping others learn or committed to practicing patience toward your irascible neighbor.
- If you still find yourself caught up in self-criticism, turn your attention to the mere fact that you have an urge toward happiness. There is kindness and beauty in that. Or simply recall that all beings everywhere want to be happy, everybody wants to be happy.
- Never feel ashamed of your longing for happiness. Recall that this is your birthright. Seeking happiness is not the problem. The problem is that we often do not know where and how to find genuine happiness and so make the mistakes that cause suffering for ourselves and others. But that urge toward happiness itself is rightful, and when we support it with mindfulness, it can become like a homing instinct or a compass pointing us toward freedom.
If any impatience or judgments emerge during this meditation, do not feel as though you have failed. This is entirely natural. Simply allow the negative reaction to ebb as a wave on the beach and see if you can return to the positive contemplation without self-criticism.