How To Deal With Your Inner Critic
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What is our inner critic and why do we have one?
The concept of an inner critic is so fascinating. As far as we know, it’s completely unique to humans. My dog doesn’t beat herself up for gaining a few pounds, and she’s happy to take a “lazy” day on the sofa over exercise 100% of the time. But when a human has those moments, we’re all familiar with that inner voice. You’re gross, lazy, embarrassing, sloppy, undisciplined, directionless, and on and on.
There’s a neurological basis for this. Back when humans first came on the scene, if we were rejected from the group in any way, it was a life-or-death situation. The inner critic kept us safe by keeping us “in line” with what we thought others expected us to be. We couldn’t just lay around the cave all day when everyone else was out foraging and hunting, and then expect to eat that night. Our inner critic would keep us from deviating by loudly threatening the consequences (basically always ultimately death).
Fast forward to today though, and our inner critic still wants to keep us safe by the only means it knows, which is … criticism. Only the circumstances have changed. Now the “threat” is that if we gain weight, we won’t be taken seriously at work. If we let the runaway train keep going, ultimately we will catastrophize our way into dying alone and destitute. Because we had a cookie after lunch.
Basically the inner critic served a very important purpose evolutionally. But now it’s like the little guy in the basement in Office Space who keeps getting paychecks even though his job is not relevant.
Is it possible to silence our inner critic for good?
You’re probably wondering how to just nip the inner critic and silence it for good. But I have unfortunate news – it’s not possible. Or at least, the amount of effort that would be required to completely eradicate it far surpasses the benefit you might gain. Allow me to propose something easier.
There’s an accessible solution that you can start implementing today. It has to do with how you relate to your inner critic. In other words, do you always believe it? When your pants are a little snug do you believe you will be fired for looking sloppy? When your partner is in a rush out the door and not paying much attention to you, does that mean your marriage is doomed (probably because your pants are too snug)?
The way we can confront and address an inner critic is by first slowing down enough to recognize what they’re saying (aka what you’re thinking on a subconscious loop 24/7).
The upside of an inner critic
There are instances where having an inner critic is useful – and it always comes down to how you relate to it. If you treat your inner critic like a gossip columnist (dramatic but possibly true stories) rather than the weather person (just reporting the facts) you can reap the benefits of tens of thousands of years of evolution in recognizing very subtle risks in our immediate environment.
Usually the inner critic is most fierce when there’s uncertainty in a situation. So, the upside is it’s giving you a little heads up that you need more information about something before taking clear action. You can seek that out without feeding into the doomsday drama the inner critic presents.
An example of inner critic dialogue
What this might look like in practice is:
Inner Critic (IC): You’re not smart enough to do this project your boss assigned.
Rational Self (RS): Well, I am pretty smart and I’ve done well with past projects they’ve assigned me.
IC: No, you’re stupid, you’re going to fail and get fired. And no one will like you and also you will die alone.
RS: You seem worried that I’m not smart enough – what makes you say that? I know you’re trying to protect me.
IC: You don’t know how to do this. You’ve never done this before. They shouldn’t have asked you to do this. They’re probably out to get you.
RS: I think they assigned this project to me because they know I’m resourceful and can figure things out, just like I always have. Plus, I know Cait is an expert in this area and she already said I can pick her brain when I’m stuck. So I have what I need to get started.
IC: Hmm ok but I’m just going to keep an eye on things just in case there are nefarious people still trying to destroy you.
RS: OK, thanks for checking in!
Aaaand scene! Notice how our rational selves can inquire about the inner critic statements, without buying into them? And in the end, the inner critic isn’t like “ok bye forever!” But rather prefers to remain vigilant in case of future threats. That’s okay – we don’t have to let it interfere with our work.
Self-compassion is key
This type of restructuring takes time and practice. Many of us have gone decades letting our inner critic subconsciously run the show, so it’s just going to take time to rewire those neural pathways. That’s okay! Consciously engaging in the work allows for results much faster. That is, even if your inner critic ran the show for 35 years, it doesn’t take 35 years to unravel it and retrain your brain when you’re working on it consciously.
Sometimes our brains get overloaded though and there’s too much coming in at once for us to really clearly address what’s needed. Sometimes we just need some space, and that’s a brave and compassionate choice to make too.
Activities to help create emotional distance
Some of the creative, space-making activities I recommend in these instances are:
1. Journaling (I use a classic Moleskine or Piccadilly notebook which will also help you pinpoint sneaky subconscious thoughts, especially if you just free-write for a few minutes each morning
3. Creating succulent mini-gardens with my mom or buying a bunch of flowers and bribing my mom to plant them for me because that’s where I tend to fizzle out honestly
4. Coloring elaborate designs (with adult coloring books and these pens)
5. Taking epsom salt baths with scented candles and music (when I first started doing this I was listening to contemporary instrumental music in a very dimly candle-lit bathroom and my husband burst open the door and was like “what is this? What is happening? Are you okay?” Because it was so foreign haha)
6. Making great playlists and going for a run or walk (I wear these earbuds when I’m running – more economical than other brands and have held up really well for Alex and I over the last few years)
The bottom line
Know that while it’s likely not possible to completely silence or eliminate the inner critic, you can absolutely change how you relate to it and how much you buy into the drama. Professional mindset coaching using cognitive behavioral techniques makes this CRAZY FAST compared to going solo, but either way it’s absolutely possible!
Emily is a mindset coach and writer specializing in the habits of Millennial and Gen Z high achievers in the areas of money, relationships, lifestyle and travel.
She holds the PCC designation with the International Coach Federation and has been featured in multiple media outlets.