You’ll never get that job. You’re not smart, cool or creative enough. That fight was all your fault. You don’t belong at that party with those accomplished people. You’ll never finish that project. You’ll never achieve that goal. Who do you think you are? If you don’t get a perfect grade on that paper, it’ll confirm you’re a fraud. Scratch that. You are a fraud. You’re also a terrible mother. You also can’t do anything right. You also aren’t worthy of _______ and ________. And ________.
And you assume these constant, cruel words are the truth. You assume they’re gospel.
Many clients who see Lauren Canonico realize they’re hard on themselves. But they’re less aware of the stringent, sky-high standards they set and where those standards stem from, said Canonico, LCSW, a psychotherapist and consultant in private practice in New York City.
“Most people don’t know how they came to feel the way they do about themselves.”
The inner critic originates from early experiences with primary caregivers. We internalize how these significant caregivers relate and perceive us in the world, said Dr. Christina Cruz, Psy.D, a life coach who specializes in low self-esteem, perfectionism, anxiety, depression and body image.
“Their voice and perceptions of us become our voice and become how we relate to ourselves. Because primary caregivers have such a strong role in our lives, it is difficult to develop a sense of self outside of what others believe us to be.”
We also internalize our caregivers’ feelings and criticisms of themselves, and “hold ourselves to those same standards,” said Canonico, who offers affirmative counseling and therapy to adults and teens, and clinical consulting services to individuals and organizations.
Societal messages make a difference, too. Maybe you’ve received cruel messages about your race, religion, sexual orientation or size, which may “seemingly confirm the inner critic’s negative stance and strengthen it even further,” Canonico said.
At the core of our inner critic is usually an overwhelming feeling of not being good enough, Dr. Cruz said. Which, again, leads the inner critic to continuously scan for evidence that supposedly substantiates our worthlessness.
But it doesn’t matter how cruel and awful and persistent your inner critic is because you can reduce it. You can change your relationship with yourself. Sometimes that means working with a therapist to unpack the origins of your critic and to work through it. Either way, you can start the work with the below strategies.
Better understand your inner critic. Change starts with understanding our personal triggers for negative self-talk, said Darcy Lawton, LCSW, a psychotherapist who specializes in self-esteem, anxiety, relationships and the performing arts. She suggested creating a flow-chart that includes the following:
- When and where your inner critic is activated
- Emotions that arise
- Thoughts that arise
- Evidence that supports or refutes its words
For the last category, it’s critical to let go of extreme thinking (more on that below) and be honest with yourself, Dr. Cruz said. For instance, is it really true that no one cares about you?
“I am certain you will find evidence that does not support some of the thoughts you have about yourself,” Dr. Cruz said. “When you ask yourself this very simple question—Is this true? —you will find holes in the story you have been believing.”
Use present, action-oriented language. The inner critic tends to use phrases such as “I should have, could have, would have,” said Lawton. It also uses extreme words, such as “always, never, have to, no one, must, nothing, perfectly, only and can’t,” said Dr. Cruz.
Instead, Lawton suggested using present-focused language, such as “I feel this, I experience that, I hope for this,” because it nudges our inner critic to a more supportive space.
Focus on your younger self. While changing how you talk to yourself is important, it’s equally essential to change how you relate to yourself, Dr. Cruz said. Which is why she helps clients incorporate self-compassion into their lives: “[I]t’s what inevitably makes the biggest difference in silencing their inner critic.”
For instance, she asks her clients to imagine their younger selves at a critical time in their lives, and to reflect on what that child really needed. Because what that little girl or boy needed is usually what we need too: compassion, security, love.
How can you give yourself compassion, security and love? What loving actions can you take today? What loving decisions can you make? Where do you need your own patience and understanding?
Empathize with your inner critic. While it rarely feels like it, the inner critic is trying to protect us—from potential rejection, harm, failure. It has good intentions. As Canonico said, “the inner critic wants us to succeed.”
But, of course, its approach is awful, because it originates from fear. Frequently, “our inner critic is fearful of not being enough which most often can be overcome with what it needs the most: compassion and love,” Dr. Cruz said.
Consider that your inner critic is trying to help. For instance, according to Canonico, you might acknowledge: “Wow, this promotion or this friendship must be really important to me if I am being so hard on myself about it and am so afraid of losing it. How can I work towards it?”
Prioritize self-care. This is huge, Canonico said. Practicing self-care reminds you that you deserve compassionate care and positive, pleasurable experiences. Self-care is highly personal, but it might include: waking up early to journal about your thoughts and feelings as you sip on a warm cup of tea; sleeping in because you need the rest; taking a restorative yoga class; meeting a friend for lunch; spending Sunday on the couch with a good book.
Acknowledge the positive. Canonico suggested taking note of positive feedback or small moments that go well (e.g., keeping a gratitude journal). Because that’s part of the reality, too. For instance, maybe you’re a thoughtful friend, a good writer or a hard worker. Sure, maybe you have room to grow, but so does everyone. We are constantly evolving, aren’t we?
Canonico also noted that these strategies introduce new and different information about ourselves. “Not allowing the inner critic to have a monopoly on what we say to ourselves is key.”
While we can’t eliminate the inner critic, we can start to relate to it differently. We can start to relate to ourselves differently. We can start with a single kind gesture—empathizing with our inner child, forgiving ourselves for making a mistake, remembering we’re not alone—and go from there.