According to Jodie Gale, MA, a psychotherapist and life coach in Sydney, Australia, all of us have an inner critic. “Living with a strong inner critic can be life debilitating; it stops us from achieving growth and from living life to our full potential.”
Where does this critic come from?
According to Andi Szasz, MS, a psychotherapist specializing in the treatment of trauma, addictions and mood disorders, our inner critic often repeats the messages we’ve heard and internalized from our families, classmates, colleagues, culture and the media.
People with a strong inner critic often grow up in families with high expectations, critical parenting styles and comparisons to others, Gale said. Their family life might have had little emotional, psychological and spiritual support, she said.
Gale likened the inner critic to an “overdeveloped superego — the part of the psyche that helps us to determine right from wrong.”
Szasz also mentioned psychiatrist Russell Meares’ assertion “that our healthy self develops by others giving value to our inner experience.” So if no one nurtured our inner value when we were younger, as we get older, “this lack can become the voice of the inner critic.”
It often takes deep work to separate yourself from the demoralizing voices of your past, Gale said. But there are things you can do on a daily basis to quiet your inner critic.
Examine your inner critic.
People may over-identify with their inner critic so much that they believe it to be their true self, Gale said. “[But] it is not. Our true self would never be so unkind and mean.”
Start paying attention to precisely what your inner critic says, the words it uses, its common phrases and who it sounds like (e.g. does it sound like your parents?), Szasz said.
For instance, according to Gale, the inner critic often uses the words “should” and “should not.” She gave these examples: I should be skinny. I should meditate. I shouldn’t have said that. I should know better. I shouldn’t have eaten that.
Both Gale and Szasz suggested journaling about these thoughts and their origin. Question the black-and-white thinking and old mindsets that you carry into the present day, Gale said.
Look for the underlying need.
Gale uses psychosynthesis to work with her clients. In this modality, the inner critic is seen as a “subpersonality” or “a semi-permanent and semi-autonomous region of the personality capable of acting as a person.”
(You can learn more in John Rowan’s book Subpersonalities: The People Inside Us.)
This subpersonality has “its own set of thoughts, feelings, behaviors and ways of acting in the world. Close friends of the inner critic are the inner perfectionist, the people pleaser and victim subpersonalities.”
Every subpersonality develops as a way to protect us or as an attempt to meet our unmet needs, Gale said. This is why trying to figure out the underlying need your inner critic is trying to meet can help. Once you find that “underlying need or quality,” you can integrate it into your daily life, she said.
Set boundaries with your inner critic.
Boundaries are key for healthy relationships, and they’re key for keeping your inner critic in check. Gale suggested setting a boundary with your inner critic by saying something like “No, I am not listening to you.”
Talk to your inner critic with compassion.
“[T]alk to the inner critic in the same way you might talk to someone you really love,” said Szasz, also the first Certified Daring Way Facilitator in Australia.
For instance, let’s say your inner critic roars any time you sing. According to Szasz, you might tell your inner critic: “Thank you for protecting me from embarrassing experiences. I understand that was helpful, but right now I really would like to take a risk and be brave and learn how to sing.”
Create compassionate self-talk.
Write down self-compassionate alternatives to your inner critic’s barbs. Szasz shared this example, “Oh you didn’t get up for a run again, you lazy bastard,” can be revised to, “You didn’t get up this morning. It was cold and windy, and you needed a bit more rest. You can [run] this afternoon or next morning.”
Gale suggested this exercise, which appears in Brené Brown’s art-journaling e-course: Write on your hand the words “I’m imperfect, and I’m enough.” Then take a picture of yourself. Place the photo somewhere visible. “This can be used as a seed thought for the day,” Gale said.
See a therapist.
“If the inner critic is deeply ingrained, it helps to work with a therapist who can mirror kindness, acceptance, compassion and empathic love. These experiences can then be internalized to build a healthy sense of self and worth,” Gale said.
In addition, she regularly suggests her clients try Dr. Roberto Assagioli’s “Evocative Word Technique” and Kristin Neff’s “Self-Compassion Break” (on the second page of this pdf file, which includes other exercises for self-compassion).