Our inner critic might be loud and clear: I’m such an idiot! It’s always my fault. I can’t do anything right. What is wrong with me? I don’t deserve this happiness. I don’t deserve this success.
Or our inner critic might be more subtle — and even unknown to us. Yet it still exerts its power, dictating the actions we take.
Each of us has an inner critic. Some inner critics are crueler than others. As we grow up, our self-worth and self-esteem derive their roots from our environment and surroundings. Our caregivers and anyone close to us has a big effect on both.
“Those who develop harsh inner critics are raised in an environment where they are being directly or indirectly told negative things about themselves,” said Alyssa Mairanz, LMHC, a psychotherapist in New York City who specializes in self-esteem, anxiety and depression. Kids who are abandoned also can develop a harsh inner critic, because they tend to interpret that as “there must be something wrong with me,” she said.
But regardless of how cruel your inner critic is, you can learn to cope with it. You can stop your critic from controlling your behavior. Mairanz shared these suggestions below.
Pinpoint Your Critic’s Origins
“The way to cope with one’s inner critic is to analyze where it came from,” Mairanz said. Because it isn’t your voice. It might be the voice of your parents, peers, siblings or teachers from years past. It also might be indirect. Maybe these individuals didn’t tell you outright that you were stupid or unlovable, she said. Instead, maybe that’s just how you felt.
She suggested exploring these questions to better understand where your critic originated and how your thought processes function:
- Whose voice am I hearing?
- What does this remind me of from my past?
- What is familiar about this?
- What were things like for me growing up at home, school, with friends? What are similarities that I am experiencing now?
It’s also possible that your inner critic is subconscious. Instead of specific thoughts, it’s how you operate. “This can lead to a lot of anxiety and depression without fully understanding why.”
For instance, a subconscious inner critic turns into self-sabotage. Without even realizing it, you’re surrounding yourself with people who only reinforce your inner critic, Mairanz said. You pick partners and friends who are critical and treat you poorly. This is in line with an inner critic who believes you’re undeserving or stupid and can’t do anything right, she said. This also can manifest with school or work—you don’t try as hard, you don’t pursue that promotion, you don’t go after your dream career.
To connect with your subconscious inner critic, Mairanz suggested analyzing your thought processes with these six steps:
- What is the emotion I am feeling?
- What was the prompting event (i.e., what happened that led me to feel this way)?
- What are the facts of the prompting event?
- What are the interpretations and perceptions I put onto this event?
- Where did those interpretations and perceptions come from or what past experience led that to be my go-to assumptions?
- What could be an alternate explanation or thought?
Separate Present from the Past
Knowing where your inner critic originates is important because it helps you separate the past from the present, Mairanz said. “The inner critic is often a projection from past events.”
She gave this example: You grew up in a home with constant yelling. Today, you regularly “yell” at and criticize yourself. Which means that you’ve internalized your earlier environment. Which also means that you can separate the present facts from your past interpretations. Instead of continuing to yell and criticize, you tell yourself: “I was constantly being yelled at when I was younger. But that was then. It does not fit with the facts of the present situation.” Another phrase you might tell yourself: “Just because there was a lot of yelling that doesn’t mean I am stupid and can’t do anything right.”
Practice Positive Self-Talk
It’s also powerful to work on changing your negative inner chatter to positive phrases. You might not believe the positivity at first, Mairanz said. But the more you change your self-talk, the more you’ll believe what you’re saying, turning your “inner critic into an inner cheerleader.”
At first it might be tough to change your self-talk, because you’re all-too used to spewing mean things. Start by asking yourself: What is the opposite of this negative thought?
Mairanz shared these examples:
- Turning “I am such a screw-up” into “I am doing my best, and that is enough.”
- Turning “I am so messed up. What’s wrong with me?” into “I am human and no one is perfect.”
- Turning “I don’t deserve happiness” into “I deserve to be treated with respect.”
- Turning “I can never get anything right” into “I am not defined by my mistakes.”
Neutralizing a cruel inner critic can be hard work. It can be tough to identify where the chatter is coming from and then to change it. It takes practice and patience, Mairanz said. The inner critic is typically deeply ingrained, she said, which is why working with a therapist can be helpful.
Try the above tips to start. If you end up struggling, don’t hesitate to seek support. Because, yes, you do deserve it, despite what your inner critic might say.