We all have one — an inner voice that expresses criticism, frustration or disapproval about our actions. It might sound like, “you should,” “why didn’t you?” “what’s wrong with you?,” or “why can’t you get it together?” The actual self-talk is different for each of us, as is its frequency or intensity.
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 aren’t good enough or ideal, you’ll 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. We can also use judgmental or controlling thoughts with ourselves as a way of coping with fear, shame, and the unknown. 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 is 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 such as procrastination, addictive behaviors (such as overeating, grazing when not hungry, drinking, smoking); behaviors such as constantly checking your smartphone, or 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).
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 don’t 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.
Awareness is the first step to recognizing and letting go of your inner critic. Many of us don’t even realize its presence. Catch yourself the next time you’re 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’s an example:
Jessica went shopping. She didn’t 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’ve gained weight, which means I’m a failure. It means I’m old. I’m ashamed and scared of getting older and gaining more weight.”
What authentic feelings might she be having about this situation that aren’t related to shame triggers? What are her vulnerabilities? (Identify your vulnerability and feel those feelings.)
Jessica says, “I feel out of control, fear, grief/loss. My body is reacting differently than it did in the past. It’s harder to maintain weight and muscle tone, it feels hopeless. I feel afraid, overwhelmed.”
What do you really need? Jessica says, “I can deal with it. Acknowledging my vulnerability prompts me to take better care of my health. When I feel worthless, there’s no hope at all. Shame is not motivating.”
Try this for yourself. What are some self-criticisms that you are aware of hearing yourself say? Say it in the second person. For example: “You’re such a coward. You’re despicable, worthless. Be careful or you’ll get hurt. You should try harder.”
How do you feel as you hear that? Get in touch with that feeling. What are you afraid of or afraid of feeling? What are some authentic feelings you may be having about this situation that aren’t related to shame triggers?
What are some opposite feelings? What are some reactions to these?
What do you say to that voice that says you are useless?
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 in the following steps:
Express empathy for the inner critic’s fear and out-of-control feelings (what you felt in step 3 above). For example, “I understand that you are terrified of getting hurt and feeling rejected. I know you’re trying to protect me from those feelings.
Express your reaction (steps 4 and 5). For example, “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. What I really need (step 6) is to reach out and connect with others. I don’t have to be afraid nor do I have to deprive myself out of fear.”
The inner critic’s self-talk tends to fall into one of two categories, “bad self” and “weakness.” Bad self is shame-based. Those who struggle with it might feel unlovable; flawed; undesirable; inferior; inadequate; deserving of punishment; or incompetent.
The weak self is based on fear and anxiety. Those who fight it might feel dependent on others; unable to support themselves; submissive; unable to express emotions without something bad happening; vulnerable; worried about loss of control; mistrustful; isolated; deprived; or abandoned.
These beliefs are neither useful nor helpful. They are generally destructive. Practice listening for clues to these beliefs by paying attention to the self-talk of your inner critic. Challenge those beliefs! They are not true. You are worthy, capable, and deserving of love.