Everyone has an inner critic. Mostly, our inner critic is like a well-meaning parent, pointing out our mistakes and weaknesses, basically nagging us to be better.
I think of my inner critic as an annoying cricket. Like the crickets from my childhood that occupied my house, my inner critic tweedles relentlessly and keeps me awake at night.
When your inner critic pipes up again, thank it for trying to protect you. Then respond to its criticism with a constructive alternative.
Our critical inner voice is not always the same. Its tone can grow dark and even abusive. Like a bully, an inner critic can deal out contempt, seemingly with the sole purpose of punishing us. We all beat ourselves up at times. But, habitual self-loathing and self-directed hostility damages us.
We may not realize how much our inner critic impacts our lives, how much the resulting guilt or shame blocks our ability to be happy and to accomplish the things we want, or how exhausting, demeaning and relentless it can be. Our bodies can eventually shut down from the stress it causes, resulting in sickness, depression or an anxiety disorder.
The good news is we don’t have to live with its destructiveness. We can defuse our inner bullying voice. How we do this might surprise you.
Believe it or not, showing compassion to our inner bully actually defuses it. For self-compassion to work, we need to embrace every part of ourselves, even the parts that are overly critical.
Embracing a destructive force may seem counterintuitive, but here are three reasons why it’s a good idea.
1. Rejecting Our Inner Critic Doesn't Work
The inner critic’s function is to motivate us to protect ourselves, mostly by self-correcting. It “protects” us by guilting (pointing out mistakes) or shaming (pointing out flaws). It has been doing its job for a long time and does not give up easily. Consequently, trying to reject or ignore our inner critic often has an intensifying effect.
2. Our Inner Critic is Trying to Help Us
We may think that without our internal judgements, we would end up self-indulgent, unhealthy and terrible human beings. To an extent, this is true. If we didn’t have some kind of internal value-driven voice guiding us and motivating us to do better, we might not learn from our mistakes, maintain our relationships or get much done. Even our most destructive inner voices are trying to help us.
Abusive self-critics display anger, which is our brain’s protective response. It evolved to defend us from threats, such as feeling vulnerable. Our inner bully’s anger masks other emotions that make us feel unsafe: fear, sadness, guilt and shame.
3. Our Inner Bullies are Scared
What is most often true about bullies is that they show anger because they are themselves scared. This is true in the outside world, and this is true in our heads.
So, use your creativity to defuse the inner critic’s impact.
Embracing our inner critic doesn’t mean agreeing with it or allowing it to govern us. Embracing it means that we listen, understand and gently translate its destructive input into something more constructive. Here is how:
- Conjure an image of your most severe inner critic. Visualizing helps us clarify and personify our self-correcting voice. You can imagine an influential person who was (or still is) critical towards you. But it doesn’t have to be a person; your representation can be an animal, object or color. For example, envisioning my light-hearted inner cricket takes the sting out of its judgements.
- Listen to your inner critic with a compassionate ear. Recognize that it is frightened and misguided. Think about how it might feel and about the emotions that motivate its abusive words. If you are unsure of its motives, visualize sitting down with it. Ask what it truly wants for you and what it is scared of.
- Add a more compassionate and constructive voice to the mix. Think of an encouraging person in your life. Conjure the tone of someone supportive and constructive – someone who really accepts you, fallibility and all. One woman had no encouraging influences growing up, so she used a loving maternal TV-character from her childhood.
- When your inner critic pipes up again, thank it for trying to protect you. Then respond to its criticism with a constructive alternative. For example, “I understand your intention, but I did the best that I could under the circumstances. And I can do better next time.”
One of the most enlightened real-life examples of this self-compassion practice is written by Indigo Daya, whose inner critic was so disparaging that she considered ending her life. A man named Andrew helped her change her mind. Here is an excerpt from her post:
Andrew asked me about [my critic’s] name, “The Judge.” This question helped me to see that a part of his purpose was obvious in his name: he was a critic, he was the holder of my moral values and he held me to account against these values with a savage and unwavering focus.
As I sat there, thinking about how terrifying and brutal The Judge could be, Andrew shared his own reflection:
It sounds like The Judge has a lot of responsibility. I wonder if he might be lonely.
I thought, loneliness and responsibility. Not so different to how I have felt myself many times in life. When you feel responsible for a lot, and you feel alone too, it can be overwhelming. It can be hard to hold onto compassion.
Andrew’s simple but insightful little comment instantly took some sting out of my experience of The Judge. It helped me to see him as more human and fallible. It made me think, for the first time, about how The Judge might feel, instead of how I feel.
I mean, I knew that my voice and I were one and the same — but still, we were different, too. The Judge had a job to do, he found it hard, and he was alone in his struggle. Maybe that was part of why he was so harsh?
A new idea began, only just, to grow in me. The idea of listening to The Judge with compassion, rather than with fear. Over time this idea would open up many new avenues in my recovery.
This is only a brief excerpt of Daya’s extraordinary journey. I highly recommend reading her entire post on IndigoDaya.com.
Learn How to Develop Self-Compassion
Self-compassion can be much harder to practice than it sounds, especially if we haven’t experienced supportive relationships in our past. You can strengthen your self-compassion by reading “The Compassionate Mind” or “The Power of Self-Compassion.”
If creating a compassionate inner voice sounds unmanageable to you, Pineapple Support can help. Contact us at PineappleSupport.org.
Jena Field is a coach, therapist and psychology journalist who works with Pineapple Support and can be followed at TheMonkeyTherapist.com, on Twitter @monkeytherapist or on Facebook.com/Jennifer.Field.1000. Visit PineappleSupport.org for more resources.