There’s a person inside of you. She’s not super nice. She’s actually not nice at all. And she’s a talker. She constantly tells you all about how dumb you are, how unacceptable you are, how no one is going to like you or think you’re cool. She’s the voice that tells you you’re not good enough. She’s your inner critic.
Most critics’ jobs are to critique. To analyze and assess. The inner critic is different – her job is solely to criticize. That is her entire job. She’s not analyzing anything. She’s not even assessing. She’s not trying to be fair at all. She’s just throwing out criticism after criticism because that’s her function. That is her whole purpose in existing.
Your inner critic is an amalgamation of every negative thing anyone ever said about you, every side eye someone gave you, everything you ever interpreted as a negative judgment of you, and all of your insecurities. She gathers anything that will make you feel bad about yourself and uses it against you. She doesn’t care if it’s true; she just wants it to hurt.
Every time you agree with your inner critic, you are giving her ammunition against yourself. Every time you thoughtlessly say something negative about yourself, you are giving her ammunition. Every time you automatically believe something negative someone else says, you are adding to large stockpile of ammunition. You are, in effect, building a case against yourself.
We all have inner critics (well, not Matthew McConoughey, as far as I can tell). We all say mean things to ourselves, and, worse, we agree with them. We all believe the voice in our head when it is being critical of our weight, our wit, our hobbies, our noses, our sensitivities, our imperfections, our capabilities, or our very selves.
It doesn’t make sense – why are we so very willing to tear ourselves down? We don’t even try to resist the critic. We just assume she’s right. Why are we so willing to take in negative messages, as if they were certainly accurate and don’t require assessment? Why are we so willing to be mean to ourselves? We say much, much worse things to ourselves than we would ever say to anyone else or that we would allow from anyone else. What is up with that?
We believe our critic in part because her voice is coming from inside our own heads. Her criticisms show up as our thoughts, and we have a bad habit of believing our thoughts. Also, the inner critic is a smooth talker and knows what buttons to push. She knows that we’re terrified of being rejected, and she is masterful at pointing out our rejection-worthy parts. She is extremely persistent about it and a little scary. She is so good, she has us convinced that she is actually protecting us by being mean to us (sounds more abuser than critic, when I think about it). All we have to do to stay safe is listen to her. We have come to believe that our inner critic is helpful.
We wholeheartedly believe if we listen to her and hide our unacceptable parts, we won’t be rejected. But really she’s just saying, “Stop being who you are! You suck!” over and over. That’s not actually helpful. In fact, one might argue (and I am) that it is harmful. It is harmful to be told by someone you trust that you are unacceptable. Day after day, year after year. If I told you that my partner told me every day that I am doing it all wrong and am unacceptable, you would suggest that I re-think my relationship.
But when we do it to ourselves, it’s “helpful.” Nope. No. It’s not. It’s not motivating. It’s not guidance. It’s not inspiring. It’s not loving. There is nothing helpful about what the inner critic has to say. She is a bully and a total con artist. It is literally her job to make you believe that you are not good enough, that you are dumb, ugly, unworthy, or whatever it is that you tell yourself (I have regularly told myself that I am not perfect enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not cool enough, not outdoorsy enough, not smart enough … I could go on, but you get a sense of how my inner critic rolls).
The inner critic is not based in truth; she’s based in keeping her job. The moment you stop believing all of her rhetoric, she ceases to exist. This is very relevant information. You believing that various parts of yourself suck is necessary for her survival. She will never let you believe that you’re enough. She’s not going to sacrifice herself for your self-acceptance and fulfillment.
Though it takes effort, there is a solution that works for everyone. You can fire your inner critic and have her join a job retraining program. She is not inherently bad. It was just her job. Try this: the next time your inner critic shows up, sit with her. Instead of reacting to what she says or believing it, be curious about why she says these things. Instead of hating or fearing your critic, offer her compassion. If you can do this, something interesting happens. You’ll realize that she’s been really lonely. She’s just a part of you who got assigned this task of getting you to believe all the mean stuff that you’ve ever taken in about yourself. It’s no fun being a bully.
If you can manage to sit with her and offer her compassion, you’ll get a little of your power back, and she’ll lose a little of hers. If you can see her for what she is, her voice will get a little quieter. The more you can be compassionate instead of reactive, the more of your power you will take back. Your voice will get louder and hers will become hard to hear. When you stand with yourself, she starts looking less significant.
If you’re still wondering why your inner critic deserves compassion, may I remind you that she’s you. All of the painful and so-called imperfect parts of yourself deserve compassion. They even deserve love. We don’t get to love ourselves only when we’re all “fixed.” Most of us would be waiting our entire lives for that. We can love the parts of ourselves that are painful and imperfect. We can even love our whole imperfect self. If love feels too much of a stretch, work toward acceptance. Acceptance is simply agreeing that things are as they are, without needing to judge them for it.
If you can do this, if you can stop needing to believe you are less than you are, the inner critic is indeed out of a job. But through the job retraining program, she can learn new skills and join a different department – the inner cheering section. That section always welcomes new members, and the more voices in it, the louder it becomes.
99% of us walk around with an identifiable, if not overly bossy, inner critic. We are built that way. Our brains evolved to notice the negative things around us and inside of us. Back in the days when person-eating animals were a regular threat to survival, we had one chance to learn that the animal in front of us could kill us. Our brains developed a radar for the negative to keep us alive. We did not develop a similar radar for the positive because it wasn’t necessary for survival. Our brains are still oriented to notice the negative bits of life, not the positive.
Similarly, during the time when all humans could survive only in packs or tribes, being acceptable was crucial to survival. Being unacceptable meant being kicked out of the tribe, which meant certain death. Our brains are still oriented in that direction, even though it is no longer true. Our brains confuse between being emotionally rejected with being killed. It makes sense why we rush to believe our inner critic as if she were some sort of guru.
It makes sense that we notice the negative information about ourselves much more easily than we notice the positive. At one point in time, noticing the negative was a very important skill. Our brains have not caught up to the fact that we can survive outside of a tribe these days and that focusing on the positive is generally more helpful than focusing on the negative. We have to teach it that.
We have evolved to have an inner critic, but not an inner cheering section. Most of us have to create that ourselves. We have to work to notice the positive things that are reflected back to us about ourselves. And then we have to take it in. Rick Hanson, PhD did some research and learned that we need to actively “take in” the positive stuff for 20-30 seconds in order for our brains to learn it at the level they learn negative information in milliseconds. He calls this “taking in the good.”
“Taking in the good” means actively processing the positive information. If someone laughs at your joke, you would take 20-30 seconds to actively notice how good it feels and recognize that they appreciated your humor. If someone gives you a compliment, if something went more easily than you expected, if you just had a good moment, take it in. Actively. The more you do this, the more your brain will start looking around for positive stuff to notice and take in without you having to work at it.
This is the job retraining program: noticing the positive stuff about you, the stuff that makes you feel good, or makes you own your acceptability. Doing this repeatedly throughout the day gives you something else to focus on besides the inner critic’s voice. Focusing on the positives will get you more of the positives. And, in case it needs to be said, of course there are positive things about you and your experience to focus on. There are things that deserve to be noticed and taken in and appreciated and even reveled in, if you can manage it.
That’s when the inner cheering section is loudest, when you are appreciating and reveling in yourself. Even when you are trying to appreciate yourself and are having a hard time, your cheering section is cheering you on. Unlike the critic, your cheering section is on your side. It wants you to feel all the things that come with living a fulfilling life. It knows that you are acceptable, loveable, and worthy without having to change a thing. It knows that the inner critic was full of sh*t. It sees you and wants to lift you up until you are willing to own your awesomeness.
When your cheering section is louder than (or eventually converts) your inner critic, you get to release all that energy you were spending disapproving of yourself and judging yourself. That was a lot of energy. The energy you spend cheering yourself on feeds you instead of drains you. This is part of the beauty of the inner cheering section. It makes you feel better about yourself because you are focusing on the positives instead of downplaying them or ignoring them completely.
You would never tell your best friend or your child to only believe the negative things they hear about themselves and not trust the positive things. It sounds ludicrous when I say it like that. So stop doing it. Give yourself the gift of getting on your side and make your life easier. Work on making your cheering section loud. Give it lots of attention. The less attention you give the inner critic, the less attached to her job she will be and the more willingly she will be re-assigned. Your life will feel more fulfilling because you’ll be focusing on what you want out of it, and you will feel more empowered.
The inner critic has trained you to believe that it is dangerous and wrong to feel good about yourself, so it might feel scary at first. It might feel like you are setting yourself up for a fall, somehow. That is what she has spent years convincing you of. It might take a large leap of faith to terminate her position and reassign her to the cheering section. You’ll find that she likes it there. Her old job won’t be missed, by anyone. Remind yourself that it will take a minute for this new way of trying life to not feel wildly uncomfortable and uncertain. You can’t be expected to switch your loyalty from the critic to the cheering section on a dime.
To get started: for the rest of the day, pay attention to anything positive, anything that makes you feel good. It could be as simple as a flower you appreciate or finishing a task or someone giving you a hug. Take it in for 20-30 seconds. Practice prioritizing the positive as often as you can, especially when it’s about you.