Do you have an inner critic? Do you have an internal voice that sometimes criticises something about you or something you have done? As a psychologist, I assume that everybody does.
It’s normal to have an inner critic. The real question is what is our relationship with that part of ourselves that critically observes and judges what we do. It can become very harmful if it’s too intense, or too rigid, or causes us unwarranted shame and guilt. When associated with perfectionism it’s one of the more common causes of psychological distress. It’s often strongly present when people are suicidal. Given increasing community interest in mental health and suicidality, it’s worth considering the phenomenon of the inner critic.
I was strongly reminded of the potential harmful impact of the inner critic after attending a workshop on “chairwork”. This is the therapeutic art of helping people identify and express conflicting parts of themselves to develop a more integrated viewpoint. Again, it’s normal to have conflicting parts of oneself, such as being in two minds about a decision or being tempted to act in ways that conflict with our values.
There are many forms of therapeutic chairwork, including having a conversation with your inner critic, whom you imagine sitting in an empty chair opposite. I’ll always have vivid memories of doing such an exercise when I was a young adult suffering from depression. I think it helped save my life. At the time I was acutely suicidal after increasing struggles with depression, compounded by the increasing emergence of my perfectionist inner critic that just wouldn’t let up. Such turmoil of course is generally invisible to others.
My therapist helped me identify the metaphorical branch I was belting myself with and to subsequently drop it. This transformative experience led me to predict that I’d never have another day of depression for the rest of my life. This has held true over the 30 years since. That has powerfully motivated me to help others tackle their own perfectionism, which may have been a key culprit in their depression.
There are some key tips for dealing with the inner critic. Firstly it’s best to accept that it’s normal to have one. In its less harmful form it relates to our conscience, which can monitor and rein in unhelpful behaviour. It can motivate us to strive to act well, to do our best and to live peacefully with others.
However, we’d best realise when our inner critic is going beyond mild self-admonishment to become frequently, intensely or rigidly judgmental and abusive. This can lead us to feel inadequate, worthless or ashamed. It’s not worth putting up with this verbal self-abuse without protest, especially in the mistaken belief that we need it to motivate us or to perform better. We’ll do better with more positive forms of motivation for that.
The key is to recognise our inner critic when it starts up and to take some distance from it. It’s especially helpful to recognise if it has an abusive tone. Is it turbocharged by mimicking past abuse or maltreatment by others? If so, effectively challenging the critic can help undo some of the harmful impact of past abuse.
If you consider that the criticism would be exaggerated or one-sided if it were directed to a friend, then stand up to it. Counteract it with another side of the story, perhaps listing some of your strengths or things you’ve handled well. See right through it if it pretends to be trying to motivate you or to make you act better. Recognise and point out how it can get in the way of your well-being, productivity and effectiveness. Basically tell it to give you a break, or to at least tone down a bit!
The all too common intrusion of our inner critic can remind us that it’s worth repeatedly exercising and practising self-compassion. It helps to recognise when we are struggling in any particular situation. We can then use that as a prompt to act more kindly towards ourselves. Accept ourselves as merely being part of the human race – that means imperfect!
It then helps to do something practical to show some caring for yourself. This might best include any self soothing activity, such as taking a few deep breaths, listening to music, making yourself a cup of tea (3 cups of a day can reduce the risk of depression by 37%), going for a walk or simply reminding ourselves that things will likely turn out OK. Then it might be a little easier to treat the inner critic as white noise.
It helps to muster the energy to do something constructive, however small. That includes using one of our self-soothing strategies. Then we can say to ourselves “at least I’ve done that”. I’ve known people to start to turn around even severe depressions by starting to do that. We are usually better off if we then direct our attention outside ourselves rather than within, perhaps by focusing on a task.
We could make it harder for ourselves if we expected the inner critic to not be there at all. It’s part of the human condition. It’s just that it’s often wrong. Perhaps that makes it just another one of our many imperfections. It just makes us more human. We can still tell it to at least back off a bit!
I’m often thankful for having gone through that last severe and protracted depression. My inner critic and I have a very different relationship now. It sometimes gives me a hard time, but rarely undermines my wellbeing.
• Accept that it’s normal to have an inner critic
• Appreciate that, in its milder form, it’s trying to do something for you
• Recognize when it starts up, especially if it has an abusive tone
• Take distance from it
• Stand up to it if it is being abusive or disruptive
• Counter it by telling yourself about your strengths and genuine positive efforts
• Allow for being imperfect. Remind yourself you’re only human
• Do something self-soothing
• Do something small and constructive. Remind yourself, “at least I did that!”
• Direct your attention outside yourself
For other articles and videos on mental health topics, see Chris Mackey and Associates Resources page.