Let’s talk about the inner critic. We all have one. That little voice inside that stops us from taking risks, that finds the faults in every plan, that finds something to criticize us about, even on our best day. I ran in to mine this week, probably because I was having too much fun. Whenever life is good and I am really enjoying it, that pesky voice starts up. Inevitably, before long, that voice has slammed my self-esteem and brought clouds into my sunny day. The inner critic is a chameleon, changing forms and shapes so it’s hard to spot it. Perhaps your inner critic has become so loud that you are actually outwardly critical of others and terribly critical of yourself. As you read this, you may hear your own inner critic, who will either be denying every sentence (“Oh no, I am so OVER that!”) or using it as ammunition (“See, one MORE thing to work on…I am NEVER going to get it together!). Stay with me till the end, and you will have some tools to disarm and transform the inner critic.
1. Give it a Face
The inner critic is so insidious because it poses as you. Many of my clients ask me how to distinguish between their own voice and the other voices, the critical voice, the needy child, the rebel, or their parent’s voices. The way to start sorting out the thoughts in your head is by noticing which thoughts belong to which part of you. Your needy child part will sound very different than your rebel part, though they may be saying the same thing. Giving the inner critic a face helps you to identify it, and not let it trick you into believing it tells the truth about who you are. What does your inner critic look like? Is it a he or a she? Is she a stern school teacher or a pushy boss? Is he tall, short, bony or fleshy? Is he dressed in intimidating professional clothes or does she look like a personal trainer gone wrong? Once you imagine what this voice would look like, you can begin to see that it is only a part of you, and should not have permission to drive the bus of your life.
2. Give it a Voice
When we don’t listen to what’s happening inside, the voices get louder and louder. This can result in nightmares (the subconscious mind trying to send you a message), strained relationships (because you start seeing other people as the problem), or, in the most extreme cases, accidents or illnesses. In the last scenario, you have moved so far away from what you really need that you body intervenes and forces you to slow down and have some time to reflect on your choices to this point. Unfortunately, many people spend their recovery time hopped up on pain-killers and other meds, and then they dive back into their lives, so they miss the chance for self-reflection that accidents and illnesses provide. In this step, we acknowledge that we carry innate wisdom, and we have to make time to listen to the voices inside. You inner critic has something to tell you, and if you look behind the attack (“You are so lazy/ugly/stupid/dowdy” etc.) you will see that this part of you is trying to protect you in some way. Listen to your critic, without taking to heart what he or she has to say. You may notice that the voice is one you inherited, that you are simply repeating to yourself something someone else told you a long time ago. Instead of ignoring the voice, give it some defined airtime.
3. Make it Redundant
What happens when companies modernize? When self-serve kiosks and automated ticket machines show up, someone’s job becomes redundant. When machines can do what used to be done by human hands, someone gets replaced. We don’t like when that happens, but we accept it as part of an evolving society. Your task at this phase is to let your inner critic know his job has become redundant. Why? Because you are looking to fill a new position for a person that will point out the wows in your life. You are looking for someone who will show you opportunities and help you to distill the facts so you can make informed choices without feeling bad about yourself. You can thank your inner critic for his or her years of service, and let her know that you no longer require her skill set. You can make him an offer to move departments, and he can now be in charge of warning you when something genuinely dangerous is about to happen (since she is so good at spotting problems!) It may seem strange to you to have an actual inner dialogue, but just know you would be having one anyway. Usually, the internal dialogue leads to feeling either stuck, paralyzed, or discouraged. In this step, you are bringing that conversation to consciousness.
4. Welcome it Home
All parts of us developed out of of a particular life experience. The inner critic forms to protect the enthusiastic, optimistic part of ourselves that all children have. At some point, that part got burned, and out of that hurt emerged the critic. The critic’s role is to make sure you don’t look foolish and to help you succeed. Unfortunately, it’s style and approach are usually more harmful than hurtful. When you welcome the critic home, when you make space for it’s voice without the pressure of the formal job description it has always had, it becomes a useful and important part of your inner dialogue. Some teachers advocate banishing parts of ourselves that no longer serve us. I believe that this model does not work. We can see an example of this if we look around at what is happening in the prison system in democratic countries around the world. By just banishing the bad guy, we don’t acknowledge the larger problems that contributed to him forming into that kind of a person. So don’t banish your inner critic, make space for his voice, and let him know he is welcome. This will help the inner critic to transform. Just like with people, those who feel they don’t belong and have nothing to lose are the most dangerous. Make this part of yourself feel like it belongs, and that you do really on the good judgement that it offers, and it will stop being a stress-bringer and start becoming a solution-finder.
This takes practice. The inner critic is in all of us, and some families raise their children with nothing but criticism. Those who are the most outwardly critical are the same people that are very hard on themselves. If it is not your inner critic that is the problem but someone on the outside who is constantly criticizing you, I would challenge you to identify the part in you that has been viciously whispering the same things, either about yourself or about someone else. And what replaces the criticism? Gratitude, of course.