“What is wrong with you?”
“How could you be so stupid?”
“What makes you think you can do that?”
“Everyone is going to think you’re an idiot/too fat/ridiculous!”
“Who do you think you are, anyway?”
It’s the voice in our head that says the nastiest, most hurtful, cruel things, things none of us would ever say out loud (let’s hope) to anyone else. This is the inner critic. And everyone’s got one.
My inner critic says blistering things to me—it’s always some version of “you’re not doing enough/producing enough/accomplishing enough.” Her narrative always ends the same way. “Keep that up and we’ll end up homeless, with no friends, wearing men’s shoes and eating cat food.”
I know others have an inner critic that attacks their appearance (“you’re too fat”) or acceptability (“what will everyone say?”) or potential (“just give up now—you know you’re gonna fail anyway”).
Whatever your inner critic says, what we all have in common is that it manifests as a negative, punitive, inner dialogue that discourages us from taking chances, trying new things, or risking vulnerability.
I used to think the inner critic was the unwanted echo in our heads of negative and often abusive messages we received as children from our families of origin, messages we heard so often that we’ve now internalized them as adults. Certainly my inner critic repeats verbatim things my parents actually said to me.
My inner critic makes me feel really bad about myself. Of course I want to make her stop. But how? A lot of what I read made it sound like getting rid of that harsh, mean voice was achievable, and even encouraged me to try.
In fact, if you google the words “inner critic” right now, the top search results offer tips on how to silence it, quiet it, shut it up, tame it, or “put it in its place.”
The problem with this approach, I learned, is that it doesn’t work. First off, it tends to shame us. Suppressing the inner critic becomes another skill we must master. It’s a performance-based, failure-seeking inaugurate. A set up. Can’t you hear the inner critic right now? “If you were doing this right, you wouldn’t even have an inner critic! What’s wrong with you?”
And guess what? It can’t be done. The inner critic is here to stay. It is not as I once thought, the unwelcome imprint of the critical parent’s scolding voice. The inner critic is actually trying to help us.
Yup. That’s right. Help us.
The inner critic is, in reality, part of us, the vocalization of the reptilian brain, which is tasked with only one job: keep us safe. The way it does that? Convince us not to take risks. Oh, you’re safe now? Good. Don’t move.
And the reptilian brain will keep us safe by any means. Scorn, ridicule, insults, self-hate. Whatever works to scare the sh*t out of us. It is only concerned with our survival. It doesn’t care if it hurts your feelings, or if the end result of its inner smear campaign means you end up alone, isolated, depressed or ruined. The reptilian brain will sacrifice your happiness for your safety. Its only job is to keep us alive: unexposed, papered over, shut down, put away.
Here’s the thing, though.
This harsh inner voice that can’t stop telling us how much we suck is not really trying to hurt us. Change is its nemesis and vulnerability is the enemy.
This is your inner alarm system. It’s trying to alert you to danger. That’s why you’ll never be able to banish it. Trying to suppress that critical voice will only make it roar louder.
It only becomes a problem—what therapists and psychologists call “maladaptive”—when it’s the loudest voice we hear, when it drowns out all the other ways we talk to ourselves, when it blocks other messages we need to receive, or when it stops us from getting what we truly want out of life.
With a lot of practice, I’m learning to let the inner critic do its job. I listen to it. I acknowledge the fear its criticism is covering up. Because I was trained as a child that to matter I must constantly achieve, my inner critic is terrified that if I stop producing, I will cease to be loved. (Homeless, alone, men’s shoes, cat food.)
Keeping that in mind, I question how true its message is. (Byron Katie’s four questions help.)
Then, I negotiate with it. I provide the inner critic with reassurance. I know you’re afraid. Thank you for trying to keep us safe. The last time we did this, it didn’t work out so good. I promise this time I will not let that happen. You can trust me.
When the aim is not to suppress, but to harmonize, I can bring that critical voice back into the chorus.
Author: Diana Jeffrey
Editor: Catherine Monkman