Even if you don’t think about your inner critic much, chances are you’ve talked with it today. It’s that little voice in the back of your mind that likes to show up and spoil your good mood or remind you of that embarrassing thing you did ten years ago that still makes you cringe.
But what if you could better understand and manage those unwanted thoughts? Let’s talk about getting to know the inner critic.
Understanding shame vs. guilt
Before we dive in, remember that there’s a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt lets us know when we’ve done something against our morals. Shame tells us there’s something wrong with us, regardless of the circumstances.
What is an inner critic?
Your inner critic is the voice inside your head that whispers reminders of all the mistakes you’ve made and things you could have done better. This can be highly shame-inducing since the inner critic likes to take a shred of truth and use it as evidence that there is no hope.
Our conscience will point out when something is wrong, without the shame aspect. It is clear in its convictions and doesn’t leave much room for debate. Unfortunately, we listen to our inner critic because it so closely resembles our conscience — even using what we perceive as logic to back up its claims.
If you struggle with perfectionism, you’re likely very familiar with your inner critic. Perfectionism can serve as a protective strategy used to avoid any situation that may cause us to feel defective, inadequate, or unworthy of love.
That inner critic voice thrives in the mind of those of us with perfectionist tendencies because the perfectionist will usually agree with what the inner critic is saying. Unfortunately, this can lead to a dip in self-esteem, as no one can live up to an inner critic’s impossible expectations.
Even if you don’t struggle with perfectionism, you still have an inner critic to some degree. Here are a few common examples of where your inner critic may show up in everyday life:
“There is no point in working out today. You saw the man in that magazine. You’ll never look like him. You’re too out of shape. You should go home.”
“What makes you think you can keep a journal this year? You can’t even keep up with your workload. How on earth are you going to add writing to your plate?”
Harsh, huh? These examples highlight the damage an inner critic can have on your thoughts and mental health.
How can we spot our inner critic?
The goal of the inner critic is to keep you down and in your comfort zone. It builds its arguments on shame and then offers a solution to the problem that tends to lead to you giving up. These narratives aren’t healthy or truthful…and they’re often deeply painful.
This “giving up” at the end is one of the key things to remember when trying to spot your inner critic. While your conscience will let you know if you did something wrong and how to make it right, your inner critic will tell you that you did something unforgivable or that you’re incapable of doing something and encourage you to run away from the problem. Becoming aware of the moments when our inner critic pops up is a great skill to practice.
Left unchecked, these unhealthy criticisms of ourselves can leave us feeling like we’re not worthy of recognition, love, or the basic things we need to survive and thrive.
Meaning, when we consistently believe all the awful things your inner critic is telling us (like you’re lazy because you took a mental health day), it can begin to take a toll on how we feel and cause our self-esteem to suffer.
Tools to try when your inner critic shows up
Everyone has an inner critic; there’s no avoiding that part. Those thoughts will pop into our heads from time to time, whether we like it or not. But we can begin to notice them, and challenge what they’re telling us.
Here are a couple of steps you can take right now:
- Examine what your inner critic is saying. Look back and examine your inner critic’s words. Try to pinpoint the emotions behind what your inner critic is saying. Does it sound like someone who used to criticize you frequently? Journaling it out may help you begin to recognize when your inner critic is taking over.
- Rephrase what your inner critic is saying to you. For example: If it’s saying, “You were so mean to Sarah today, you’re such a bad friend for commenting on the dirty dishes in the sink,” try rephrasing that to “I shouldn’t have said anything about Sarah’s dirty dishes, she has a lot going on. I’m going to call her and apologize.”
This rephrasing strips the issue of shame and gives you a plan of action towards fixing what you did wrong. But what about the times when you didn’t do anything wrong? For example: “Your boss will never like you. Maybe she’s right. Maybe you shouldn’t have taken this job. You’re not pulling your weight.”
In this instance, step back and separate what’s true and what’s not. True, your boss may put high expectations on you, but that doesn’t make you a bad employee. Whether or not she likes you is out of your control and, therefore, not something you need to be criticized for. Recognizing what is in and out of your control can help more accurately evaluate the internal criticism.
- Talk to your inner critic as if it’s another person. Try saying something like “Hi, inner critic, I appreciate you trying to help me with this issue, but the way you word things to me is hurtful and unhelpful. I hear you, now please take a step back. I’ve got it from here.”
Be gentle with yourself. Tap into the tips above to recognize when your inner critic is trying to surface and consider talking to a trusted loved one or mental health professional if you need support. You can also try our Self-Esteem Collection, a feel-better toolkit, the next time you want to give yourself a boost.
Remember that everyone has an inner critic, and you’re not alone in letting it get the best of you sometimes. As much as you’re able, try to remember your worth and know that help is here for you every step of the way.
By Kaitlyn Pfiester
As a teen, Kaitlyn Pfiester began her writing journey in the fiction world, immersing herself in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Once adulthood hit, the world of mental health opened her eyes to a hurting world. Over time (and months of continuing therapy), her passion shifted from baking Lembas bread and speaking elvish to learning more about trauma and how it affects everyday life. Now she is committed to bringing light to these struggles through her writing. You can see more of her work on her website.