What kinds of things does your Inner Critic say to you? If it's anything like mine, it's probably stuff like, ”You're such an idiot. I can't believe you said that!” And, “You're not smart enough. Don't apply for that job. Don't even bother.” If you can relate, learning how to name your Inner Critic is the psychological tool you need to keep that voice in your head from sabotaging your life. It might sound silly, but even a super serious psychologist like me had to use this tool and give my own Inner Critic a name.
If you’ve read my blog about silencing your Inner Critic (or watched the video), you know why we have an Inner Critic in the first place. As a reminder, it developed as a way to keep us safe from threats, including getting kicked out of our tribe. But if your Inner Critic is anything like mine, she's developed a mind of her own and can be pretty damaging when left unchecked. When working to quiet your Inner Critic, you must know this: your Inner Critic is not you! This may be hard to believe because the voice is coming from inside you, right? You hear it in your own head! But, the voice is likely made up of a host of different people and sources. If you listen closely, you might hear your Inner Critic repeating the same things your parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, religious leaders and other caregivers said to you growing up. You might hear messages that came from your friends at school or the culture you grew up in. You might even hear messages that came from TV or magazines. For many women, for example, our Inner Critic tells us we need to be skinnier. That's the direct result of our culture’s unhealthy obsession with a Western, European thin ideal. We get bombarded with this message in TV and magazines from a very young age.
The second point worth noting is that when left unchecked, our Inner Critic can cause us harm. We all have an inner voice, and it can be quite helpful in certain situations. But, when the voice is highly critical and hard to shake, it keeps you from taking chances and putting yourself out there in ways that could be good for you. When your Inner Critic is left unchecked, you are more likely to develop depression and anxiety, feel lonely and disconnected, and experience regret and shame.
So, how do we keep that voice in check? I'm going to share four ideas:
Just what exactly do I mean by giving your Inner Critic a name? First, let's talk about a concept in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, for short) called defusion. Defusing from our thoughts helps us get distance, so that we don't automatically buy into those thoughts. Defusion gives us the space to look at our thoughts, instead of just saying, “I thought it so it must be true.” Getting this distance removes the authority from the thought. Here’s the thing: We have thousands of thoughts a day, and I can tell you with 100% certainty that not all of my thoughts are to be trusted! Many of the thoughts that my Inner Critic tells me are things that need to be questioned, because they developed from unrealistic standards and societal expectations that don't line up with my values. Sometimes they are things that my early caregivers said to me and they believe to be true, but I don't agree with. Thoughts like, “My body shape needs to be different” or “I'm not smart enough to try that.” Thoughts that say because I'm a woman, I should do certain things and I shouldn't do other things.
One of the most helpful ways I've found to defuse from my Inner Critic is by giving her a name. Sometimes people come up with a name that sounds like a silly villain or another character that's hard to take seriously. I've worked with clients who have given their Inner Critic the name of their own critical caregiver, once they figured out that most of the criticism they hear are the messages that they got from that caregiver. I wanted to give my Inner Critic a name that was so different from anything I hear on a regular basis that it would almost be jarring. So, I named my Inner Critic Gertrude. Over the years, I've come to imagine Gertrude as my old, German aunt who everyone knows is very critical and no one takes seriously. You know what I'm talking about, we all have that person in our lives! Deep down, they want the best for us, but they’re carrying their own emotional baggage that makes it difficult for them to be the caring, validating, supportive person we wish they could be.
If you think of your own Inner Critic the way I think of Gertrude, it's much easier to acknowledge that voice with curiosity instead of shame. Some questions to consider: How credible is this Inner Critic? Where is she getting her information from? Is she telling the whole story? Is she leaving out important details? Is she placing all the blame on you? If so, consider the thought as something worth exploring, without automatically buying into it completely. Maybe there is something in the criticism that has some credibility, but decide that you are really going to do your research before you buy into that story 100%. Collect more data before you decide which parts of the story are helpful to believe. This is how to look at what your Inner Critic is saying with curiosity instead of shame.
What about thanking your Inner Critic and moving on? When you start interacting with your Inner Critic in this more defused way, you can maintain more objectivity, rather than being eaten up with shame. You won't get so hung up on self-critical thoughts. You can remember that your Inner Critic developed as a way to protect you from potential threats and to keep you from taking risks that might hurt you. When you look at your Inner Critic in this more compassionate way, you are able to say, “Thanks for the feedback!” and just move on. You shift away from ruminating on the judgmental, critical thought and feeling awful about yourself because you believe it. Instead, you can refocus your attention on the things that bring you real value. Oftentimes, we disconnect from our values and avoid activities that bring us joy because our Inner Critic told you us we are “too stupid” or “too out of shape” to try them. Looking back on my life, I recognize the times when I didn’t dance at weddings or do physical activities with friends because of my own Inner Critic. What is your Inner Critic keeping you from enjoying?
The last idea I want to share is from Dr. Rick Hanson's TED article. Dr. Hanson encourages people to reflect each day, identifying one thing they are proud of (or at the very least, feel neutral about). I love this idea because it is supported by the research on gratitude. He explains that, in the same way an Inner Critic develops from critical messaging from critical caregivers, we can develop an Inner Nurturer by getting feedback from people who care about us and give us supportive, nurturing messages. This Inner Nurturer balances out the critical story your Inner Critic keeps telling you. When your Inner Critic tries holding you prisoner and keeping you from putting yourself out there and trying new things, your Inner Nurturer will encourage you to take a leap and go for it!
We all have an Inner Critic. It just comes with this human brain that we were given. But, if you notice that your Inner Critic is sabotaging your relationships, your mood, your work, or your self esteem, consider talking to a mental health professional like a Psychologist, a masters level therapist, or someone else you trust. And, if perfectionism is a problem for you, check out my free guide with seven daily habits you can use to manage perfectionism and keep it from sabotaging your life.
Just why did the world go on a bread baking craze when the pandemic started? Why couldn't you find a set of gym weights at any store to save your life? And why did we take on 100 different home projects? Because mastery feels good!
So, what is mastery? Do you need to become a stay at home gym rat or a banana bread aficionado to achieve it? Breaking down mastery will help you figure out how you can reach it to feel happier, healthier and more in control when everything is out of control.
From baking bread to gardening to exercise to crocheting, many of us looked for ways to cope at the beginning of the pandemic. What is it about challenging but doable activities that make us feel more in control? Mastering activities leads to feeling competent, confident and capable. These traits make us feel more in control.
When we’re kids, there are ample opportunities to master things, because everything is new. Additionally, we don't feel shame about being judged for failing. We fall and we are encouraged to get back up! Unfortunately, as we get older, novel opportunities become more and more rare. Societal judgement makes us less likely to put ourselves out there and try something we might not be naturally good at. But, mastery is really good for us.
Mastering an activity takes intense focus. In the field of positive psychology, mastery is referred to as “flow state;” you see this in athletes and other kinds of creatives who throw themselves into their art and report losing track of time. Self-confidence builds as we reflect on the progress we are making over time. When we can connect our results to the work we put in, we recognized that we are determining the outcome. This runs counter to most things in our lives, where we have little control. Mastery makes us feel more in control.
When it comes to mastery, you need to find a sweet spot. The activity you choose should be challenging but doable. You want to get a sense of accomplishment, rather than feeling like a total failure because the activity was too difficult to achieve on the first try. If you don't run, setting the goal to run a 5k straight out of the gate is not likely to build mastery. Choosing to run a quarter mile, on the other hand, is going to be very hard but likely possible. Start small, but not too small that it wasn't challenging enough.
When it comes to mastery, there has to be room for growth. Mastery loses its effect when it becomes too easy. While an easier activity may be relaxing and gratifying in its own ways, if it loses its difficulty it won't build mastery. This runs counterintuitive to everything our culture teaches where the ultimate goal is comfort. Many experts can do their job on autopilot with their eyes closed, but this is not mastery. Mastery requires a continuous challenge to reap the benefits. This means you have to do it consistently while building on the difficulty level so that you continue getting a sense of accomplishment.
Here’s an example: when I started spending time in nature, the idea of staying anywhere outdoors overnight was really intimidating. So, I just started with day hiking. I learned how to pack everything I needed in my backpack, carrying it out for the day and returning home the same day. After a while, that became really easy, so I started car camping. This was more challenging because I had to consider the items I would need overnight. When car camping became less challenging and more comfortable, I decided to try my hand at back country camping, where you carry everything you need for the trip and hike to a more primitive campsite, away from your vehicle. The first time I tried back country camping, I hiked out seven miles. Now this was a challenge for me! I built mastery each time, finding new ways to add difficulty so I didn’t lose my sense of accomplishment. However, I couldn’t have successfully completed a back country hike right out of the gate; I didn’t have enough experience. I had to start small with day hiking to get to this point of mastery.
But, what are the benefits of mastery anyway? Why do it when it’s not easy? Mastery pulls from two highly effective treatments for depression: behavioral activation and cognitive therapy. When I work with folks who are depressed, we make specific plans for them to do activities that make them feel competent. For really depressed clients, this might mean making the bed or showering. Mastery is not about the difficulty of the task in general, but how difficult it is for you right now, depending on your circumstances and context. This is really important; do not beat yourself up if you have to start very small. When we complete a difficult task, the story we have about ourselves starts to change. “I can't do hard things” shift to “I can do hard things” as the evidence builds and starts to support this new narrative. Research shows that practicing mastery leads to a higher quality of life, greater levels of happiness, higher self-esteem and a more positive self-image. Plus, it's been shown to decrease depression.
If you are a perfectionist, here are two potential problems to look out for. First, you will likely choose something that is too hard out of the gate. Perfectionist usually set unrealistic standards for themselves. And, this leads them to procrastinate, because they are planning for something that's too difficult and overwhelming to do. In this case, not only does a perfectionist not build mastery, but they also feel shame about the procrastination. If you are a perfectionist, give yourself permission to start small! Because perfectionistic brains believe in perfection over progress, perfectionists also fall into the trap of judging themselves negatively for not doing enough when they complete the activity. If you are a perfectionist, you may have thoughts like, “I should’ve done something harder, something more challenging.” This happened to me recently. I went on a hike and, while it was really challenging, it was a shorter distance than I’ve hiked in the past. I noticed my inner critic started to say, “You could’ve hiked further, you could have hiked longer. This wasn't long enough to feel good about.” I had to catch my inner critic quickly and shift the story I was telling myself. I challenged my inner critic by saying, “There are many ways to measure difficulty and distance is just one of them. The elevation changes and terrain made this hike challenging and I’m proud of myself for finishing it!”
Focusing on mastery helped many of us cope during the pandemic. If you haven’t tried building mastery, choose an activity that is new and challenging. Start small, knowing you can increase the difficulty level if you need to. Continue challenging yourself by increasing the difficulty when the activity gets easy and no longer makes you feel accomplished. Be on the lookout for the additional challenges posed for perfectionists. And, if you notice that perfectionism is sabotaging your life, your relationships, your mood, your work, or your self-esteem, check out this free guide with seven daily habits you can use to manage perfectionism.