Everyone has one. But some are louder than others. I’m talking about that inner voice that you hear, the one that says really demeaning things. Maybe you walk into a room and it says, “I stick out like a sore thumb. I don’t belong here.” Or you walk by a mirror and it says, “I look awful. I can’t believe I went out in public like that.” Or you’re sitting in a meeting and you have something relevant and helpful to add, and it tells you, “People are going to think that’s really stupid, just stay quiet.”
Some idea of an inner critic has been around since people started studying the field of psychology. Freud called it our “super ego,” and he believed it reflected the morals and values we all start to learn at a young age from our culture and the people around us. According to Freud, the super ego punishes us with guilt when we don’t fall in line and rewards us by making us feel proud when we “act right.” The consensus is that our inner critic stems from critical messages we got from caregivers or our environment growing up. For perfectionists, it can be a voice that develops internally, from the unrealistic standards we hold ourselves to. Most people agree that, however it develops, the inner critic is a real problem.
I’d like to offer this alternative in thinking about our inner critic. Our brain is designed to judge and problem-solve. And that’s a really good thing. Sometimes that inner voice can help us identify when we’ve strayed from our goals or hurt people we care about, so we can get back on track or repair a relationship. Guilt, when justified, serves as a mechanism to correct course. Our inner critic keeps us vigilant to threats, like being judged negatively or not fitting in. I believe that our inner critic initially surfaced to protect us and keep us in the tribe. If I have the thought, “don’t say something stupid” in a meeting, that prompts me to read the nonverbal and verbal cues of my colleagues, remember past experiences where someone else was humiliated, and assess if it is truly safe to speak up. Our inner critic is designed to protect us.
It’s not that having an inner voice is the problem. In fact, having a part of your brain that scans for potential problems can be helpful. The problem with our inner critic is that she is so mean and harsh. She speaks with authority, even when she doesn’t have the whole story. The language that she uses is super judgmental. And, because your inner critic is trying to keep you safe, she shuts down any potential chance that you might be kicked out of your tribe by being ridiculed or judged by others. So, you don’t take chances. You play small. You don’t put yourself out there, and you never have opportunities to grow.
The inner critic is especially a problem for perfectionists because the standards your inner critic is holding you to are too high to achieve. There’s literally 0% chance of you being perfect, but your inner critic is holding the bar at perfection, so she is going to berate and demean you every time you fall short. Like Charlie Brown and the football, Lucy is your inner critic, setting you up for failure every single time.
Exposure to imperfection is critical for perfectionists. As an example, when I was working through my own perfectionism years ago, I forced myself to speak up in every single work meeting I attended. It forced my inner critic to lower the bar because she knew it couldn’t be perfect. There was no way I could prepare for what I was going to say at every meeting. And, when I didn’t get negative feedback for voicing my opinion or offering a potential solution, my inner critic learned that it was safe to speak up. She didn’t have to be so hypercritical as a way of trying to protect me from potential embarrassment.
Managing our inner critic is one of the most challenging but helpful things we can learn to do as perfectionists. I’ll continue sharing ideas for how to quiet our inner critic in future blog posts. If you prefer video content, you can also check out my YouTube channel here. And, if perfectionism is sabotaging your life, use the free guide I created to learn seven daily habits to manage perfectionism. It’s my mission to help women struggling with anxiety and depression recover and reach their full potential, starting by managing perfectionism
References and Resources:
Dr. Wetegrove-Romine’s Free Guide: 7 Habits to Stop Perfectionism from Sabotaging Your Life