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.