“I’m just really mean to myself.”
That was the first thing my former client Jesse said when I asked her what brought her into therapy.
She went on to explain that she was her own worst enemy and was constantly critical and judgmental with herself…
- Anytime I speak up during a meeting at work, I immediately begin criticizing myself for being too long-winded, not articulate enough, and probably boring everyone to death.
- When I go on dates, my inner critic constantly criticizes the outfit I chose to wear, the topics I bring up, or even my decision to go out in the first place.
- And sometimes, for no reason at all, some incredibly harsh, judgmental thought will just pop into my head: I’m wasting my life…. I’ll never find a partner who really respects me… I’m mediocre at everything…
Not surprisingly, Jesse struggled with a variety of emotional difficulties from anxiety and depression to low self-esteem and unsatisfying relationships—all of which were directly related to her habit of intense self-criticism.
When I asked her how she typically deals with her inner critic, she told me this:
I try my best to fight back against my inner critic and explain why it’s wrong. I point out to myself that I’m being too hard on myself or that I’m not really as bad or incompetent as I tell myself. Sometimes this makes me feel a little better in the moment. But then 10 minutes later I’m doing it all again and nothing seems to get better.
This was a counterintuitive story I’d seen first-hand in many of my clients:
The harder you try to silence your inner critic, the louder and more intrusive it gets.
In the rest of this article, I’ll explain why our typical approaches to dealing with negative self-talk and self-criticism usually backfire in the long-run. And then offer some suggestions for an entirely new and much healthier approach to dealing with your inner critic.
The problem with trying to silence your inner critic
The first difficulty with the common advice about silencing your inner critic is that you can’t. Like, it’s literally not possible.
Our thoughts aren’t like the volume on your phone where you can just adjust it up and down with a few clicks of a button.
For better or worse, thoughts have a life of their own: They often show up unannounced, linger longer than we’d like, and are sometimes rude, discouraging, or just downright mean.
You don’t have direct control over your inner critic.
There’s no Inner Critic Dial in your brain you can just adjust downward to quiet or silence them when you’ve had enough. There’s no magic script you can say that will convince it to quiet down and leave you alone. And as my client, Jesse, learned, pointing out your inner critic’s logical errors doesn’t usually improve things long-term.
Now, that probably sounds pretty discouraging. But before we move on to the encouraging part of this essay, there’s another reason why trying to silence your inner critic is not a great idea…
When you treat your thoughts like an enemy, that’s how they’ll increasingly feel.
When confronted with some nasty words from our inner critic, the usual reaction is to either try to get rid of it or distract ourselves and avoid it altogether.
Unfortunately, when you habitually try to get rid of or avoid something—including your own thoughts—you signal to your brain that it’s dangerous. This means the next time it pops up, you’re going to feel extra afraid and upset, which often leads to even more self-criticism and negative thoughts. Cue the vicious cycle.
For example, my client Jesse often tried the get rid of it approach by pointing out good reasons why her inner critic was wrong—in the hopes that it would see the error of its ways and quiet down. But by constantly treating her thoughts like an enemy to be gotten rid of, she actually made herself even more sensitive to them…. If you constantly tell yourself that red cars are dangerous, you’re going to start noticing red cars a lot more often!
When people struggle with an especially harsh inner critic, it’s almost always because they’ve unintentionally made the problem worse by trying to avoid it or get rid of it.
So where does that leave us?
We don’t have direct control over our inner critic. And actively trying to get rid of it or distracting ourselves from it only makes it worse in the long run.
So what are we supposed to do when our inner critic shows up?
Well, if attacking or running away from your inner critic only makes it worse, try the opposite: Try making friends with your inner critic.
Why you should think about your inner critic like a friend
Everybody has an inner critic.
There’s not a single person on Earth who doesn’t experience at least the occasional bit of self-doubt, worry about saying something stupid, or some other bit of overly-critical self-talk.
This is essential to come to terms with because you must give up on the idea that the goal is to silence your inner critic or somehow eliminate it entirely.
Not only is this impossible, but it will keep you locked in the cycle of treating your inner critic like an enemy, which only makes it stronger and more critical over time.
The question isn’t how do I get rid of my inner critic… It’s how do I learn to live with it in a healthy way?
All you have control over is how you react to your inner critic when it shows up. That’s it.
And as we’ve seen, reacting to it like an enemy by trying to avoid it or get rid of it only makes it stronger and more frequent.
But when you react to your inner critic like a friend, you teach your mind the opposite lesson: I don’t like this thing right now, but it’s not bad or dangerous.
And the more your mind starts to believe this—that your inner critic is annoying but not a threat—the less sensitive to it you will become.
But what does that mean exactly… treat your inner critic like a friend?
Suppose you’re having a conversation with a good friend about someone you’re dating. You really like this person and are getting pretty serious and want to know what your friend thinks of them.
But then, to your shock, your friend tells you that they don’t like the person you’re dating—in fact, they say bluntly I think he’s a jerk. What’s more, your friend goes on to tell you that they can’t understand what you see in this person and that you should break up with them quickly before it gets more serious.
Now, understandably you’re hurt, angry, and upset. In part because you just found out your friend doesn’t like this person you’re dating. But also because of the pretty insensitive way in which they communicated it to you.
So what do you do?
Are you going to immediately break off your friendship and never talk to them again? Of course not!
True, you didn’t like what your friend had to say. And yes, they did it in a pretty insensitive way. But, at the end of the day, they probably have your best interest at heart. And even though you don’t like what they have to say (or the way they said it) that’s probably not a great reason to simply end the friendship altogether.
So how would you respond, then?
- You might acknowledge that the comment hurt your feelings and talk about it. But you probably wouldn’t immediately start thinking of ways to off your friend!
- You might choose to leave the conversation for now, sleep on it, and then talk about it later. But you probably wouldn’t decide then and there never to speak to your friend again!
- You might even choose to ignore it altogether. Maybe you know they have their own issues around relationships and are probably projecting their own insecurities onto you and your relationship, for example.
Here’s another simple way to think about this:
Don’t shoot the messenger.
Just because your mind is sending you messages you don’t like (e.g. self-criticism) doesn’t mean that part of your mind is bad or that you need to somehow get rid of or avoid it.
What you need to do is respond to it in a healthier, more productive way, just like you would respond to a good friend who was saying something you didn’t like or agree with.
In the final section, I’ll give a few suggestions for what this looks like practically speaking when it comes to dealing with your inner critic.
How to make friends with your inner critic
If you want to start responding to your inner critic in a healthier, more productive way, here are a few practical tips:
- Give your inner critic a name. My client Jesse started calling her inner critic Angela after the overly-judgmental character from the TV show The Office. When you name your inner critic, not only does it help lighten the mood, it also helps you see the problem of self-criticism in relational terms. That is, self-criticism isn’t a thing you need to get rid of; rather, it’s more like a person you can choose to respond differently to and change your relationship with.
- Acknowledge the criticism (but don’t dwell on it). It’s important to keep in mind that you can listen to and acknowledge your inner critic without getting into a full-on conversation with it. For example: “I hear you, Angela. You think that presentation was a complete disaster. Thanks for the input.” When you briefly acknowledge the criticism without dwelling on it, you’re treating your inner critic respectfully but also not allowing it to bully you around.
- Validate your emotions. Even if your inner critic is completely incorrect in their criticism, it’s still criticism. And you’re very likely to feel bad as a result: anxious, sad, ashamed, angry, disappointed, whatever. Take a moment to remind yourself that it’s okay and totally normal to feel upset in response to your inner critic. Validating your emotions (however “reasonable” or not they are) is like a pressure release valve—you’re gonna be much more likely to respond to your self-criticism in a healthy way if you’re not completely overwhelmed with emotion.
- Imagine how your inner critic might be trying to help. By briefly imagining ways in which your inner critic might actually be trying to help you, you’re practicing psychological flexibility, which is critical when it comes to moving on from emotionally difficult situations. For example, if your inner critic just told you how terrible you look, you might reframe that as your inner critic trying to help you dress better. Sure, it sounds a little silly. But the point is simply to be flexible in how you think about and respond to your inner critic.
- If you’re spiraling, remember the 3Ms: Move, Make, Meet. If you find yourself caught in an especially intense spiral of self-criticism, the best thing is to stop trying to think your way out of it, and instead, act your way out of it. Move your body by doing something physical like going for a walk; make something or do something creative like baking cookies or fixing a leaky sink; meet up with someone you care about and enjoy or call an old friend.
Long-term, the only way to experience less self-criticism is to change your relationship with your inner critic.
The more you treat it like an enemy by running away from it or trying to get rid of it, the stronger and more frequent it will become.
But when you start treating it like a friend—approaching, rather than avoiding; listening rather than immediately trying to silence—over time you will become less and less reactive to your inner critic.