Is the negative voice inside your head holding you back in life by filling you with self-doubt? If so, making friends with it might just be the most useful thing you ever do, writes Kellie Gillespie-Wright
The most important conversations we have each day are the ones we have with ourself. Each one of us has an inner voice that runs through our head during every waking hour; it’s part of ‘the verbal working memory system’, and it’s a crucial element of cognitive tasks such as language processing and reasoning.
Most of the time, it’s useful, supportive, and concerned for your safety. Sometimes it behaves like a personal assistant, organising your thoughts, solving problems, or reminding you to do things. Other times, it can act as your own personal cheerleader, providing you with the support and confidence to make bold and dramatic moves. It can even be an ever-present nurturing parent, protecting you from danger.
But, sometimes, it becomes critical, fixating on painful emotions and reliving moments of embarrassment. And, unfortunately, that’s when you hear it the loudest; it can be hard to turn off, filling you with self-doubt, eating away at your confidence, and preventing you from reaching your full potential. When it gets out of control, it can cause havoc with your performance, decision-making, relationships, happiness, and health.
Jess Baker, psychologist and author of The Super-Helper Syndrome: A Survival Guide For Compassionate People (The History Press, £18.99), explains further: ‘Everyone has an inner critic, but some are more sensitive to theirs than others,’ she says. ‘And when there is more risk of failure, such as starting a new job or a new relationship, the volume of the inner critic increases and similar themes emerge: not trusting ourself to make the best decision (which can lead to procrastination); negative appraisal of our appearance (“I wish my nose was smaller”); harshly judging our personal qualities (“I should be a better friend”); and belittling our lifestyle (“I should be earning more”).’
Sound familiar? When you stop to think about it, you may recognise your inner critic as a perfectionist (‘Try harder’), or a taskmaster (‘You’re so lazy’). Perhaps it’s an underminer (‘Don’t even try, because you’ll fail anyway’), a guilt-tripper (‘How could you have done that?’), or a conformist (‘What will other people think?’). Or maybe it’s a controller (‘You have no willpower’), or a destroyer (‘You’re worthless’).
Your inner critic can be pretty harsh, so it’s no wonder we wish it would shut up at times – but it’s tenacious, and taps into our most damaging thought processes, such as black-and-white thinking, over-generalisation, disqualifying the positive, self-blame, and catastrophising. Although there’s nothing we can do to stop those thoughts popping into our heads altogether, we do have control over how we engage in them, how we work with them, how we manipulate them, and how we control them once they are activated. Instead of trying to silence your chatter, you can educate it, motivate it, and reason with it.
‘Don’t try to fight with your inner critic,’ says integrative arts psychotherapist Emma Cameron. ‘Yes, it limits you. Yes, it hurts you and makes you feel terrible. But when you try to tame, silence, squash or master it, you may be just making it stronger. Instead, try thinking in terms of befriending it, guiding it, calming it, and gently transforming it.’
The good news is that there are lots of ways to do that, from creating a more compassionate mindset, to stepping back and thinking about your situation more objectively. The first step is to get curious, and it all starts with understanding where the voice is coming from. Next time you feel like your inner critic might be in operation, try tuning into some of the things that it says to you. What sorts of things does your inner critic tell you that you can’t do? Or shouldn’t do? Or aren’t capable of? Or don’t deserve? What sort of person does your inner critic say you are? What does your inner critic have to say about how other people see you?
What’s the tone of your inner critic like? Is it cold, sarcastic, nagging, belittling, mean or demanding? How about the volume? Do you feel as if you have someone inside your head shouting demands at you?
With all this going on, it can easily become overwhelming, making it hard for us to concentrate and make rational decisions. ‘When this happens, we need to find ways to distance ourselves from the heat and snippiness of the inner critic,’ says Cameron.
Stepping back from your mental echo chamber allows you to gain a broader, calmer, and more objective perspective, and when you distance yourself, you are able to be less emotionally triggered, less stressed mentally and physically, and you make better judgments and decisions.
One widely successful technique is speaking to yourself in the third person. This flips a switch in your head and creates an immediate emotional distance by altering your perspective. We are often better at giving guidance to other people struggling with something emotional than we are at giving it to ourselves, so this puts you in a better position to start offering yourself much wiser advice. To make this easier, Cameron recommends giving your inner critic a name, which allows you to move the chatter from ‘inner monologue’ to ‘inner dialogue’ and you can begin to have conversations with your critic that counter its negativity.
‘When you imagine the voice is no longer in your head but belongs to a persona you’ve created, it’s easier to question what it’s saying,’ adds Baker. ‘Learning to interrupt your inner critic is essential. It’s the only way you are going to be able to regain any control over it and reclaim your headspace.’
So when you hear your inner critic saying things like ‘You’re such a failure’ or ‘No one loves you’, ask for evidence that this is true. Often, there is little proof to support this negative self-talk, and by questioning it, you can begin to break the cycle by hitting back with facts. You could even try hoarding evidence of your successes: list the things you’re good at and keep them close to hand for the times you need to counter your inner critic with positivity.
Baker also suggests turning your inner critic on its head. ‘Try swapping the negative words for self-confident affirmations,’ she says. ‘Change “I don’t feel successful” to “I deserve to feel successful”, or even “I am successful”. It might feel icky to say this at first, but try it anyway, because there’s magic (backed by science) in hearing yourself say positive feedback out loud in this way. As the brain begins to believe it, you will begin to feel it.’
But it’s not just what your inner critic says – how it says it matters, too. Most of us are guilty of being harder on ourselves than we are on others, and we wouldn’t dream of saying the things we let our inner critic get away with to a friend.
‘It’s really important to work on building self-compassion,’ says Cameron. ‘Change your relationship with failure. Instead of seeing it as a terrible thing to have made a mistake, work on being more realistic, and recognise that failure is a common, normal experience that happens to us all from time to time. Don’t pin your self-worth on “only succeeding”; instead, allow yourself to be what you actually are — a wonderful, flawed human who is worthy of love and respect even when you mess up.’
For most of us, our inner critic will be around in some shape or form for the rest of our lives. It’s a part of who we are, and although there doesn’t seem to be a magic bullet for switching it off, with the techniques you now have in your toolbox – and a little practice – you’ll soon move beyond the negative chatter in your head.
- Listen to the Dethroning Your Inner Critic Podcast with Joanna Kleinman
- Read Chatter: The Voice In Our Head (And How to Harness It) by Ethan Kross (Ebury, £12.99)
- Meditate at mindful.org/ basic-meditation- tame-inner-critic/
Words: Kellie Gillespie-Wright / Images: Shutterstock