Stop Your Inner Critic from Bullying You
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
Converting our inner critic into our greatest friend and ally.
Is your inner bully your worst enemy? You know what I mean, that little voice inside your head that starts up with its sly little comments every time you want to do something. ‘You’re not wearing that surely, everyone will laugh at you.’ ‘You can’t apply for that job, you’ll never get through the interview process!’ ‘No point sitting that exam, you’ll fail it anyway.’ ‘Don’t bother making conversation, those people just think you’re boring!’
Even if we do push ourselves, the doubting voice is still niggling away in the back of our mind. ‘I got the job, but they’ll soon find out I’m useless.’ ‘My hot date is sure to find an excuse to leave when he sees me.’ It’s normal to feel a certain amount of worry or doubt, however when we are triggered our doubts start to turn into that loud, biting voice, it’s maybe time to take stock and question their validity.
To be fair, our critical inner voice serves a purpose. It can provide a rational counter-argument to that part of us that wants to do crazy stuff. It can help keep us safe from actual physical harm, as well as protecting us from the painful feelings that come with humiliation, fear or rejection.
However sometimes our inner critic can become too controlling and start to control every aspect of our lives. Our inner critic can start to perceive threat or danger where there is none. It can wrongly begin to evaluate all situations as fearful or emotionally threatening. Our critical inner voice can go into overdrive and start to attack us from the inside. This can have a damaging effect on our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
If we hand over control to our inner critic, we can end up being afraid to try anything. In extreme circumstances, it can lead to self-destructive and harmful criticism, inwardness, distrust of self and others, self-denial, limitation and even addiction. It can lead to negative attitudes towards ourselves and others. We can develop unhelpful bias and prejudice towards ourselves and others. It can affect our personal relationships, our choice of partners and friends, our work choices and our overall performance in every aspect of our daily life. It can even lead to a full retreat from our own life and our ability to self-actualise our hopes and dreams.
Our critical inner voice develops from the values, beliefs, rules for living and conditions either imposed upon us by our primary carers and our external environment or that we develop to keep ourselves safe in our environment. It may have initially developed as a survival mechanism to keep us safe from fear, shame or rejection. It stops us from listening to our inner valuing process which is focussed on our inner needs and wants. We start to suppress these if we know they won’t be met, or we perceive that the needs and wants of others are more important. We can develop maladaptive behaviours such as people pleasing.
The more we ignore our inner valuing process, the louder it may become in order to make us more aware of our needs and wants. This can lead to inner disharmony. The inner valuing process can hear our inner wants and needs, whilst our critical inner voice imposes its self-limiting beliefs, rules and restrictions, those very loud self-abasing thoughts and attitudes that exist in all of us and keep us from achieving our ambitions.
This can sound like: don’t get too close, you’ll get hurt; don’t have a go, you’ll fail. These thoughts can also be cruel and rebuking: Who do you think you are? You'll never succeed. You’re a loser. Nobody cares about you.
Alternatively these thoughts can by slyly soothing: You don’t need anyone else. The only person you can rely on is you. Just have another pudding, you deserve an extra treat. Have another beer, it will make you feel better. This can be harmful and only leads to more attacks from the critical inner voice. Look at you, you have no self-control, you’ll always be a loser.
These self-limiting thoughts and beliefs often result in us behaving in ways that are harmful to both ourselves and others and can hold us back from achieving what we want in life.
So how do we convert our inner critic into our greatest friend and ally?
1. Monitoring or tracking our critical inner voice
One technique is to become aware of when our critical inner voice is at its loudest. It can be helpful to keep a diary or notes on our phone when it appears and what it is saying.
2. Verbalising the attacks out loud
Instead of hearing the attacks in the first person (I statements), we can say them out loud in the second person (You statements). So for example, instead of saying ‘I’m a loser’, we can say ‘You’re a loser’ in the same tone of voice. Then we ask our self, who’s voice is that?
This can lead to insight into the source of our critical voice. We often realise that the content and tone of our critical voice is familiar to us and may have been directed towards us as children. We may realise things like ‘That's what mum used to say to me’ or ‘That's the attitude I got from my teacher’. It’s important to recognise where the critical voice may have originated from.
3. Understanding the values, rules for living or conditions behind the critical voice
It is important to understand which underlying values, beliefs, conditions or rules for living are being broken, according to our critical voice. So for example, when I want to sit and read a book but my critical voice starts saying ‘you’re lazy, you should be cleaning up’, I might consider what are the underlying values, rules for life or conditions of worth at play here? There may be values or beliefs around having a tidy home, or conditions around only being a person of worth if our home is clean and tidy, or rules for living like the house must be clean and tidy at all times. How did that value, belief, condition or rule for life develop? For example, it may have come from a stay-at-home mother, but you may be working full time and the rule doesn’t work in your personal circumstances. Or you may have grown up in chaos and developed this rule as a way to feel safe. It’s important to recognise who’s rule is this and why it developed in order to consider whether this rule or belief works for us in our life today.
4. Understanding the fears of the critical inner voice
Once we understand the underlying rules, conditions, beliefs or values, it may make it easier for us to understand what it is our critical voice is trying to protect us from. What is our critical voice afraid of? In the example above, it may be there is a fear of being judged by others, or a fear of chaos. The critical voice in this case is trying to protect us from the painful feelings we experience when being judged or that scary sense of feeling out of control.
5. Responding to Your Critical Inner Voice
Once we understand that our critical voice is afraid, this makes it easier to have empathy and compassion towards our inner attacker. We can then become soothing towards our critical inner voice in order to reassure that part of our self that we are not at risk, that we’re safe, that it can ease up a little. As the critical voice eases up, we can then start to become a little more assertive with our critical inner voice.
So for example when our attacking voice says things like ‘you're an idiot. No one wants to hear what you have to say. Just shut up!’ we may respond with statements like ‘I’m actually not an idiot; my thoughts and feelings matter; they are just as valid as anyone else’s’.
It’s then really important to follow up with rational statements about how we really are in the world, how other people really are in the world, and what is true about our social world. We may say something like:
- I’m just a person, I’m no better or worse than anyone else, just different, and I’m deserving of respect just like everyone else
- People are human, humans are flawed, and that’s ok
- The world is full of people doing their own thing in their own way and so am I, and that’s ok.
6. Understanding how our internal attacker influences our behaviour
It’s important to be curious about how our internal, self-defeating beliefs, values, conditions or rules for living lead to self-limiting thoughts which lead to self-limiting actions and behaviours. For example, our primary carers may have paid little interest in us or our teachers may have favoured other children. As a result, we may have internalised false beliefs about ourselves, that we are boring or stupid, or that we need to somehow be different in order to be acceptable. Our critical inner voice wants to protect us from painful feelings of shame or rejection so it tells us we are stupid and not to speak or tells us to behave in a way that is different to who we really are.
How might this affect our confidence or how we communicate with others? If we believe ourselves to be boring or stupid, we may withdraw from others, be afraid to express ourselves or speak our mind or we may start drinking in order to become a different person or numb the uncomfortable feelings. This can have a negative impact on all aspects of our lives. Developing a clear understanding of how our critical inner voice is driving our actions and behaviours can be helpful when we want to change a specific self-limiting behaviour in order to improve aspects of our lives.
7. Changing Self-Limiting Beliefs
Once we are able to identify the underlying values, beliefs, conditions or rules for living that are driving our thoughts, attitudes and behaviours, we can begin to change these. A good starting point is to ask ourselves for the evidence. So for example, if I believe myself to be stupid, what is the evidence? It’s really important to be kind and curious towards ourselves in this process. It is also very important to be realistic. Is there evidence to the contrary? Did someone else tell me I’m stupid? I wonder why they said that to me? I wonder why I believed them? I wonder if it’s actually not true at all?
We can then start to reframe the self-limiting belief or develop a different belief based on new evidence or new ways of thinking. We can ask ourselves, I wonder what it would be like to think about myself differently? Was I being something other than stupid? Maybe I was just having fun? How would I like to think about myself?
8. Changing Self-Limiting Behaviors
Once we have identified the self-limiting beliefs and the ways in which we limit ourselves, make ourselves smaller or even harm ourselves, we can start to think about what we want to change and how we want to be instead. Once we know what we want to change, we can:
a) Acknowledge the fears of the critical inner voice
b) Have compassion for that part of us that is still afraid
c) Calm the critical inner voice and let the fearful part of us know that the new values, beliefs, conditions or rules for living will keep us just as safe, if not safer than we were before
d) Gently challenge the negative self-talk with new, assertive self-talk
e) Stop engaging with the old values, beliefs, rules for living and conditions, recognising them as harmful to us
f) Stop self-destructive thoughts and behaviours in their tracks and consciously adopt the new values, beliefs, rules for living and conditions
g) Increase our exposure to the new positive thoughts and behaviours with curiosity, whilst maintaining empathy and compassion for the part of us that is still afraid
h) Reassure that part of ourselves that it’s ok, we won’t come to actual physical harm.
Identifying and countering critical inner voices can be harder than it seems. Change can generate feelings of stress and anxiety. Often, when we begin to challenge our critical inner voice and try to make changes, our inner attacker can double down, becoming much louder and stronger and the attacks can grow in intensity. If this happens, it’s easy to give up because, as unpleasant as it is, the critical voice can feel easier to live with than to try to change it.
Sticking it out
But let’s not forget how sly and underhand our critical inner voice can be. Our inner attacker can gaslight us into believing we need it to keep us on the straight and narrow; it’s our familiar, our friend, in some ways it feels comfortable and comforting, we know where we are with it. However, the more we provide our critical inner voice with reassurance, the more it feels safe to allow us to live our lives how we want to, without fear of constant castigation. It takes courage and perseverance, but if we can stick it out with empathy and compassion for ourselves, we can begin to feel safe being ourselves. We can begin to have respect for our authentic self and our lived experience, living our truth, living free from limitations and becoming our self-actualising self, achieving what we want to achieve in our life for ourselves.
Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice. Firestone, R.W. et al. 2002. New Harbinger Publications.
Steps to Overcoming Your Critical Inner Voice. Firestone, L. Psychology Today, 21st May 2010.