If your internal narrative is negative, it can demoralize and sabotage you. These negative messages are called your inner critic, and they greatly influence how you feel and behave, which can cause negative self-talk to be destructive.1 Fortunately, there are strategies to help silence and reshape these negative thoughts into sources of personal strength and motivation.
What Is an Inner Critic?
The inner critic tells you all the reasons you are not good enough. It is formed from painful early life experiences when we might have witnessed or experienced hurtful attitudes toward ourselves or those close to us. We unconsciously adopt and integrate this pattern of thought toward ourselves and others as we age.2
The self critical inner voice is persistent and continues to judge and berate consistently. Mental health challenges like depression can evolve from this dynamic.3 The flood of negative feelings and emotions linked to your inner critic can also be a great source of stress and self-sabotage. Anxiety is another mental health diagnosis that can be related to the ongoing internal negative messaging from your inner critic.
Can an Inner Critic Be Helpful?
The inner critic can be viewed as a type of survival mechanism used to identify potential environmental threats. It can also help to avoid failure or embarrassment. In addition, the inner critic can encourage people to move forward and succeed at achieving their goals. It can also tell you what can be done to make things better.
Jane Shure, PhD, LCSW, co-founder of The Resilience Group states, “The Inner Critic arises when we are young children in an attempt to keep us feeling safe and secure. If you think about how parents train children to avoid dangerous situations, it’s not with gentle tones of voice. They speak harshly and try to scare us so that we won’t touch the hot stove or walk into traffic. As kids, we learn by imitating our parent’s tones of voice and repeat their words.8
As young children, when our needs get frustrated, our Inner Critic insists it must be our FAULT. Our Inner Critic acts like a one-trick pony. It only knows how to blame, shame or criticize the self. We maintain a myth that the Inner Critic holds our best interests at heart; that it wants to “improve” us and help us to feel more adequate. This is not the case.”
Inner Critic Examples
The inner critic voice can be louder and certainly crueler than the nurturing voice that coexists with it. These messages can be amplified by society as well, reinforcing the message that we are different, not equal, or do not fit in with others.
Here are examples of inner critical thinking:
- You are ugly
- You are fat
- You are not worthy of this
- You are stupid
- Nobody likes you
- Nobody cares what you think or what you have to say
- You don’t really have any friends
- You don’t deserve to get this job
- You are an impostor
Impacts of an Inner Critic
The inner critic can damage self-confidence and your ability to trust yourself and your instincts, creating an ongoing cycle of self-blame. It also allows self-doubt to fester. The toxicity of repeated negative self-thoughts can produce feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and diminish motivation.
Ongoing self-critical thinking can create emotional lows that move into a mental health crisis like depression or anxiety. Society also sends negative messages that can be internalized about people’s gender, color, or religion. These messages can make people feel unequal, ridiculed, or outcasted.
Experts on inner critical voice caution that it can have even more serious consequences which exist along a continuum of intensity. In suicidal individuals, these thoughts have been observed to change, at some point, from guilty self-accusations to destructive self-attacks to self-harm behaviors.4
How to Overcome Your Inner Critic
The reality is the inner critic voice does not disappear, but there are steps you can take to teach your inner voice to show self-compassion and kindness. With greater self-understanding and guidance, you can work to distance yourself from the inner critical voice and hinder its ability to produce negative and judgemental messages.
Shure encourages, “While the Inner Critic may be strong, it can be calmed by the voice of an Inner Coach. The Critic may never go away completely but we can learn strategies to reduce its destructive power and, in doing so, we build new neural networks that support our well-being and self-esteem. Just as the Critic developed over the course of years, so too can our Inner Coach gets stronger over time. We need to practice its voice and train ourselves to tolerate the discomfort that comes when we refrain from self-criticism, accept positive feedback and use more encouraging language with ourselves.”
Here are eight steps to silence your inner critical voice:
1. Practice Self Kindness
Take a step back when the critical inner voice arises. Show yourself the same compassion you would show others. Be empathetic toward your behavior, thoughts, and feelings, including self-judgment and self-critical thoughts.5
2. Consider Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT)
Instead of trying to alter negative thoughts, ACT recommends that we observe and accept what our inner critic has to say and then try to let it go. Treat the inner critic like a mind-chatter and seek to shift attention away from it.6
3. Alter Your Thinking From Being Against Yourself to For Yourself
First, identify the negative thoughts and beliefs you experience. Try writing these thoughts down in the second person as if someone else is talking to you. You could try talking to a close friend who tends to have a more optimistic outlook.3
4. Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a short-term therapy that teaches techniques to help alter negative thinking regarding uncomfortable situations and relationships. It helps people feel more in control over thoughts and alters negative thinking into positive thinking to create a healthier outcome.
5. Become Aware of When Your Inner Critic Appears
Be proactive and identify places, times, events, and people that may trigger the appearance of your inner critic voice. This will help you to prepare for its onset. You can then come up with strategies to alter these negative behavioral patterns.
6. Acknowledge That the Inner Critic Voice Will Not Disappear
Accept the fact that we all have an ongoing inner dialogue with ourselves that helps govern our thoughts, behaviors, and actions. There is nothing unusual or wrong with this. However, you can change how you engage and react to the negative aspect of your inner critic. Alter the relationship so it becomes more of a friend than a foe.
7. Consider How Self-Critical Attitudes Developed Inside You
Try tracking down where these negative thoughts originated as a way to gain greater insights about them. Who does it remind you of? Are there any underlying triggers or past events that precipitated these negative thoughts and self-talk? Step back from the criticism to observe it; this can stop reinforcing it and help you dis-identify from it.7
8. Use Humor as a Coping Technique
Imagine your inner critic as a cartoon or fictional character from a movie or TV show. Choose a character whose voice you think is silly, or ridiculous, and who acts incompetently. Imagine and visualize who you choose as the source of your inner critic voice. It is much easier to dismiss an inner critic with these characteristics.
When to Consider Therapy
If you cannot silence your inner critical voice, it’s time to think about seeing a mental health professional. A therapist can offer insights, skills, and techniques to keep your inner critic in a more manageable realm and help you feel more in control when it arises. You can find a mental health specialist on the Choosing Therapy directory.
Shure recommends that it’s time to try therapy when:
- You are ready to make a change
- The shame and pain in your life are interfering with your happiness and success
- You are wanting relationships that are more satisfying and supportive
Another indicator that therapy may be needed is when symptoms of anxiety and depression appear, remain, or become worse. Symptoms of anxiety include ongoing fear that something bad is going to happen, rapid heartbeat, and an inability to sleep or relax.
Final Thoughts on the Inner Critic
We all have an inner critic that uses negative self-narration. For some people, that voice can be louder, more frequent, and more intrusive. If you don’t have a trusted friend or family member to turn to, counseling can empower you in meaningful ways. Having a new sense of control over your critical inner voice can greatly improve your quality of life.