Steps for understanding your inner critic

Everyone has an inner critic who says in a hundred different ways, “you’re not good enough”. There’s a gap between how you see yourself and how you think you ‘should’ be. This gap is the playground of your inner critic.

The critic is fed by negative messages from our family, friends, social media, and society at large about who you ‘need’ to be in order to be worthy, smart, successful, rich, attractive, popular.

The critic can be especially loud in people experiencing anxiety, depression, or trauma. Turning against yourself is one of the cruelest features of these conditions.

In an ideal world, the purpose of the inner critic is to protect you and to help you recognize where you’ve gone wrong and what you need to do to set things right. But for most people, the inner critic goes way overboard, throwing dart after dart of scolding, shaming, nit-picking, and fault-finding. It’s big and powerful and loud, and sometimes, incredibly debilitating.

Step 1: First, try to observe how self-criticism operates inside you. Notice any dismissal or minimization of your pain, your needs, and your rights. Watch how little thoughts downplay your accomplishments: “Oh, anyone could have done that . . . but it wasn’t perfect . . . what about the other times when you messed up?” Observe any repetitive doubting or discouraging of your hopes and dreams is a sign that your inner critic is activated.

Step 2: Be aware of anger at yourself that seems out of proportion to what happened. Listen inside for a tone of scolding, berating, or shaming — like someone is yelling at you. Recognize any underlying attitude that you always have to do more to be good enough. And identify any over-the-top moralistic self-condemnation, conveyed by phrases such as “You should be ashamed of yourself” or “You’re a bad person.” As you observe what’s happening in your mind, label it with tags such as “self-criticism,” or “dismissing my needs”.

Step 3: Consider how self-critical attitudes developed inside you, perhaps when you were younger. When you’re mindful of your inner dialogue, you might notice there’s something familiar about the words, tone, or attitude in the self-criticism. Does it remind you of anyone — a parent, sibling, relative, teacher, coach? By listening to yourself, you can hear the dogmatism, harshness, and absurdity in much of what the inner critic has to say. Stepping back from the criticism to observe it can stop reinforcing it and help you dis-identify from it: In other words, you may hear it, but you don’t need to be it. This kind of calm witnessing can make the voice of your inner critic less intense and more reasonable.