5 Ways To Manage Your Inner Critics
I’ve come to be passionate about inner critics. Unintentionally, but perhaps unsurprisingly, they have become a cornerstone of my coaching practice and my own personal development journey. Understanding them, learning to coexist and manage them has been the key driver in me finding a different, more positive way to live and work.
What is an Inner Critic?
It’s that voice, or voices, in our heads that chatter away to us, normally offering up judgement, criticism, self-limiting and over cautious, often fearful commentary. The voice that tells us we are not good enough, not popular enough, not liked enough. That we should certainly not try this new thing, because if we do we are likely to fail and be judged by others for doing so. They ensure we stay in our lane, stay safe and stay small.
It's important now to reassure you that we all have them. Every single one of us. Yep, without exception. For some people they pop up occasionally and are relatively inconsequential. For others, however, they dominate their daily landscape and for some, they have become so normalised that they can’t actually hear them as separate to themselves – they hear them as their own thoughts and voice. It’s very (VERY) common.
A devastating effect from our critic can be our belief that this is me, this is truth and everyone else is just coasting. Even if our rational brain can intervene and tell us it really isn’t true, our critics have a canny knack of sliding back in with the “ah yes but” … to sow that little doubt again and to alienate us from the group. Little buggers.
Why do I have inner critics?
Understanding why we have them is, I believe, a crucial part in learning to manage them. It was when I altered my perspective on my own inner critics that I was really able to make sustainable change.
As bonkers as it may seem, based on how nasty they can be to us in what they say and how they say it, our inner critics are here to help. It’s so unfortunate that they are just crap at it, but genuinely they are trying to help. Their primary function is safety – yours. By any means necessary, they want you to stay in safe places and safe situations. That means trying new things, learning new skills, changing roles, going after a promotion, making new friends, walking into a room of strangers, speaking in public, raising a question, tackling a diffficult conversation, etcetera … all of these present risk. And they hate risk. They hate anything that exposes you, so they tell you, shout at you, berate you and undermine you, so you don’t try. And my goodness aren’t they experts?
I don’t think we can overstate how large a part these inner critics can play in our lives; they can be utterly convincing and for some utterly paralysing. They present the “why you can’t, why you mustn’t and why you shouldn’t” side to the things that the real you offers up as thoughts, ideas, plans and longings.
Ways to manage them.
So, here’s the $50 million question – what do I do about it? How can I manage them?
Awareness & Acknowledgement: Step one sounds like child’s play, but I at least found it the hardest to learn. To be able to make conscious change we first need to become aware of our critics. It’s the process of beginning to separate their opinions from our own. I start by pointing them out to my clients every time their critic offers an opinion, and then I invite my client to start noticing for themselves between sessions. I used a physical note, so when I heard my inner critic, I actually put my finger up and noted “there it is. Critic”. Notice what is being said and how is it being said, what’s the tone? And when we notice the critic we are immediately presented with a choice – what do I want to do with this? Whereas perhaps before, we felt we had no choice other than to endure.
Presence: A quick and simple hack to silencing your critic in the moment, is to get out of your head. And to do this you need to get into your body. You cannot be in your head and in your body at the same time. So whether you choose an activity, such as a quick walk, even just for 2 minutes, or a breathing exercise – it can be as simple as taking 4 deep breaths and really focussing on the sensation of breathing, or a ‘feeling’ exercise such as taking your awareness to your feet and really feeling your feet in your socks, in your shoes, on the floor . Using your body is a tried and tested interruption tool.
You know I love the OMF. Here is a very quick and simple 3-minute breathing exercise. I used it so many times in the loo at work when I got the wobbles. Mark Williams – such a clever man.
Truth check: So exactly what is your critic saying to you? Say it out loud, or write it down. Then really look at it. Is it true? Mine often tells me I am a total moron, an A1 idiot. (He’s trying to keep me in the safe zone remember, so if I believe him, I’m not going to feel capable to try something new). Now, am I really an idiot?! I know I do some idiotic things on occasion, but that doesn’t make me an idiot. And I have facts to back it up. I’ve passed a lot of exams, I have a lot of qualifications, I’ve held down some big jobs and had positive feedback from them. The list could go on. And if you are struggling to counter the story of your critic – I challenge you to spend a full five minutes (time it and don’t stop early) writing a list of all the facts that counter your critic’s opinion.
Play it out: Ok so our critic is telling us that if we do this, then this will happen. Let’s play the scenario out, shall we? If I apply for this job, I won’t get it. The hiring team won’t even call me for interview. My peers will find out I applied and be amazed I even bothered; they will talk about me in the coffee shop. I will feel foolish and don’t think I will ever be able to face any of them again. We truth check this, and your critic convinces you it is true. Righto, so this actually happens. Then what? Try it. When I do this exercise with clients, they normally end up laughing. Our critics are clever, they work with fear, so dig into what is actually frightening us.
Create an Ally: This is the big gun. Intentionally curating an inner voice to stand in support of you. It’s not to engage in an argument with your critics, rather it is the self-compassionate, confident, knowing voice that reassures you. I work with clients to create an actual ‘personality’ for this part of you, it makes it easier to connect with it in times of stress. You can play with this idea by thinking about a time when you felt awesome, at your best. What attributes were in play here? What skills were you using? How would your best friend describe you in that moment. Write all these words down or draw/create a picture to represent it. Now stand up (yes really), close your eyes and feel it all again. Notice how you are standing. And return to this stance as many times as you can every day until it becomes a very familiar place that you can tap into eaily.
Will this banish them forever?
My opinion? No. I don’t believe you can be rid of them completely and forever, and I am very sceptical of those who say otherwise. We are biologically wired to have them as a safety mechanism, and I just don’t believe it realistic to say there is a method to silence them completely. And I remain open to be convinced otherwise, if someone has evidence!
However, I know we can take charge of them. I know we can assert our own natural authority and give the critics a more realistic place in our psyche. We can make them again the child opinion to our adult one. We can acknowledge their concern without needing to take that concern onboard ourselves. We can separate their voice from our own. We can choose to not allow them to run our lives.
The longest relationship you will ever have is with yourself – so would you like to take your self-critic with you, or your compassionate friend? Deborah Lee Consultant Clinical Psychologist
If you want more on this subject, I would recommend:
Rick Carson: Taming your Gremlin
Shirzad Charmain: Positive Intelligence
Dr. Kristin Neff: 5 minute Self Compassion Break: How to silence your inner critic. (Feel Better Live More Podcast).
If I’ve piqued your curiosity, I offer a free 30-minute call. You can book that directly in my diary here. I don’t do hassle, I can’t bear it when people try it with me, so of course you get to mull it over and a no thanks from you is final, I promise. And for those that like the detail (I’m one of those), have a look at my website, where I aim to provide complete transparency on what to expect – and that includes pricing.
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I work with individuals, teams and organisations, helping them become more self-aware so that they can appreciate choice and make decisions to change with confidence.
My one-to-one clients have a corporate career which, often, is not currently satisfying them. They often don’t know why, because it used to, or because it looks great on the surface. I help them figure out what’s getting in their way and where they want to go next.
My organisational clients are seeking support via coaching, workshops and webinars with leadership development, confidence in business and wellbeing.
Feel Better Live More: Dr. Chattergee.
Oxford Mindfulness Foundation