Freedom From The Inner Critic

Does your inner dialogue tend to sound mean or judgmental? Are your thoughts overly focused on your supposed mistakes and flaws? The part of our psyche that is sometimes referred to as the “inner critic” can be a major obstacle to happiness and inner freedom, especially for people to feel a lot of shame or a lack of self-worth. The critic reinforces the sense that we aren’t OK and undermines our confidence, blocking us from realizing our potential.

Imagine how painful and debilitating it would be to have someone following you around, telling you how bad you are, especially if you believed what they were saying. If you have a strong inner critic, this is what is actually happening throughout the day.

If you are used to listening to your critic and believing what it says, you might think that it’s trying to help you improve in some way, or that you need it in order to be motivated and to know how to behave. But if you pay careful attention to its critical messages, you’ll find that they are not accurate, consistent, or logical, and certainly not caring towards you. The critic just wants to pick you apart in any way that it can.

Of course, it’s important to be able to look at ourselves honestly and recognize when we make mistakes, but we need to be able to do so with accuracy and compassion. The critic’s role, on the contrary, is to constantly find faults even when they don’t exist, and to exaggerate and generalize them, in order to make us feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with us.  

It’s important to address this self-criticism, because it is a barrier to fulfilling one’s potential in therapy as well as in life. People’s judgements about what they “should” feel prevent them from being able to explore their own feelings and experience in an open way in therapy. In fact, when a highly self-critical person comes to therapy they usually believe that they are there to “fix” themselves and their inner critic is in the driver’s seat. It’s essential that the therapist challenge this dynamic.

With self-critical clients, I often start by encouraging them to become more aware of the rejecting messages that they hear. These thoughts can be fast and automatic, so clients may not even be aware of them, even though they still have an impact. And many people are so used to thinking negatively about themselves, that they assume these judgements are natural and true.

One way I help people notice self-critical thoughts outside of our sessions, is to ask them to keep a log of all the judgmental messages that go through their head during a certain period of time. If you try this exercise, you may be surprised to see the abusive way you talk to yourself. Things like: “That was stupid! No one will ever like me. I’ll never be any good. I’m a failure. There’s something wrong with me. I’m boring, lazy, messed up, etc.” When we see these cruel judgements, most of us realize we would never speak this way to someone we care about, which helps us see through the illusion that our inner critic is helping us. 

When we recognize what our critic is really doing, we can start changing our relationship to it. Instead of accepting what it says as the truth, we can try to challenge it and defend ourselves from it.

A key part of the process is to learn to stop identifying with the critic; to see that it is not really who we are. It is actually the internalization of critical and rejecting figures from our past: for example, shaming parents or bullies at school. It may also stem from experiences in which we were hurt or abused and learned to blame ourselves for what happened. Often times it can be helpful to feel our anger at being treated this way, which helps us have the energy we need to push back against the critic and refuse to listen to it.

Another approach that can be helpful is trying to empathize with our inner critic. Even though it is hurtful and limiting to us, it originated as an effort to try to protect us. When we were children, we started criticizing ourselves in order to try to avoid being rejected and hurt by other people. As adults, the inner critic is still trying to make ourselves be how it thinks we have to be in order to get love or acceptance. When we understand this, we can start to break free of the critic because we recognize that we no longer need it to play this role.

Becoming free of the critic is not about removing our conscience and giving ourselves license to behave irresponsibly. Nor is it an effort to think only positive thoughts about ourselves – that would be inauthentic. It’s about freeing ourselves from toxic self-criticism and distorted beliefs, and opening up more of our life force and potential. It can profoundly improve one’s quality of life.