Simple steps to help you manage self-criticism
You may not notice your Inner Critic that much.
Maybe s/he hides in the shadows of your mind, waiting to pounce when you mess up or when something goes wrong.
Unfortunately, many of us do not know we are swimming in self-criticism until it is pointed out to us that we are drowning in it. But for some of us, the Inner Critic is the only voice we hear all of the time. And this can be exhausting.
Self-criticism involves constant and harsh self-scrutiny, overly critical evaluations of one's own behavior, and negative reactions to perceived failures
Löw, Schauenburg & Dinger (2020)
Being self-critical is like any pattern of thinking: habitual. Whatever our Inner Critic says, we listen. We take it on board as if what it is saying is true. However, like any habit, we can change self-criticism with some work. This article outlines some key steps you can take to reduce your inner critic's influence in your life.
Step 1: Notice when your Inner Critic shows up
Cultivating awareness of your thoughts when you think them is a skill that can be learned and takes practice.
Consider for a moment the sky above you. The sky sees all kinds of weather, from raging storms to brilliant sunshine and everything in between. Your ability to notice your thoughts is akin to the sky watching the weather. Like the weather, your mind produces negative thoughts, self-critical thoughts, pleasant thoughts and everything else in between. But you can be like the sky and watch your thoughts come and go.
Awareness of your Inner Critic can start with slowing down the moment in which you are being self-critical. Take a long, slow deep breath.
Shift your attention to your mind - ask yourself: am I self-critical right now? Or is my Inner Critic showing up?
Step 2: Get to know your Inner Critic
Different emotions have their own distinct patterns of thinking, feeling and being. For example, have you noticed that when you are angry, you will think differently, emotionally feel different and have different physical sensations in your body compared with when you are experiencing sadness, contentment, or anxiety?
Different emotional 'selves' sit within us, and each can influence our mind, how we feel in our body, and can impact on our actions in quite different ways
Irons & Beaumont (2017)
Your Inner Critic is one such self or version of the different parts of you (there can be other parts like your angry self or your anxious self and so on). Getting to know this part helps you gain insight into the different facets of your personhood (Bell et al, 2021).
You are not 'broken or 'damaged' or deserving of harsh internal rhetoric.
You are complex, multifaceted and experience a range of patterns of emotions and mind-body states that can be difficult to get to grips with. You did not design your brain this way, it is just how your brain has evolved over millions of years (Gilbert, 2020).
When you notice you are being self-critical, ask yourself:
What is my critical self/Inner Critic saying to me?
What tone of voice is it using?
What is the emotion in the voice?
Inner Critics tend to be harsh, cold, disapproving, frustrated, angry, contemptuous.
What does it want?
Is it being critical in order to do something specific? For example, to protect you in some way, perhaps? To prevent you from doing something? Or to push you to succeed/not fail?
Step 3: Stop the Inner Critic spiral
It is common for self-critical thoughts to spiral until you are in a pit of negativity and hopelessness. However, if you have followed the previous steps, you are halfway there to stopping that spiral.
The extra step here is to bring in some compassionate understanding for yourself:
What would I say to a friend or a young child in this situation?
And can I say this to myself right now?...
How would I say it? (What tone of voice would I use)
Let me use that tone with myself right now...
What would I do to help them? (What actions would I take?)
How about I do ... and ... which will help me in this situation.
The above steps can help you reduce the dominance of your Inner Critic or Critical Self, but it can take consistent practice to do so.
Cultivating more of a self-compassionate, supportive, encouraging and warm attitude towards yourself will help you manage your Inner Critic in difficult moments. If this is difficult at first, follow step 3, which will enable you to tap into a compassionate state of mind that you can then direct towards yourself.
Bell, T., Montague, J., Elander, J., & Gilbert, P. (2020). “Suddenly you are King Solomon”: Multiplicity, transformation and integration in compassion focused therapy chairwork. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/int0000240
Gilbert, P. (2020). Compassion: From Its Evolution to a Psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychology. Vol 11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.586161
Irons, C. & Beaumont, E. (2017). The compassionate mind workbook. Robinson.
Löw, C.A., Schauenburg, H. & Dinger, U. (2020). Self-criticism and psychotherapy outcome: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, Vol 75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2019.101808