Do you ever speak to yourself in a way that you would never speak to someone else?
Harsher? Meaner? More irrational?
We all have a voice in our head that reminds us of the things we aren’t. That’s your inner critic.
Your inner critic might tell you that you’re not:
- good enough
- thin enough
- pretty enough
- likeable enough
- smart enough
- capable enough
- loveable or worthy, or
- a good enough mum.
She might also focus on mistakes that you’ve made, things that have gone wrong, missed opportunities or dreams that you haven’t yet made a reality.
A 2016 survey (conducted by Weight Watchers as part of the WomanKind campaign in the UK) found that the average woman criticises herself 8 times per day (about anything, not just weight). 1 in 7 women said that they criticise themselves regularly throughout the day.
What about you? How regularly do you criticise yourself each day?
Or do you not even recognise it as criticism, because you’re so used to hearing it? Maybe it just sounds like the truth.
Why do I have an inner critic?
Believe it or not, your inner critic actually has an honourable, though misguided, motive.
She wants to keep you safe.
She’s trying to protect you from anything she perceives or remembers as risky or threatening. Your inner critic doesn’t want you to experience hurt, disappointment, rejection, isolation, criticism (ironically) or failure.
So, she uses criticism to try to get you to do something to avoid the threat.
For example, when my son was younger, a few people (friends and family) were saying to me that I should take him to a speech pathologist because he might have delayed speech. I really didn’t feel this was the case, but it started to get to me a little (especially when my dad weighed in) and my inner critic started saying to me “You’re not qualified in this area, what would you know? If you don’t do this, you’re being a neglectful mother”. My inner critic was worried I would experience a parenting ‘fail’ and so was trying to get me to take action. I did end up (begrudgingly) taking action and it turned out that he was fine and I could have trusted my intuition and understanding of my son’s development.
Here’s another example.
Let’s say you’re about to meet up with some other mums for the first time. Your inner critic might be worried that you’re going to be rejected. So she’ll say things like ‘why are you going to this event? No one will talk to you! You’ll end up spending the whole time feeling awkward and you won’t make any friends anyway”.
What’s the problem with my inner critic trying to keep me safe?
Despite the inner critic’s honourable intentions, the methods and results are not so positive.
You see, the threats that the inner critic are scared of, are often not real and wouldn’t happen anyway. And if they are really possible, then focusing so intently on a negative outcome actually makes it more likely to happen!
Your inner critic’s methods of getting you to take action include:
- telling you things that aren’t true
- using absolutes – “you’re always yelling at your kids”
- exaggerating – “your eating habits are disastrous”
- black and white thinking – you’re a good mum or a bad mum, you can’t be anything in-between
- extreme judgements – “you’re so lazy” “you’ll never be good at this”.
She triggers feelings of guilt, shame, self-doubt and worthlessness. She doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. In fact, being overly self-critical is linked to low self-esteem, depression and anxiety.
Your inner critic is also repeating and reinforcing negative messages about yourself, and looking for evidence to back them up (“see, you yelled again. You’ll never be a calm mum”). This means that over time, your brain is believing more strongly that those messages are true when they aren’t balanced or necessarily true at all.
Myths about the inner critic
You might think that your inner critic helps motivate you to improve and get things done. But using self-criticism as a motivational tool actually limits you in the long run, because you won’t do anything really courageous or ‘risky’ in the eyes of your critic. It’s also very stressful and therefore unsustainable.
Similarly, you might think that your inner critic helps you to analyse and think through situations realistically and carefully. But the inner critic is not the voice of realistic thinking.
In her book, Playing Big, Tara Mohr describes the difference between realistic thinking and the voice of your inner critic beautifully. She says:
“the realistic thinker in us is forward moving. She seeks solutions. The critic will spin and spin, ruminating on the risks and worst-case scenarios. The critic often speaks in an anxious, emotionally charged tone. The realistic thinker is grounded, clear-eyed, calm.”
So, while your inner critic comes with good intentions, she’s not helping you move through life with confidence and ease.
You might be wondering, where this critical voice has come from.
She is inspired by and reflects back:
- things you were criticised for as a child
- the opinions of other people in your life or society in general (parenting decisions are great examples here. Think breastfeeding, vaccinating, co-sleeping, childcare, and so on)
- your own unrealistic standards (hello fellow perfectionists!)
- stressful or traumatic events in your life. This is a big one for me, as having been cheated on in a previous relationship, I often have to deal with my inner critic telling me that it will happen again.
- the way your parents thought of themselves. For example, if your mother openly judged herself for her weight or body shape, you might be prone to doing that too.
Since you’ve been well acquainted with your inner critic for a long time, you know her criticisms well. Your brain recalls them quickly and automatically. Something this deeply ingrained, doesn’t go away overnight. In fact, it’s unrealistic to think that your inner critic will ever be gone for good.
But you can feel more confident and extend yourself more love and compassion without eliminating your inner critic. You can learn to quieten the voice of the inner critic so she isn’t in control.
How to quieten your inner critic
1. Recognise the voice of your inner critic
This is the most important step. You must be able to distinguish the voice of your inner critic from the other thoughts in your mind, before you can quieten it.
If you find this difficult, start by spend some time at the end of the day reflecting on the critical things that you said to yourself, or ask someone close to you to point out anything critical they hear you saying about yourself regularly.
2. Make your inner critic separate to you
If your inner critic is a separate person, then she doesn’t define you and you don’t have to listen to her. Rather than saying “I am not coping with this situation”, you can say “my inner critic is not coping”.
This can be even more effective if you give your inner critic a name and a persona. Be as detailed as you need to get a vivid image of her in your mind. For example, you might call her Joan and describe her as mean, nit-picky and very particular. She might wear very plain, clothes in dark colours and doesn’t like to stand out.
Make this a little humorous. You may find that some of the things your inner critic says are actually quite amusing when you separate them from yourself. It’s hard to stay negative when you’re amused by something.
3. Use compassion to see your inner critic’s motives
I learned this from Tara Mohr and I love it. Remember, your inner critic is trying to protect you. So, ask your inner critic “what are you trying to protect me from right now? Or what are you afraid of here?”.
Acknowledge her efforts compassionately by saying something like “thank you for trying to protect me. I can handle this.” By doing this, you’re taking control of the situation back and not giving her opinion more weight than they deserve.
Approaching your inner critic with compassion is much more effective than getting angry with it. An angry or attacking approach can actually inflame your inner critic.
4. Replace the critical thoughts with rational evidence based thoughts
The brain looks for evidence to support what it knows, so you can deliberately change the way you think by finding evidence that disputes the critical thoughts.
For example, imagine that today you didn’t have any time to sit and play with the kids, without distraction. You’re feeling guilty and your inner critic is telling you that you’re a bad mum, and that your kids won’t feel loved, or be as connected to you. You feel like you failed today.
Replace these thoughts with evidence such as:
- My kids were happy today.
- I took them to the park yesterday for a picnic and a play.
- We read 2 stories before bedtime and they gave me huge hugs and told me they loved me.
- They’re always excited to see me.
- I have lots of things to manage and can’t control everything, so some days will not go as planned. That’s ok because I’m human and don’t need to be perfect. (This is an example self-compassion, which is a really effective way to handle your inner critic)
- We provide a great life for our kids.
With these 4 steps, you can learn to quieten (not eliminate) your inner critic and live with more confidence and ease. It’s an ongoing process, but once you learn the skills, you can draw on them at any time and they will become easier and more automatic with practice.
Remember, your inner critic is even more active when you’re not at your best, for example, when you’re exhausted, stressed or overwhelmed, so make self-compassion a priority at these times.
So lovely mum, would you like to quieten your inner critic?
Here are some questions to get you started:
- What is your inner critic’s persona? What’s her name? What does she sound like? What does she look like? How would you describe her?
- What’s 1 thing that your inner critic regularly says to you?
- In relation to your answer above:
- What is your inner critic trying to protect you from? What is she afraid of?
- What evidence do you have that disputes what she’s saying?
Do you know a mum who needs to read this? Please feel free to share it!