Whether we notice it or not, we all face the occasional visit of a nagging voice inside our heads that questions whether we’re good enough. You know the one — it turns up when you’re face to face with your ex, putting yourself out there creatively or just looking at yourself in the mirror. That little inner critic can become our own worst enemy and even hold us back from pursuing the things that would make us happiest. The negative running dialogue in our head can sound like came from a bratty girl in a middle school cafeteria — only it never left. Where the hell does it come from?
As Eckhart Tolle would say, we are not our minds. According to him, ego (hi, inner critic) is identifying yourself solely with your thoughts, which includes the stories you’ve been told about what kind of person you are, the expectations you felt as a kid, and a whole other slew of emotional stuff that’s not so much a reflection of you, but rather of your circumstances. Our minds take these things and run with them, crafting a story about everything that’s wrong with us and creating a giant mass of fears that can keep us paralyzed. On one level, ego is theoretically about using knowledge from past experiences to keep us safe, but we don’t need our lives saved all that often, so in the meantime keeps itself busy making up stories about how allegedly flawed we are.
Others of a more scientific camp would keep it simple and say that the strongest inner critics came from internalized messages from our families, friends and the media. Growing up in a family with high expectations or being compared to others a lot as a kid makes it more likely for inner critic to be loud.
There have been phases in my life when I’ve felt like I was pretty awesome at ignoring my inner critic or that I’d somehow “conquered” it, and there have been other times when it has totally edged its way into the center of my mind. These days, I’ve found that my critic works in a more secretive way, seeping subconsciously into my thoughts without me noticing and subtly creating sabotage.
So if this is something we’re all plagued with now and then, how do we get rid of it? I feel like it’s pretty safe to assume that it will never magically disappear, no matter how successful we are or no matter how much older we get. Here are some tips from the pros on how to combat your inner critic — try out whichever ones resonate with you.
1. Find out whose voice it is.
According to therapist and life coach Jodie Gale, people often mistake our inner critic for our true selves, but that it couldn’t be more further from the truth. Our true self doesn’t have such a capacity for self-inflicted cruelty. Next time that voice in your head shows up, consider who it sounds like. It could be coming from your high school choir director who told you that you’d never make it in 10th grade, or it could be your aunt with her endless snarky comments about your eating habits. Being aware of this makes it much easier to brush it off.
2. “Thanks for sharing.”
Marie Forleo, one of my favorite people ever, has said that the definitive way to get past feelings of inadequacy is to refuse to engage with them. Insecurity is an illusion based on your worries, and you can’t use facts or logic to disprove a boundless illusion. Your mind will always come up with something else to be unsure of, so the way to dismiss it is when your inner critic appears, think to yourself “thanks for sharing” and then move on.
3. Find out what you really need.
Gale says the inner critic could also be a “subpersonality” created to meet a need we haven’t been able to fulfill. If you find yourself thinking with a perfectionist, people pleasing or victim mentality, you may have your inner critic to thank for fueling the fire. Once you can take note of this pattern, it’s easier to uncover what underlying emotional need you’re looking for and take steps toward fulfilling it in more healthy ways.
I know some people can’t say affirmations to themselves without giggling, but I have to admit that these have been totally doing it for me lately. I also have to confess that I haven’t been able to bring myself to say them aloud in front of a mirror like you’re “supposed” to do — I get way too embarrassed and/or worry that my roommate will hear me and think I’m insane. Try writing things like “I can do this” or “I am enough” on post-its, repeating them in a journal, or setting them as reminders in your phone. I feel silly suggesting this, which kind of points to the fact that my own inner critic is making me self-conscious about how stupid affirmations sound, but they’ve been really helpful for me (though apparently not enough yet because I’m still embarrassed to say I do them). Lots of successful people use them, and they just may help you out too.
5. Argue with your critic.
Next time that voice inside your head tells you that you’re a loser for sleeping through your workout, try asking it “so what? Who cares what you think?” If your inner critic tells you that you’re not talented enough to sign up for that poetry contest, think “why not? Are you telling me I can’t? Just watch me do it anyway!”
6. Pretend the thoughts were said by someone else.
Psychology professor and author Martin Seligman suggests that you pretend the thoughts were said by someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart – perhaps a rival, a friend you keep at arm’s length for her toxic tendencies, or a person who wants to accuse you of something absurd. Then, gather evidence against that person’s claim. Say that you’re in the middle of making a wedding toast and when you stumble on a word, so your inner voice seizes the opportunity to tell you that you’ve always been terrible at public speaking and have obviously ruined the wedding by flubbing a few sentences. If you put these words in the voice of an enemy hellbent on making you look bad, you can point to evidence that disproves her. After all, you finished the toast just fine after that slip-up, and you gave that great presentation at work last week, so you’re obviously just fine at speaking in front of people.
7. Talk to a therapist.
A pro can help you figure out exactly where your inner critic is coming from and suggest the way of coping that’s best for you. Therapy may point out totally new ways of viewing your critic that could take away its power.
8. Focus on others.
Most jobs or activities your inner critic tells you that you suck at are things that can help others. Even if it seems like a self-serving activity (like going to the gym), taking care of yourself makes you a better friend or family member to the people you love, so focus on who you’re impacting. Nearly every occupation makes somebody’s life a bit better (unless you’re like, a tobacco lobbyist), no matter how indirectly it may be. So if your little voice tells you that you’re totally crappy at your job, try to put all your energy into the person you’re currently working to help. You’ll see the benefits of what you do, and you’ll be so focused on making a difference that you won’t have any time to listen to your own thoughts!
What do you do when your inner critic starts acting up? Any suggestions?