‘You’re really an awful person!’ ‘Why are you so freakin’ lazy?’ ‘C’mon you know you’re fat.’ ‘You can’t do it, you know that.’ ‘Was it really good what you did?’ ‘Everybody will see that you’re a failure, it’s just a matter of time.’ The conversations we have with ourselves, what are they and how to cope with them?
The inner critic or the voice that lived in my head for as long as I can remember. The thing is that I don’t really know who’s voice it is. It sounds so ‘not me’ that for the longest time I couldn’t believe it was me. I thought it was my mother’s voice (which it sometimes IS) or thoughts from other people who are judging me.
My inner critic is very harsh and demanding. That makes it exhausting to live with it. The relationship with your inner critic isn’t simple. It is the adult equivalent of the monster under your bed. Does everyone have this voice? Do you have one? Or more? What does it tell you? I learned that we all have an inner critic which is reassuring to me because I thought I was a bit crazy here. This leads us to the core question of who is this inner critic?
Who is the inner critic really?
It seems to be the gathering of voices of people who are emotionally significant to you. Those people speak to you through the inner critic. Usually we’ve heard the things the critic says a number of times during significant moments in our lives. Moments when we ourselves were looking for some clarity or things to hold on to. During uncertain or significant times, we’ve internalized norms, values and advice. They came to live with us and made a home for themselves in the deepest of our thoughts. These voices keep on playing like a broken record, broken because we don’t need the advice or hurtful quotes anymore. We are adults now and are perfectly capable to live accordingly our own values, opinions and advice. Things your inner critic says to you can be ‘everybody needs to like you,’ ‘you need to be productive,’ ‘you’ll never get anywhere without hard work’. I also think that the inner advice or criticism you hear can be your own conclusions during a vulnerable time. As a child you maybe saw or felt what the desired response or way of living was. This was modeled to you and you packed it in your suitcase on your journey through life. It can be something you thought at the time to be helpful or desired.
Why do we keep those voices? Why do we still travel with a suitcase we packed years ago?
There is a gap between the life we actually live and the life we think we’re ought to live. We try to close that gap but are still confronted with it. When the inner critic merge its head from time to time, that doesn’t pose a problem. The problem occurs when we hear it every day, on a continuous basis and when the voice is plain evil. When you hear something long enough, you believe it. We listen to that voice as if it is the truth and we come to believe that we are that awful person that is just unlovable. We can endure these voices for years and sometimes even a lifetime. The voice promises to close the gap but never delivers.
The inner critic is a gathering of all important opinions of our parents, the media, the church, society, a teacher, … ‘Be honest’, ‘Do your best’, ‘Act normal’, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ …
Does everyone struggle with an inner critic?
To a certain point we all do. There is no difference in man and woman. We are most vulnerable to hear our inner critic in times of a crisis or when we feel insecure. When we have problems with our children, when we’re in the middle of a divorce or when we’re starting a new career. The inner critic isn’t exclusively reserved for those difficult times but it starts engaging our brain when we think we are deeply relaxed. When, after a long day of work, we’re unwinding in front of the tv. We tend to look outside and we notice the weed growing in our garden. We start thinking, just under the surface, ‘we need to fix that’, ‘that is not a nice garden’, ‘we’re having a cook out next weekend’, ‘hmmm’. Our brain is always active, in different modes, but active, 24/7. When we’re thinking ‘nothing’ our brain is in default mode network , , which if you would it under a scan it resembles the areas that are active when you’re worrying. And it works in a loop. ‘We didn’t work hard enough’, ‘now there is weed in the garden’, ‘I can be so lazy,’ ‘why am I thinking that?’ ‘I don’t want to think that’, ‘what stupid thoughts!’ If this happens in a crisis, we overthink, ruminate and think ourselves literally ‘crazy’.
How the loop works.
The problem as it present itself, is that when confronted with a problem in our thinking, we tend to think about it to try to solve it. We, in the West, are very cerebral beings, we live more in our heads than in our bodies or through feelings. (I know I do.) When trying to solve a thinking problem with thinking in a time of crisis we can make things worse. We overthink, exhaust ourselves or can become panicked because the thinking isn’t working but we keep on doing it.
When confronted with a problem, we tend to think about it.
Is it possible to make amends with the inner critic?
It would be awesome if we could look at ourselves from a distance and we could make amends with the inner critic. Maybe then we can live with it in a more peaceful way. How to go about it?
Life happens now but our thoughts and attention are with ‘later, tomorrow or the next weekend’. ‘I need to do the dishes later, after I’ve finished this blog and tomorrow I’ll go grocery shopping so maybe I should take a shower. And for the groceries, what will we eat next week and what if they still don’t have any flour in store?’ We anticipate or ruminate and while doing that we evaluate, thus giving the inner critic a forum.
Tip number one: No fighting but inviting.
We shouldn’t push him  away. When we notice the voice we can tell it that it is welcome but that we don’t have much time for it. It isn’t productive to push the inner critic away by fighting it. It’s a fight you’ll never win. When you fight it by thinking ‘But that’s not true. I am not a loser!’ or ‘Why oh why must I think this awful things?’, you’ve lost the game. You can’t outrun the inner critic because he knows about that one particular time when you were the loser and he’ll remind you of that. So tip number 1: No fighting but inviting.
Tip number two: Get to know your inner critic.
Observe when or in which situations the inner critic likes to turn up. This can be when you’re going for a stroll, when you’re driving or when you’re listening to music. He likes to visit you when your mind is susceptible to messages and thoughts, that very moment when you think that you’re unwinding the mind. It is recommended not to let your thoughts flow or go in overdrive but to notice them and softly turn your attention to the present moment. Noticing other things that are happening right now around you. Hear the birds singing, feel the sunshine on your face or the wind blowing your ears off. That way we can try not to fall into the pits of rumination.
Who exactly is talking to you? Who is judging you?
You can examine who exactly is speaking to you. Who is it that is talking and who is it that is judging? When you look around and you notice the dust, you may think ‘I’m such a bad homekeeper.’ But be honest with yourself here. It is you that think that a sparkling house is a priority or is it maybe … your mom? And does it matter to you, the dust, really? Or is it a norm or judgement that traveled with you in your suitcase a long long time ago? What if the inner critic doesn’t take no for an answer? What if he stays, even uninvited?!
Tip number three: Make an appointment.
No, not with me but with your inner critic. Invite him, give him pen, paper and your hand. Write it all down, all of the thoughts. Read it and say to him: ‘Fine, I see what you mean. I do understand your concerns. Let’s see what we can do about them’. When you practice this exercise when you need it, you’ll see and understand that your inner critic is a pain in the ass, a very repetitive one for that matter. By repeating this exercise you’ll take his power away and you’ll become stronger than him.
Notes, resources and further reading.
Online podcast (in Dutch), ‘Are you your own worst enemy?’ (2020).
 I write ‘him’ to reference my inner critic, that is how it feels for me. The inner critic can be a she, he or an it or what you want it to be.
Picture credits click here.