If you are like most people, you know your inner critic all too well. It is the voice in your head that judges you, doubts you, belittles you, and constantly tells you that you are not good enough. It says negative hurtful things to you—things that you would never even dream of saying to anyone else. I am such an idiot; I am a phony; I never do anything right; I will never succeed.
Like it or not, everything you say to yourself matters. The inner critic isn’t harmless. It inhibits you, limits you, and stops you from pursuing the life you truly want to live. It robs you of peace of mind and emotional well-being and, if left unchecked long enough, it can even lead to serious mental health problems like depression or anxiety.
The inner critic can serve multiple purposes that on the surface might seem useful: It can make you feel like you are trying to do right in some way by wanting to be better or to achieve more. However, using self-criticism for these reasons, instead of positive self-talk, is the same as choosing a punishment over a reward. While punishment can deter certain behaviors in the short-term, rewards are generally better for shaping new and lasting behavior. When you punish someone for what they do wrong, that doesn’t teach them how to do it right. Imagine a small child learning to walk: If you scream at him and call him a little dummy every time he falls down, you can imagine that would have a negative impact. It would certainly have a very different effect than if you smiled and encouraged the child each time he took a step toward you. When your inner critic consistently labels you in a negative way, it has a demoralizing effect and shapes your larger self-concept about who you are and what you can do.
What if the critic is true? It doesn’t matter. Negative self-talk is never in your interest. There is always a different, kinder, better way to treat yourself that doesn’t involve negative labels and self-destructive mindsets. In any given situation you can focus on what you did wrong or what you did well and what you can do better next time.
Following are four steps that will help you silence the inner critic:
1. Notice the critic.
To gain control over your inner critic you have to first be aware of it. During every conscious moment we have an inner dialogue with ourselves. Much of our thinking is so automatic and happening so rapidly that we barely notice it before we move on to the next thought. Making the conscious effort to slow down and pay more attention to your thoughts will help you notice when the critic is present. Your emotions will also cue you to the presence of the critic. Negative emotions such as doubt, guilt, shame, and worthlessness are almost always signs of the critic at work.
A good exercise to try for one week is to simply keep an inner critic log, either in a small notebook or on your phone. Every time you notice yourself being self-critical, just note two or three words about the situation—got up late, meeting with boss, fight with mom, lunch choices—and what the criticism was—I’m lazy, I’m a bad employee, I’m not a good daughter, I have no self-control. Once you are aware of the critical voice, you will be in a position to stand up to it.
2. Separate the critic from you.
The inner critic doesn’t want you to notice it. It thrives best when you mistake it for being part of your authentic self. However, you weren’t born with an inner critic. The critic is a voice that you have internalized based on outside influences and learning, such as other people’s criticism, expectations, or standards. One way to separate from the critic is to give it a name. Any name will work; to add some levity you might even try using a silly name like The Old Hag. What is important is that by separating it from your own identity, you are on your way to freeing yourself from its influence.
3. Talk back.
Talking back to your inner critic is an important part of taking away its power. Simply telling the critic you don’t want to hear what it has to say begins to give you a sense of choice in the matter. When you hear the inner critic start to speak, tell it to go away. Tell it you refuse to listen. Tell it that you know it is a liar. Tell it you are choosing instead to be kind to yourself.
4. Replace the critic.
The best way to defeat the critic is to have an even stronger ally on your side. You need to grow an inner voice that acts as your own best friend. In order to do this, you need to start noticing the good things about yourself. No matter what the inner critic has told you, you do have positive traits, although it may take you some effort to retrain yourself to see them.
Because of the way our brain works, we all have an automatic selective filtering system that will look for evidence in our environment that matches up with whatever we believe to be true about ourselves. We will then disregard other evidence to the contrary.1 If you are always saying to yourself I am an idiot, you might actually do a lot of smart things, but you will still zero in on the small mistakes you make (e.g., locking your keys in the car). You will fixate on those things because they match up with what you say to yourself.
To break this automatic tendency, you have to first make the deliberate effort to say something different to yourself and then actively search for evidence that the new statement is true. When you hear your critic saying I am an idiot, talk back and tell the critic that isn’t true. Then replace the statement with something you know is true, such as, Sometimes I do smart things, and come up with as many examples as you can to support this new statement. The critic doesn’t like to be wrong. The more examples you come up with to support your alternate view, the less it will come around.
1. Beck, Aaron T. Cognitive therapy: A 30-year retrospective. American Psychologist, Vol 46(4), Apr 1991, 368-375.
Dr. Jennice Vilhauer is the director of the Outpatient Psychotherapy Treatment Program at Emory Healthcare, the developer of Future Directed Therapy, and the author of Think Forward to Thrive: How to Use the Mind’s Power of Anticipation to Transcend Your Past and Transform Your Life.