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Facing Your Inner Critic

Harsh self-criticism may seem inevitable, but it's not your only option.

Dennis Owusu-Ansah/Shutterstock
Source: Dennis Owusu-Ansah/Shutterstock

We all have an inner voice. You know what I mean: It's that voice within us all, and boy, does it like to talk. Now, if you could take that voice and imagine it's the voice of a separate person who follows you around and talks to you all day, what would it say?

If you're like most folks, it would deliver a motley mouthful. That voice sizes up the present, anticipates the future, and examines the past. It evaluates other people and the surrounding circumstances.

But it also has a flair for zooming inward, making oneself the focus. And when it does, what approach does it take? It might be celebratory, offering a well-deserved pat on the back, or it could be soothing, encouraging, forgiving, understanding, or inspiring. But it can also be fault-finding, disapproving, and hurtful, even mercilessly so.

What can be especially tough to resist about the self-critic is that it can masquerade as reality. A self-attacking thought that really seems to be a painful reflection of the truth is far more persuasive than a thought that clearly doesn't map onto the way things are at all.

So in this post, we're going to take a look at that self-critical voice to try to shed some light on what forms it takes, what function it serves, the consequences it can have, and whether there are alternative ways to talk to ourselves.

What does the inner critic look like?

Scientific evidence reveals that there isn't just one version of the inner critic. Scholars refer to one type as the "inadequate self." When you encounter obstacles, you make a mistake, or you don't succeed at a goal, this inner critic severely reprimands you and may stir up memories of other errors and false steps; you feel incompetent, faulty, and lacking.

Another type of self-critic is the "hated self." When you experience defeats in life, this inner voice responds with animosity and loathing; you don't like yourself at all. In other words, the inadequate self sharply judges you for what you don't get right and tells you you're not up to par, and the hated self is verbally abusive and despises you.

Now you might be thinking, "Wait a second. What about an inner voice that points out a blunder, but isn't relentless about it?" That's a fair question, so let's be clear. We're all going to make mistakes because we're all human, and it's beneficial to have an inner voice that enables us to be aware of those mistakes and figure out what happened. It helps us to change course and do something different.

Some scholars have referred to this as "constructive self-criticism." For the purpose of this piece, what we're really talking about with regard to the inner critic is how it treats us when it does more than highlight room for improvement. Does it detest and ridicule us? Does it admonish us, badger us with our missteps from the past, or tell us we don't measure up? That's the scope of the inner critic we're exploring. But why does it show up in the first place?

What is the inner critic's role?

Research on what people make of their own self-criticism has revealed two primary functions. First, some folks see the inner critic as a way to help them personally grow and get better. For example, people may criticize themselves to try to avoid errors, to continue following their own personal benchmarks for performance, to prevent them from being inattentive or conceited, to prove their missteps are important to them, or to keep obligations in mind.

Second, some people view the inner critic as a way to mistreat themselves. For instance, individuals can self-criticize to try to retaliate against aspects of themselves, to manage the revulsion they feel toward themselves, to wipe out or emotionally wound a piece of themselves, or to ease inner distress by penalizing themselves with emotional abuse.

But no matter which type of inner critic we're talking about or what function it serves, if you harshly criticize yourself, you're not alone. And it's not a failing on your part, even if the inner critic tells you it is. As scholars in this area have noted, self-criticism develops in a context, whether in childhood or later in adulthood, and there are a number of different circumstances in which it can arise.

Let's take just one example to clarify this a bit more. Imagine a person who grew up with caregivers who were severe and punishing. As a child, they had no power, and so they wouldn't have had the option to ask their caregivers to stop treating them this way. But by looking inward and criticizing themselves, that could give them a possible pathway to avoid being reprimanded and chastised in the future.

Having considered the context behind the inner critic, let's turn to what the aftereffects of self-criticism might be.

What impact does the inner critic have?

There's an increasing body of research that's pointed to connections between the inner critic and a range of difficulties. For example, both types of self-criticism (i.e., the inadequate self and the hated self) are linked to depression. In that vein, people who are either struggling with depression now or who have in the past criticize themselves more than people who've never dealt with depression, and when people scold themselves less, this forecasts a drop in their depressed mood.

The inner critic is also linked to tension and anxiety, as well as bingeing on food, self-inflicted injuries, thinking about suicide, and lower relationship health with a romantic partner. And a study following people over time showed that individuals who were self-critical when they were 12 were also less engaged in high school, and by age 31, they hadn't pursued as many years of schooling and were more apt to have emotional and social issues.

So, on the whole, even though self-criticism with a heavy or ruthless hand may appear compelling and effective, the inner critic seems to take away far more than anything it could offer in the end. Given this, what can go in the inner critic's place?

What are the alternatives to the inner critic?

If you aspire to change how you treat yourself, I hope you can give yourself credit. Change can feel intimidating and scary, and so the recognition of your desire to be better to yourself is a courageous step.

Remember that your awareness of alternatives for how to talk to yourself doesn't imply that doing something different is going to be simple and effortless, or even that it should be. So regardless of what you choose, try to be patient with yourself.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas:

Reassure yourself. This kind of self-talk involves doing things such as pointing out aspects of yourself that you appreciate, cheering yourself on to boost your morale, and speaking to yourself in a considerate, caring, and merciful way. Self-treatment like this is linked to lower levels of depression.

Practice self-compassion. We talked about self-compassion in another Psychology Today piece on the relationship we have with ourselves. It's certainly relevant to what we're talking about here, so let's revisit it.

There are three parts of self-compassion. The first is self-kindness. When we're engaging in self-kindness, we extend gentleness, consideration, and empathy inward to ourselves.

The second is common humanity. If we're using this aspect of self-compassion, we comfort ourselves with the knowledge that because we're human like everybody else, we're not the only ones who make mistakes, who are going through a hard time, and who have imperfections. It can help us to feel some solace knowing that other folks are going through similar struggles.

And the third part of self-compassion is mindfulness, which involves acknowledging our inner experiences without trying to cast them off or becoming completely absorbed by them. Researchers have examined the impact of self-compassion on self-criticism using various approaches, such as compassionate meditation and self-compassionate exercises, as well as Compassionate Mind Training (an aspect of Compassion-Focused Therapy that helps people to cultivate a greater ability to be compassionate to themselves).

Studies show that self-compassion lowers self-criticism and is related to a decrease in depression, and a pilot study of a compassion-based approach was linked to less critical self-talk, greater self-worth, improved mood, and a greater ability to engage with the tasks of everyday life. There's even some evidence that self-compassion can improve creativity among people who tend to be hard on themselves.

Give your self-critical thoughts less power. Let's go back to a point we talked about at the beginning of this piece. Self-criticism can appear to reflect the truth, which makes it really convincing. But what if those self-critical thoughts aren't based in reality? What if they're just sentences, albeit painful ones, floating in your mind?

When a person looks upon their self-critical beliefs as mere ideas and recognizes that these ideas aren't necessarily facts, they're engaging in something known as defusion. This approach helps people to differentiate their thoughts from reality and lessen the power of those thoughts. Thoughts don't have as much power when we know they don't map onto anything real. People who practiced defusion in one study were less self-critical and felt less upset.

As you practice a fresh way of treating yourself, perhaps you'll try some of the alternatives we've talked about here, or maybe you'll opt for a different option altogether. As long as you're noticing what feels right for you, and you're being patient with yourself in the process, that's what matters. Listen to yourself, give yourself permission to make use of different resources, and see what fits best.

For example, you might decide to reach out to a therapist for individual work or attend a therapy group, or perhaps you'll opt for a meditation class in your community that incorporates self-compassion. Or you may choose to look up self-help books on the topic or check out articles online and download readings and exercises. You might try a combination of these. Whatever you do, I wish you compassion, empathy, and tenderness toward yourself.

Thank you for reading.


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