Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Critical Voices: Shutting Them Down

Don't let self-criticism run and ruin your life

You’ve undoubtedly heard them – that voice in your head that gives you a hard time. That says that you didn’t do a good enough job, that you’re a loser, that your too fat or too poor, or too unlovable. That you will never amount to anything so why bother, it will never turn out right, or it won’t matter. It may be part and parcel of an eating disorder, perfectionism, depression, anxiety. It can run and ruin your life.

You know this is old news – the voice most likely of a parent who was always critical, always on your back, internalized over the years even if the parent is long gone or has even mellowed and become more generous over time. It’s time to put these voices to rest, to rewire your brain. Some ideas to get you started:

1. Don’t think power, think protection. What makes these critical voices so powerful is that they sound like the wrath of God, the scolding parent. You feel small or stupid. What is often behind a lot of parental control and criticism is worry, anxiety. Try instead visualizing the voice as some hyperalert aggressive dog that is always over-reacting to protect you from further harm. This will give you a sense of power, place you in-charge, rather than feeling like a victim.

2. Recognize and label the critical voice as quickly as possible. Once you notice that critical voice chastising or controlling you, do three things: Label it as your critical voice, not you; recognize that this is leftover junk from the past, and imagine the dog beginning to growl. Mentally reassure the dog – say it is okay, that you got this, that you can handle this and don’t need his help. With practice you will notice this and be able to act more quickly.

3. Stop listening. You need to do now what you could not do as a kid. You may not be able to shut the voice off, but you can behaviorally not follow it. Reassure the dog, then act in spite of – march ahead with your project even if the voice is saying that it will turnout lousy; pat yourself on the back for doing a good job even if it isn’t perfect. Will the voice still be there for a while – sure, it may even get louder at first if you stop doing what it says, but it will diminish over time.

4. Recognize your triggers. The ferocity of the critical voice usually rides up and down to some degree on stress – the dog becomes even more hyperalert. Be pre-emptive and proactive. Check your stress level when you get up and throughout the course of the day just to help you know when you may be vulnerable to self criticism.

When you hear the dog starting to growl, ask yourself if there is something externally that is stressing you that you need to address – either by solving the problem or doing something to reduce your stress level, such as exercise or mediation. For some it may be having too much on their plate, for others about loneliness or boredom. Tackle the problem directly in order to bypass the dog.

5. Get support to change the climate. If you find yourself being critical of how you clean the house or how you look, ask your partner to verbally reassure and compliment you as you clean or after you get dressed in the morning. You want to the other person to do what the critical folks from your past did not do. It may not quite sink in at first, may feel a bit artificial, but these corrective emotional experiences can, again with practice, begin to heal these old wounds.

6. Write letters. To further separate the past from the present and help put the past to rest, try writing a letter either to the critical voice or to the people you associate with it. Letter #1 is saying everything you want to say to get your thoughts and feelings off your chest – the anger, the regret, the way you looked at the world differently from them. Letter #2 – write a letter back to yourself from the person or voice saying what you ideally wished they would say – that they are sorry, that they were worried, that they realized they were treating you the way they treated themselves and couldn’t turn it off in their own minds, that they loved you and were proud of you. If you can read the letters out loud to someone who cares about you and can just listen.

7. Write down what’s good. Just as writing down good things that you appreciate that happened in the course of a day can help you become more aware of what is good and help counter depression, try doing the same about you – write down at the end of the day the things that you did that were good – not perfect – that were kind, considerate, courageous, adult. Look for the details – holding the door open for the woman at the grocery store, getting that B+ on the chemistry exam when chemistry is really difficult for you, going against your fear and telling your boss that you need to take a day off. Of course, be careful not to criticize what’s on the list, how long or short it is, or the telling yourself that it doesn’t really matter.

So try out any or all of these ideas. This is all about being aware, of doing something different, of rewiring your brain. You can’t make a mistake, you don’t have to do it Right. You just need to take baby steps towards moving away from the demons of the past.

It’s time to begin to put those voices to rest.

advertisement