Christa Smith Psy.D.

Shift

3 Ways to Outsmart Your Inner Critic

You can’t please your inner critic but you can outsmart it.

Posted Apr 30, 2015

© iStock.com/NKMandic
Source: © iStock.com/NKMandic

If you are like most people, you have a little voice that’s constantly evaluating how you look, what you’re doing, and what kind of person you are. It says things like, “That was a stupid thing to do” or “You’re fat already. Why did you eat that?” Sound familiar? Psychologists call that voice the inner critic and it’s harsh, mean, and relentless.

You probably react as if what your critic says is true. You think, “I am disgusting! I do need to lose weight. I’ll start a diet tomorrow.” You think about what went wrong with you and why you don’t measure up to the people around you.

Most likely you’ve tried a number of strategies to try to get the critic to stop. You’ve argued with the voice, used positive affirmations, or strived to be smarter, thinner, or better in some way, but nothing seems to work.

The problem with strategies like these is that they only reinforce that voice inside us. Sometimes we can please the inner critic, but not for long. Pretty soon it will be back to its old tricks. To make real change we need to stop giving the critic so much power over us. Here are three ways you can do that.

1. Name Your Critic

I once had a client who was young, smart, and very likeable, but she could never relax because she never felt good enough. She was terrified of making mistakes so she avoided the people and things that made her most happy. She didn’t want to risk other people discovering how inadequate she was. I asked her to tell me what the critic looked like. She replied that it looked like an ugly wolf and added that it would eat even if it wasn’t hungry. She explained that it would criticize her even if she didn’t deserve it. Over the course of the next few weeks, as she began to note when the wolf was present, she found that it would naturally quiet down. It’s a different move than we usually make because we are turning to face the critic rather than trying to get away from it. You can try this exercise yourself. Close your eyes and get in touch with that voice. See if you can sense what your critic looks like and give it a name that fits. As you go through your day, when you hear that voice, just notice silently to yourself that the critic is present.

Naming your critic allows you to see it for what it is. When you name your critic it loses some of its power because you are acknowledging that you are not the problem. You don’t need to be fixed. The real problem is that you believe everything the critic is telling you.

Research on naming emotion shows that when you name what you are feeling, there is decreased activity in the parts of the brain in charge of emotion. Labeling your experience helps you steady your mind. When you label what's happening you feel calmer and more in charge.

2. Understand Your Critic

Many clients tell me that their critic is there to help. “If I stop listening,” they say, “I won’t achieve anything. I’ll get fat, I’ll get lazy.” Listening to the critic assumes that it’s a voice of reason. But reason is fair and balanced, not cruel.

The psychologist and meditation teacher, Tara Brach, describes the critic as an expression of fear. Fear engages the fight or flight response in our nervous system. When there is a threat to your safelty, like and intruder in your home, adrenaline starts pumping, blood pressure increases, and cortisol is released so your body is prepared to either fight the intruder or get out quickly. But fight or flight also happens when we perceive that we are threatened, even if there is no real threat. The critic convinces us that we are the problem and that feels threatening. According to Dr. Brach, the critic launches us into fight mode, only rather than fighting off an intruder, we fight ourselves. What a waste of energy and of life to fight yourself. It doesn’t make much sense, but neither does a lot of what our minds do.

We need to be able to evaluate ourselves and our lives honestly, but the critic doesn’t do that for us. Seeing the critic as an expression of fear, rather than a voice of reason, allows us to chose and develop more helpful mental modes like constructive criticism and self-compassion.

3. Be Bigger Than Your Critic

The critic is a big problem in our culture. When we believe we are never good enough it’s impossible to relax. We walk around stressed and that stress is felt by the people around us. The critic affects how we make decisions and limits the sense of possibility in our lives. But the only way the critic can truly thrive is if we keep believing what it says. It thrives when we make our looks, our performance at school or work, or our popularity the priority in life. I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t care what other people think or that we shouldn’t have any goals. But making how good we are the thing that matters most is a signal to the critic that it’s time to get to work. Focusing too heavily on how we stack up is what gives the critic a job.

When we have a goal for ourselves and our lives that is bigger than being good, we become bigger than the critic. My clients did this by consciously choosing a new focus for her life that was deeply meaningful. For her this was having a more peaceful mind. When she looked closely she could see that the wolf destroyed her sense of peace. It made her feel constricted, scared, and angry. When her critic started talking she would name it and then remember that her goal was not be perfect, but to develop a more peaceful and calm way of being. Her shift in priorities helped her outsmart her critic and live a much fuller life.

© 2015 Christa Smith