If you’ve ever heard a voice in your head telling you, “I’m not good enough”, “I’ll never be able to do that”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m crazy”’, “I should be over this by now”, “I’m pathetic”, or “I’m so dumb”, that’s your inner critic.
But what exactly is an inner critic and how does it form? According to Julie Sweet, a clinical psychotherapist at Seaway Counselling and Psychotherapy in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, the inner critic, or our ‘critical inner voice’, is generally an aspect of ourselves that criticises, judges and belittles us. It’s non-auditory destructive thoughts that prevent people from prioritising themselves or choosing behaviour that isn’t in their best interest.
An inner critic is usually formed in early childhood and is often how we are spoken to by our primary caregivers, usually parents, or people within our family of origin, like our siblings, though, it can also come from other significant adults in our lives or peers.
“Some people identify their inner critic as one of their parents’ voices and report feeling like they can often hear their mum or dads voice internally,” Sweet says. “As a child, this is internalised and integrated to become the lens in which we view ourselves through and can inform our sense of self.”
Sweet identifies seven types of inner critics, but says we can identify with more than just one type and that it’s entirely subjective and different for everyone.
“This critic usually causes people to over-function and do more, be more, create more, aim for more, more and more and more,” Sweet says. “It can be competitive (with self or others), not accepting mediocrity and glorifies success, workaholism and burn out.”
“Often what we fear we try to control and the controller attempts to curb impulsive behaviour. It’s a harsh critic and often causes individuals to feel bad around their day to day choices. It aims to keep you feeling small and insignificant through a negative feedback loop.”
“The purpose of the guilt tripper is to have you never be able to forgive yourself. It can level criticism at you for words you’ve spoken, or behaviour you’ve chosen or not chosen and questions your value system. It holds onto the past and acts as a reminder of any accident or mistake you’ve made. It’s a punisher and tells you that you are a bad person.”
“The people-pleaser relinquishes all power and places it firmly in the hands of others whom we seek approval of in order to feel good about ourselves. In order to be accepted, it promotes saying ‘yes’ and relies on being liked. It ignores the needs of self and instead places pressure on managing others emotions which can lead to anxiety, exhaustion and depression.”
“The inner critic seeks to have you do everything perfectly. The standards set are extremely high and performance, behaviour and perfect execution is demanded. It’s polarising and doesn’t lend itself to sitting in the grey area, instead, it involves seeing the world as black or white, only accepting perfection of self.”
“This is where our self worth comes into play and the destroyer is pervasive in its personal attacks on our fundamental self-worth. Shame resides here and entrenched self-loathing. It’s the voice that questions your worthiness.”
“The underminer creates self-doubt and we begin to question ourselves, not trusting our decision-making process and feel our self-confidence is undermined. The underminer erodes our self-esteem and can cause us to become risk-averse whereby we fear failure (resulting in not attempting to try to achieve a goal).”
So, what are some ways to silence our inner critic? Sweet suggests practising:
- countering any negative thoughts that present and replacing them with empathy
- consciously choosing to not compare yourself to another
- editing an old narrative that no longer serves you
- self (emotional) regulation
In addition to this, Sweet also suggests practising boundary work, which can be a tool for challenging the inner critic; learning strategies that encourage individuals to respond rather than react; cultivating greater self-awareness, which is hugely beneficial in identifying triggers and learning how to manage emotions that may arise; and, for people who feel their inner critic is compromising their mental health, seeking the support of a therapist.
“Working with a psychotherapist can illuminate blind spots and improve any maladaptive behaviours like self-sabotage, passive-aggressiveness and avoidance,” Sweet says.
If you’re reading this, realising you do have a strong inner critic and are feeling frustrated at the work ahead in combatting it, there is some good news. Sweet says the inner critic can in fact be reframed to become our inner nurturer, or inner cheerleader, that can see us respecting ourselves, cultivating self-acceptance and fulfiling our purpose of living a life of meaning.