We all have two voices inside of us — the critical and the compassionate one. In what proportion you listen to each determines how you feel and what you think about yourself.
You can imagine those voices as two personas, constantly commenting on your experience. Meet your Inner Critic and Inner Nurturer. Both have important roles to play, although they’re dramatically different.
The inner critic tries to keep you safe and points out what could be improved in the future. When you’re in a group of people whose opinions you value, it’ll watch out for you not to say anything stupid. Or, if it believes you already did — it’ll beat you up a little, to avoid a similar awkward situation in the future.
The inner nurturer has a different purpose. Its goal is to encourage you and help you believe in yourself. It’ll make you feel proud for even small accomplishments and empathize with you when things don’t go so well. After all, you did your best — and that’s what matters.
Both of these voices have a valid function, but the problem is — for most people, the inner critic goes completely overboard. We listen to it much more than to the nurturer and this keeps us feeling stuck, “not good enough,” and struggling wth low self-esteem.
The way to deal with your inner critic isn’t to make it disappear. That would be a difficult feat to achieve — as we’ll see in a moment, there are three powerful drivers behind its existence. But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything to ease your self-criticism and let that nurturing voice be heard a little bit more often.
But before we get to that, you need to understand a few things about the nature of the inner critic.
How Does the Inner Critic Work?
How can you recognize when it’s your inner critic speaking? Well, it's the voice which:
- Diminishes your accomplishments,
- Dismisses the effort you put into something,
- Tells you that you could have done something better, quicker, etc.,
- Pushes you to compare yourself to people who are “better” than you — and makes you feel bad as a result,
- Shames you for not knowing how to do something or not doing it well enough.
The inner critic is a voice in your mind that belittles you. In psychology, that’s called negative self-evaluation. If you engage in it over and over again, it ultimately leads to an overall poor self-image and makes it very hard to live happily and confidently.
Psychologist and counselor Tania Henderson points to four thought patterns that the inner critic is responsible for.
- Comparison. The tendency to compare yourself to others often leads to a sense of inferiority. It makes the accomplishments of other people seem huge while diminishing your own. A great modern example is social media feeds and how easily they convince you to think that everyone has better, more exciting, or more successful lives than you.
- Personalization. This “feature” of the inner critic leads you to believe that everything’s about you and your faults. When something doesn’t go according to plan, or your friend seems unhappy, you automatically assume that this is because of something you did.
- “Should” statements. Often, the inner critic tries to make you achieve the impossible. If you fail, it beats you up as a way to “motivate” you to do better. For example, when at the end of a workday you didn’t accomplish everything you intended, the inner critic will make you feel bad by saying something like “See, you screwed up again. You shouldn’t have spent so much time on your phone.”
- Labeling or generalizing. When you’re critical towards yourself, you’re prone to generalizing your faults. Let’s say, you arrived late to a meeting and the inner critic fires off: “Why must you always be late?” In that moment, you’re prone to forgetting that you’re punctual 80% of the time. Self criticism makes you extend the present situation to a general statement.
Even though the inner critic can help us improve or see where we made a mistake, in the above examples it probably does more harm than good.
The good news is, you don’t need to erase that critical voice. It may be enough to understand where it comes from — and then put it back in its place. Remember, it’s about adjusting the proportion in which you listen to your inner critic versus your inner nurturer.
Before I offer you some ways to work on that, let’s first trace the “origin story” of your inner critic. That’ll help you see that it’s only natural that you have it.
Where Does Your Inner Critic Come From?
In my experience, the first step to working with my inner critic was to stop blaming myself for the fact that I had it.
It’s easier to be kind to yourself when you understand where the critical voice comes from. There’s nothing unusual or wrong about having it.
While everyone has their own relationship with the inner critic, these are the three common causes it exists.
All emotions evolved in us for a reason. For example, anger serves to protect your boundaries and sadness allows you to pause, reflect, and process a loss. Psychologists also talk about fear as the most primal emotion that arose to protect us from danger.
How does it all connect to the inner critic?
Well, the inner critic also induces a specific emotion that has evolutionary importance. That emotion is… shame. While our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in tribes, shame informed them they might have done something that didn’t quite fit with the social norms and could threaten their position in the group. At the time, belonging to that group was the best protection from danger.
Getting expelled from the tribe often meant certain death. Shame — and the inner critic that induced it — was a warrant against it.
2. Parental conditioning
Most parents and caretakers want the best for their kids. However, this sometimes leads them to actions that negatively impact their children’s psychology. One such behavior is being overly critical, demanding, or ambitious — and through that, strengthening the kids’ inner critic.
Let’s say you had a mother who loved you very much and wanted you to succeed in life. She believed your education was the most important thing and so, she wanted you to excel at school.
This doesn’t sound harmful so far. But imagine that, every time you got an A- or B+ on a test, she would say: “Why not a full A? I know you could have done it. Maybe you didn’t study enough before the test?”
Your mom’s intention might have been noble: She wanted to motivate you to try harder next time. But as a kid, you received it as harsh criticism. You internalized it and, as an adult, this may make you feel like you can never do “well enough” in anything.
3. Cultural scripts
Lastly, there are cultural scripts that may have taught you to punish yourself for certain behaviors. We all know society teaches us to stick to some arbitrary norms. But sometimes, we forget that they’re human-made— and we treat them as “the only right way to do things.”
A good example are gender roles. As a little girl or boy, you probably received some cultural messages that primed you to feel like you have to behave in a certain way:
“Big boys don’t cry.”
“Stop it now and calm down — what will other people think of a girl like that?”
“You’re such a pretty girl but you become ugly when you’re angry.”
“Don’t speak this way, be a gentleman.”
With messages like that repeated over and over, you eventually developed a notion of what behavior is and isn’t acceptable. Sure, some of that may help preserve social order and coexist with others in peace.
But often, those cultural scripts stigmatize certain behaviors without good reason. They may feed your inner critic more than necessary, causing you to think poorly of yourself whenever you don’t stick to the script.
How to Make the Inner Critic Quieter
Working with the inner critic doesn’t require you to erase it. For most of us, it’s enough to adjust the proportion of which inner voice we listen to, and give a bit more attention to our inner nurturer.
Let me repeat it once again: You don’t need to get rid of your critical iner voice. You simply want to put it in the back, so it’s not in the driver’s seat of your life.
Have you noticed that, throughout this article, I was referring to the inner critic in the third person? I spoke about it as a “voice in your mind” — not “a part of who you are.” That’s the general idea behind the three exercises I’m going to propose below:
Externalize the inner critic to see that this is not who you are.
This will allow you to put that critical voice into perspective and stop believing it so much. Ready?
Sit your critic on a chair
The first exercise is about externalizing your inner critic, quite literally. You’re going to give it a symbolic, material form, and sit it on a chair in front of you.
This way, you can reimagine it as something external that’s not an intrinsic to your identity.
If you want to disempower your critic even more, impersonate it into something ridiculous. Psychologist Rick Hanson advises picturing it as a cartoon villain. You can draw it on a piece of paper and put it next to you to have a conversation with it.
This may sound silly, but it works. Try listening to what your inner critic has to say about you in that funny, cartoon voice. You can also respond if you want and have a dispute with your critic. The whole experience will hopefully create a bit of distance between you and your negative thoughts.
To read a more detailed description of this (and other) inner critic exercises, you can read the full article from Rick Hanson here.
Look at yourself in the mirror
Another way to put your critic into perspective is working with a mirror. I did that often whenever my self-criticism spiraled out of control — and it worked each time.
This is a very straightforward practice. All you need is to find a mirror, sit in a comfortable, private space, and look at your reflection mindfully. 10 or 15 minutes should be enough to notice the results. Just be sure to stay present and attentive to what thoughts go through your mind.
Tara Well, PhDl who’s been using the mirror as a tool to increase self-compassion for many years, says:
“The inner critic usually runs in the background, and we don’t take the time to look at it. When we look in the mirror, it externalizes that critic. It gets it out of our own head so we can actually see the effects of it as we look in the mirror.”
When you look at yourself in the mirror, you can see the victim of your own criticism. This is powerful in activating that self-nurturing voice. Once you notice how hard you can be on yourself, self-compassion can arise spontaneously.
If you’re looking for a detailed tutorial on how to use mirror meditation to work with the inner critic, I wrote one here.
Comfort your inner child
This exercise is particularly helpful if your inner critic stems from your upbringing. As we said before: If you were overly criticized as a child, you’re more prone to self-criticism as an adult.
Inner child work can be a powerful way to heal that exaggerated criticism. The simplest exercise is to visualize yourself as a child, in a situation when you needed support or recognition — but didn’t receive it.
Take a moment to feel into that child’s emotional state and what it needed at the time.
Then, imagine yourself as the adult that you are, approaching the child. Whatever they feel, provide it. This is your chance to become your own loving parent, giving your child self exactly what it needs. You may do that by visualizing yourself as you hug that child, speak words of reassurance, or simply be with them unconditionally as they move through their emotions.
This exercise can be particularly powerful as it doesn’t only impact your self-talk but also, the way you relate to your emotions. You can read a more in-depth article on inner child work here.
Balance Your Inner Critic with Inner Nurturer
A lot of people struggle with self-criticism. When the inner critic goes overboard, it’s hard to see yourself as the worthy and unique human being that you are.
Instead, you may identify as broken or a “bad person.” This can’t possibly help you live happily and confidently.
The thing to remember is that there are two voices inside of you: the inner critic but also, the inner nurturer. Often, the way out is through adjusting the proportion of how much you listen to each voice. Since you’re here about to finish this article, you probably listen to your inner critic way too much.
So, go ahead and give your inner nurturer some space to talk. It will help you counterbalance that critical voice which may never leave your mind completely.
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