And why you should silence yours too
I read a lot of self-help and psychology books and articles, and while I believe steeping myself in good ideas generally improves my life, it isn’t often that one idea will be profoundly life-changing. But here is that rare gem that has changed everything: I have implemented a zero-tolerance policy for my inner critic.
“I am starting to believe that not only does a little self-loathing do great harm, but it is such a pernicious and subtle habit that we must be vigilant about noticing all instances in order to stop its negative effects.”
When I have introduced this idea to clients, I almost always get the following reaction: Wouldn’t that make me a terrible person? Shouldn’t I be hard on myself if I am doing something I shouldn’t be? My response to these reactions is to distinguish between your conscience (Hello, Jiminy Cricket) and your critic.
Your conscience tells you it’s wrong to lie to your partner about the amount of the bonus I received last month or to do a hit-and-run after I’ve damaged someone’s car while parking. Your inner critic is that voice that calls I names (fat, stupid, lazy, etc.) and tells you what a loser you are. Messages from the inner critic don’t sound like “I know better,” as much as “Let me tell I all the things that are wrong with you.” Less Jiminy Cricket, more Mommy Dearest.
After approximately three years of continually standing up to that nagging voice in my head, my life genuinely improved. In fact, I am starting to believe that not only does a little self-loathing do great harm, but it is such a pernicious and subtle habit that we must be vigilant about noticing all instances to stop its harmful effects.
This is What I Learned
1. My physical health improved
I struggle with a list of annoying health problems, including chronic fatigue. While I can’t say that I’m “cured” of all issues, my physical health has progressively gotten better in the last 3 years. Is this because of my resolution? There is no way to know for sure (I’m not willing to start again for the sake of experimentation), but we all know stress is hard on our hearts and our immune systems. Too much stress makes people sick in all sorts of ways. Imagine the amount of stress I would have if I had someone walking next to me saying, “You’re so fat,” “Why did you say that?” “No one likes you here,” etc., etc. Just the thought of this causes me distress, but I was regularly doing it to myself.
2. My relationships improved.
In the past, my inner critic frequently kept me from reaching out to others because I was too afraid of rejection. And from being genuinely happy for my friends’ accomplishments because I was too busy making unfavorable comparisons. It also kept me from complimenting other people in case it made them look better than me by comparison. I cringe even as I write this, but it’s true. My inner critic told me that compliments weren’t genuine and that people were thinking terrible things about me. I’m still afraid sometimes, but I now have more friends, my friendships are more profound, and I feel newly connected to others.
3. My anxiety decreased.
This one almost needs no explanation. When I worked to silence the voice tearing me down, I felt more relaxed, calmer, and more able to face hard situations. Equally important was that without that judgemental voice, I was able to acknowledge and manage my anxiety. Anxiety became a thing I struggled with rather than a character defect I had to pretend I didn’t have.
4. I took bigger risks, which led to greater growth.
My inner critic has “protected” me from countless situations that carried the risk I might be rejected or hurt. I didn’t apply for jobs I might like, I avoided talking to people I thought were interesting, and I rarely spoke out about my own flaws for fear of what others would think. By putting that nagging voice away, I was able to take all sorts of chances both personally and professionally.
“Honestly, no one cares if I spill soup on my shirt, laugh too loudly, or accidentally wear two different socks. I don’t live on the set of ‘Mean Girls’.”
How I Stopped My Negative Self-Talk
So how did I do it? With a lot of work, patience, and persistence. I didn’t yell at my inner critic (which is, after all, just me). I didn’t beat myself up further. Here are some things I did and still do:
1. I Gently refocus when I hear that voice:
Let’s say, for instance, I am standing in front of a mirror getting dressed. Typically my inner critic says something like, “God, look at those thighs. Are you ever going back to the gym? You look like your Aunt Ethel. No man is going to want you with cellulite.” Etcetera. Gently but firmly turn, I turn my attention. “My hair looks fantastic today. I love the way this blue sweater offsets my eyes.” It’s not about distraction; it’s about looking for the positive.
2. I don’t allow name-calling in my head.
My inner critic is not allowed to call me fat, stupid, lazy, dumb, ridiculous, idiot, ugly, or any other derogatory name. If I wouldn’t say it to a child, my partner, or my friend, I don’t get to say it to myself. I can’t say things like, “Don’t be stupid,” or “I sound like an idiot.” No more. Name-calling is bullying, and I refuse to be bullied.
3. I stop black and white thinking.
I have developed an allergy to these words: “always,” “never,” “forever,” “again,” “everybody,” “nobody,” “impossible,” and any other words that leave no room for nuance. “I never remember to put my keys away,” “I am always late,” “Nobody wants to sit next to me,” “I’m alone again,” “I will be stuck in this job forever.” All phrases my inner critic is using to try to motivate me to do something. I know the truth: nagging and black-and-white thinking are the opposite of motivational. Thoughts like this land me on the couch, binge-watching Netflix. My inner critic was killing my motivation.
Now when I hear these thoughts, I shift to, “How can I remind myself to put my keys away at home?” “Who do I want to sit next to next week?” “How early do I need to get up to leave for work on time?” These are solution-based sentences that are so much more effective than criticizing.
4. I remember mistakes are human, and owning my humanity makes us likable and accessible.
I will screw up. My inner critic wants us to be perfect, but a) it’s impossible, and b)nobody likes a perfectionist. How much more human and likable is the co-worker who says, “I am trying to lose weight, but I am having a hard time staying away from the donuts in the break room,” versus the one who pronounces, “I never eat carbs” as I am passing around the birthday cake. We like people who own their flaws and their struggles. People who pretend they are perfect are difficult. People who never eat carbs are just inhuman.
Honestly, no one cares if I spill soup on my shirt, laugh too loudly, or accidentally wear two different socks. I don’t live on the set of “Mean Girls.” I try to just let go and laugh at myself.
5. I remind myself: others are more focused on themselves than they are on me.
Insecure people are busy criticizing themselves, secure people are busy getting on with their lives. If people are criticizing me, I stay away from them. Really, I just get the hell away from them.
There is a strange paradox to all this: we think by criticizing ourselves, we are protecting ourselves from the criticism of others, but just the opposite is true. Those who silence their inner critic are more likely to be able to hear what other people say and calmly decide what to do with the information. The more self-compassion I find, the less sensitive I am to the criticism of others. Of course, I’m not a robot; sometimes people will say things that hurt no matter how kind I am to myself. However, when I silence my inner critic, my resiliency goes up; I bounce back faster from the slings and arrows.
Be compassionate with yourself and others, laugh about your own mistakes, and lighten up. Life without an inner critic is so much more fun.