“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
– Eleanor Roosevelt
Do you ever doubt your ability to succeed at something you’re absolutely qualified to do? Stop yourself from trying something new because you’re unsure how it’ll go? Second-guess your decisions? Of course you do, we all do. The problem is, that little voice in your head that sows the seeds of self-doubt – your inner critic – can be a bit of a bully. And if you let it govern who and how you are in this world, it’s going to hold you back from all sorts of amazing things. But there is a way to take back control.
Your incredibly complex, overly protective brain is hard-wired to shelter you from harm. It’s like a bodyguard, jumping out to shield you at the first whiff of pain or potential failure, at anything that takes you out of your snuggly little comfort zone.
To keep you safe, your brain is inclined to dwell on negative thoughts. It puts on a stern voice and points out all the reasons why trying something new, doing something differently or striving for anything beyond your current comfy state is such a terrible idea. Whether you listen to that voice, and how you interpret it, determines what you do (or don’t do) next.
Being constantly assaulted by that judgemental inner voice that tells you you’re not good enough / pretty enough / smart enough / strong enough, is exhausting. It’s also unproductive, and a guaranteed killer when it comes to learning, growth and your general wellbeing.
Those internalised thoughts become part of your story, forming the beliefs you hold about yourself, and it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. You don’t think you’re clever enough to get your law degree so you never try, consequently you never achieve your dream of becoming a lawyer. You value your career but don’t think you’re good enough to get the promotion, so you struggle to present yourself confidently during the interview and… you don’t get the job.
I was introduced to this concept of the Inner Critic, the voice of ‘reason’ in our minds, when I was studying coaching at college. I felt quite provoked by its existence. In a curious way I was determined to understand it better, where it came from, how it formed, how it survived – what it needed to succeed.
I realised it wasn’t very kind. It got its power from belittling me, and I was tending to its needs like a dutiful gardener, fertilising, watering and pruning every time I let it stop me from doing something.
Just being aware of this was insightful for me, but the biggest transformation came when I was introduced to the idea of looking at it from a whole different perspective…
Your inner critic isn’t the devil.
Or your evil twin. It may have no social etiquette, no filter and be a bit of a brute, but if you can look beyond the discomfort and listen to the message it’s trying to relate, you can use it to great advantage.
If you can learn how to recalibrate this relationship you have with yourself, you’ll gain confidence and self-worth, and start trusting that you have the ability to navigate any situation. It’s the key to embracing the unique, wonderful person you are, with all your brilliance and limitations.
Here’s how you can tame the beast that is your inner critic.
1. Give your critic a persona
I used to picture my inner critic as both a visual and a sound – it was like a judge’s gavel, every time I thought about what I wanted, this gavel came smashing down, knocking me back into unhelpful thoughts – ‘you can’t do that!’, ‘that’s absurd!’, ‘are you for real?’.
What does your inner critic look like?
Maybe it looks like a bratty child. Or a big, strong Viking. Or a wild animal. Or maybe it looks like your mum (sorry mum). Give your inner critic a name, grab some paper and draw a picture of it. Give it a new look – the funnier it is, the less seriously you’ll take its criticism… hard to get too upset when Jemima the duck starts quacking and questioning your life choices!
And don’t forget to change the voice your inner critic uses to assert its authority over you too. Really – try adjusting the tone, pitch or volume. Turn it into a whisper, make it sound like a gentle old lady or a little baby. Your big strong Viking with the booming bass doesn’t have quite the same impact when it sounds like it’s been sucking on helium!
Next to the picture of your inner critic, jot down notes about its character too, its thoughts, perspectives, beliefs, motivations and goals. Why it does the things it does. Not only is it a great reminder when you need it, but giving your inner critic a distinctive, independent personality will help separate you from its influence.
2. Work out whether it’s helpful or unhelpful
Just because you think it, doesn’t mean it’s true… but that doesn’t mean you should dismiss it entirely.
Going with the view that your inner critic doesn’t have red horns and carry a pitchfork, try making the mental shift to see its opinions as concerns for your wellbeing. Acknowledging that your inner critic naturally err’s on the side of caution, heeding a little of its prudence can actually be really helpful.
It can help when you need to be discerning about someone’s behaviour, or when you’re deciding whether to trust someone or not. When you need to rationally assess your decisions, evaluate your work or provide constructive feedback. And it can stop you from barrelling head-first into a dangerous situation.
When it’s not helpful is when it has a harmful impact on the relationship you have with yourself and with those around you. When it incites angry attitudes and creates a pessimistic view of the world. When it leads to unhealthy decisions and self-destructive behaviour.
Your inner critic is not a trustworthy moral guide like your conscience – it doesn’t motivate you to act appropriately or change undesirable qualities. So acknowledge those thoughts, but recognise when they’re exaggerated, obstructive or unhelpful. Look at the actual evidence, separate fact from fiction. And if there’s not a helpful message in there, don’t give it any more oxygen. Consciously decide not to tune in.
If you can master that inner relationship, you’ll be more accepting of yourself and others, more compassionate and empathetic, less judgemental. You’ll be a better (and happier) person for it.
3. Learn how to tune it
You’ve heard the saying, “What we resist persists”? It’s so true. Most of us are dominated by our inner critic, plagued with guilt and a self-perpetuating sense of unworthiness. And try as we might, ignoring the thoughts our inner critic throws at us won’t make them go away. Like a jack-in-the box, we keep on winding them up until they pop (and often in a completely inappropriate situation!)
But when you understand where your inner critic is coming from, what it’s saying and why it’s saying it, you can reduce the impact it has on you – you can choose how you react to it. It doesn’t have to make you jump.
Your inner critic is what it is – there’s no point judging the judge, getting all cranky about what it’s trying to do to you. The trick is to tune out the unhelpful stuff and not let it dictate your life.
So next time your mood shifts from optimism to irritability, understand that your inner critic is probably in play. Think about what caused the mood shift – what happened, how you felt about it, what you told yourself. And then decide what to do next.
When that harsh voice in your head berates you for making a mistake, ask yourself whether it was a proportionate and helpful response. Recognise when it’s not and convert it to a more rational thought – “I always make stupid mistakes” can be balanced with “Yes I made a mistake, but I learn and grow from my mistakes.” Talk to yourself as you would talk to a friend or child compassionately and with encouragement. Then move on!
When you have the self-awareness to think it through, redirect your thoughts and consciously decide your own actions, you neutralise your inner critic. You disempower it. You may not be able to silence it, but you can counter it.
And if it gets to the point where you just can’t shake it off? Then ask your mates for a reality check. Everyone needs a cheerleader or two in their lives (I call them your ‘Personal Board of Advisers’) – people you can count on to remind you how capable and clever and worthy you are, regardless of what that little voice inside your head is telling you.
In the end, taming your inner critic isn’t about silencing it, it’s about acknowledging it and learning to listen to it with a more discerning ear. It’s about building a more constructive relationship with it, letting it help you navigate challenges and make better decisions, rather than letting it spiral you into self-doubt and self-destructive behaviour. It’s about finding the balance between self-improvement and self-acceptance. This is a lifelong ride you’re on, and your inner critic is with you for the entire journey (whether you like it or not) – but remember, this is your car, and you don’t have to let it sit in the driver’s seat!
If you’d like some help dealing with your inner critic, check out my new Recalibrate Self-Paced Coaching Program. Not only will you learn how to reframe those thoughts in a healthier, more helpful way, you’ll also learn other life-long skills like smashing through bad habits, limiting beliefs and negative thinking, as well as value-setting and taking action to achieve your goals. You can download an Info Pack for all the details, or simply get in touch and we’ll organise a time to chat!