If you were to make a list of essential things to do to be successful, you'd probably put silencing your inner critic on it. You might even put it near the top as a high priority. But before you tell your inner critic to can it one more time, show it some kindness and give it a break. It actually has a positive psychological function most people miss.

Keeping you in check

From the psychological standpoint, fear is probably one of the most effective emotions when it comes to stopping ourselves from behaving in ways that might not be safe or beneficial. But shame is powerful for this purpose, too. Like fear, it can keep you from veering too far from social norms, helping you internalize and anticipate current rules from authority figures. And getting you to feel shame is the inner critic's specialty. Its main evolutionary purpose isn't to suck the life out of you and make the world seem blacker than tar. It's simply to help you conform and, subsequently, have a better chance at survival.

As a somewhat exaggerated everyday example, if your inner critic calls you a dork and you feel embarrassed when you lose your keys, you'll probably come up with some kind of method to keep track of them. And if you don't have to worry about your keys anymore, you can get to work, which lets you pay rent, buy groceries and take care of yourself.

So what's the problem?

As Mark Coleman writes in his book excerpt on InnerSelf, the inner critic is both simplistic and inflexible. Its assessment of what's good or bad, right or wrong, doesn't always take many the ambiguities and subtleties of life into account. I compare it to an overactive immune system and allergies. It sees threats where there aren't any and speaks up when it's not appropriate.

And what's worse, as we listen to our inner critic, we build stronger and stronger pathways to its voice in our brains. It becomes easier and easier to trigger it, with one harsh self-judgment activating an entire sequence of mental self-lashing. And at that point, the inner critic isn't a protector anymore, because the number of negative messages we're receiving and accepting about ourselves so drastically outweighs the positive insights we might get from others.

Tipping the teeter-totter back the other way

Understanding that the inner critic has a purpose but can get way out of hand, your goal isn't to silence it completely. Rather, it's to be more conscious of its function and to deliberately balance it with logic. For example, you can ask yourself,

  • What could the inner critic be trying to get me to do or protect me from?
  • What evidence do I have that what the inner critic is saying is true?
  • If what the inner critic says is flawed, what exactly is the flaw? 
  • What situations or events tend to make my inner critic active?
  • What would I say to a friend who talked like my inner critic to themselves?
  • Would I ever say what the inner critic is saying to a child?
  • If there is any truth in what the inner critic says, what can I do to improve or move forward?

Many psychologists recommend that you try to distance yourself from your inner voice, too, such as by giving it a name and visualizing it as a separate from you. Others recommend that you try to admit to someone else that the critic is making you feel shame. That way, they can offer empathy and encouragement to you. Still another piece of advice you'll see in tons of self-help books is to be more definite about your vision or purpose. By doing this, you get clarity that can stop you from ruminating in a negative way.

But here's my own recommendation. Because the inner critic isn't a total villain, disarm it with a little thanks. For example, you could think to yourself, "Thanks for trying to keep me safe, Critic, but I've got this one" or "I appreciate you working so hard to keep me in line, Critic, but I'm OK. You can take a step back now and watch me be awesome." After all, the inner critic is always part of you, no matter how much you personify it. And peace comes when you're not angry or conflicted with parts of who you are.

Published on: May 21, 2018
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