Most of us have a robust critic that sits within us, ready to chastise us for things we have or haven’t said or done. It’s often referred to as our “inner critic” and has been studied extensively since the 1950’s by psychologists. It can have a hugely debilitating effect on our lives if we allow it to take a hold. Our inner critic can cripple our performance at work, give rise to imposter syndrome and have us questioning every relationship we try to forge. So, is there anything that we can do about it?
In research terms, the inner critic is referred to as “a well-integrated system of critical and negative thoughts and attitudes of the self that interferes with the individual’s organismic experiencing process.” In other words, it’s a source of internal rhetoric that gets in the way of us being able to enjoy life.
Through the eyes of Freud, it’s our “super-ego” and reflects the internal set of cultural rules we learnt as children from our parents and other caregivers or educators.
Our inner critic is predominantly an unconscious part of our personality that sets the ideals and goals we aspire to and guides our conscience. It often criticises or prohibits our natural drives, fantasies, feelings and actions that are in conflict with this perceived view of perfection. It punishes misbehaviour with feelings of guilt and shame.
It strives to act in a socially acceptable manner and controls our sense of right, wrong and guilt. It serves to help us fit into society by guiding us to act and speak in socially acceptable ways.
What is our inner critic?
We know that our brains are a highly complex part of our nervous system and it is designed to help us navigate, innovate and survive. Studies have shown that there is a strong link between self-criticism and the part of our brain that is involved in error detection and resolution (the lateral prefrontal cortex, for those that are interested). It’s this part of the brain that works to keep us safe from repeating dangerous behaviours and of making life-threatening mistakes.
The inner critic has the ability to produce feelings of shame, deficiency, low self-esteem and depression. It can also cause self-doubt and undermine one’s self-confidence.
How does it manifest?
Dr Jay Earley and psychotherapist Bonnie Weiss have identified seven types of inner critic to be aware of. See if any of these inner critics resonate with you.
Constantly aims for perfection, sets impossibly high standards, has difficulty in letting you say something is complete and letting it go. It tries to make sure that you fit in and prevents you from being judged or rejected. Its expectations probably reflect those of people who have been important to you in the past.
This critic wants you to work hard and be successful, it fears that you may be mediocre or lazy and will be judged a failure if it does not push you to keep going. It is triggered by the procrastinator or rebel that fights against its harsh work ethic.
The inner controller
Tries to control your natural impulses: eating, drinking, sexual activity, etc. It tends to be harsh and shaming in an effort to protect you from yourself. It is motivated to try and make you a good person who is accepted by and functions well in society. It is particularly triggered by indulgence and sees addiction as a threat that could take hold at any moment.
The guilt tripper
This critic is stuck in the past. It is unable to forgive you for wrongs you have done or people you have hurt. It is concerned about relationships and holds you to high standards of behaviour prescribed by your community, culture and family. It tries to protect you from repeating past mistakes by making sure you never forget or feel free.
Makes extensive attacks on your fundamental feeling of self worth. It shames you and makes you feel inherently flawed and not entitled to basic understanding or respect. This is the most debilitating critic, it can stem from early life deprivation or trauma. It is motivated by a belief that it is safer not to exist.
This critic tries to undermine your self confidence and self esteem so that you won’t take risks. It makes direct attacks on your self worth so that you will stay small and not take chances where you could be hurt or rejected. It is afraid of you being too big or too visible and not being able to tolerate judgement or failure.
The moulder (or the conformist)
This critic tries to get you to fit into a certain mould based on standards held by society, your culture or your family. It wants you to be liked and admired and to protect you from being abandoned, shamed or rejected. The conformist fears that the rebel or the free spirit in you would act in ways that are unacceptable. So it keeps you from being in touch with and expressing your true nature.
What's the impact?
According to one study, we talk to ourselves at a rate equivalent to speaking 4,000 words per minute. That’s an awful lot of words to compute. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we can sometimes allow this internal monologue to overtake our external experience. The impact of allowing this constant voice to the surface are manifold.
Ethan Kross, author of “Chatter” says that negative self-talk not only makes you feel worse, it also makes you perform worse. He explains that when your internal cynic plagues your mind, you lose access to some of your skills. Specifically, you can lose access to automatic skills stored in your muscle memory (such as driving a car, dancing, or reading).
Research shows that people who repeatedly verbalise their negative inner critic are more likely to act aggressively. It can also frustrate and repel others as it acts like a barrier in relationships preventing connection from being made. It can also cause people to self-isolate.
Poor mental health
The inner critic can degrade your long-term mental health. Research shows that people who struggle with depression and anxiety often have an overactive internal cynic.
Poor physical health
Negative self-talk also harms your physical health. As previously noted, when you can’t switch off your internal cynic, your hypothalamus activates a threat response, quickening your heartbeat and releasing stress hormones. If your negative self-talk persists for too long, this physical threat response does as well. This can cause problems related to chronic stress, such as heart problems and insomnia.
To understand why negative self-talk has this effect, we have to understand your brain’s executive functions. These are the jobs your brain performs to guide you through your day, such as shifting your attention to a new task and holding information temporarily in your mind. Kross explains that when you’re immersed in negative self-talk, your brain, which has limited capacity, lacks enough energy to fully perform its executive functions.
Conversely the opposite is true of positive-talk which can make you more skillful in executive functions.
How do you manage your inner critic?
The bad news is that it’s virtually impossible to silence our inner critic entirely. The good news is that we can make significant steps to quieten it and to reduce its power over us.
The other good news is that we’re not alone! Even the most brilliantly accomplished individuals struggle with their inner critics:
Sylvia Plath once wrote: "I could not sleep, although tired. And lay feeling my nerves shaved to pain and the groaning inner voice: oh, you can't teach, can't do anything. Can't write, can't think...I have a good self, that loves skies, hills, ideas, tasty meals, bright colours. My demon would murder this self by demanding that it be a paragon, and saying it should run away if it is anything less."
Virginia Woolf considered all her books as "surrounded by a circle of invisible censors ... [who] admonish us". She named two of her inner critics "The Angel in the House", a female voice telling her to be less hostile to/placate men and another "The Spirit of the Age", who was an elderly male voice like a customs officer checking her writing for contraband.
6 ways to deal with your inner critic
1) Investigate the belief
Reflect on what the underlying belief is behind the criticism and consider where it might have come from. What would a more helpful, updated belief be in this situation?
2) Pursue amazement
Research shows that amazing experiences can quiet your inner cynic because they reduce brain activity associated with self-immersion: getting lost in your thoughts, including negative self-talk.
3) Seek out actionable empathy
This is not about finding someone who you can co-ruminate with! If someone asks too many questions of the challenge it can cause you to re-experience the pain and make it worse. Actionable empathy is when someone is able to validate the difficulty of the situation and the emotions you are feeling but instead of asking you lots of reflective questions about your situation, they instead offer advice and help to direct you to a more hopeful future.
4) Adopt a new perspective
a) Reframe the problem as a project - when you approach your problem as a project that will develop your skills, you call upon your internal coach, whose encouragement can drown out your internal cynic.
b) Compare your present to the past - remembering past successes can offer hope and encouragement of what you are capable of.
c) Imagine how you’ll feel in the future - consider how you’ll feel about your current situation in one month, a year, and 10 years. Contextualising your present in your future can trigger the realisation that your current situation is temporary.
d) Prevent your inner critic using “I” - Using alternative pronouns “he,” “she,” “they,” and “you,” give you distance from your current situation and has the effect of lessening your brain’s threat response.
5) Increase your sense of control
Strategies that replenish your sense of control give you hope that you can steer your future toward a positive outcome. One way to regain control is as simple as organising your time or your physical space.
6) Engage in rituals
Rituals, particularly those that involve our communities, can quiet our inner critic as they can reduce feelings of isolation and help us cope with negative emotions. They direct our attention elsewhere and towards ritual behaviours. They also give you a sense of control.
We can see the many ways our inner critic can take hold in our lives. If left to its own devices, it can stop us from achieving our full potential and from developing connections with people. Understanding that it wants to keep us small, safe, accepted and "in check" is the first part of the process. The next stage is learning how manage the volume controls so that we can begin to operate freely, outside of the limitations and expectations it tries impose on us.