In the self-help world, what’s referred to as the “inner critic” is painfully misunderstood. Because hearing the internal criticism that our inner critic offers can be challenging, we often pathologize our inner critic as if it’s a cancer that needs to be excised. Trying to get rid of the critic is (unfortunately) exactly where we get off base. Even though the critic sounds so very critical, it’s actually not out to get you–and trying to silence it? That doesn’t work, long term. If you really want to start shifting the critic’s role in your life, start shifting your relationship to the critic.
First–instead of thinking of your critic as a mean bully, think of it as a part of yourself that has needed to develop some tough survival skills. I often invite clients to imagine that their inner critic is like a tough, gritty, streetwise dog that Animal Protection Services has picked up off the streets. This dog has been kicked a few times, gone hungry for a few days, and seen some hard stuff. This dog has been hurt, and it has responded to those hurts by becoming a lean, mean, snarling machine.
But, really, that streetwise dog started off like all other dogs do–as a cuddly, adorable puppy. It wasn’t born so angry; it learned its snarling defense mechanisms to protect itself from what it perceives as a danger.
We can apply this same lens to ourselves. We weren’t born critical or defensive or afraid. We learned to be that way. When we start to imagine stretching into some new area–the vulnerability of a new relationship, embarking on a new dream, or stepping up to confront oppression or start speaking up for ourselves–our internalized critics feel the fear of that, and they get critical. The internalized critic’s intent is always to protect you from harm, and it does so in a misguided way by putting you down and criticizing you until it no longer seems like a good idea to get vulnerable, go after a dream, or speak up.
We’ve all experienced hurts. And when we experience hurt, if we don’t have a skill set for how to process that hurt and regain trust in ourselves so that we can regain trust in others, we are going to develop a defensive way of responding to the world to try to avoid future hurts–like criticizing ourselves so that we won’t take action. In the short term? It works. In the long term? Not so much.
When we understand the role the critic actually plays, we can start to shift our relationship to the critic and begin holding healthy boundaries. We can have compassion for the ways in which that internalized inner critic has been wounded in the past and very much needs to heal, at the same time that we stop letting the inner critic have so much power. But in letting the critic not have so much power, we need to take care not to “silence” the critic, not only because it doesn’t really work, but also because it puts more wounding on top of existing wounding. Remember, our internalized critics are invested in our survival, and they’ll do whatever it takes–including criticize–to get us to avoid risk.
If we aren’t going to silence the critic, but we don’t want to give it so much power any longer, the answer to how we shift lies in having healthy boundaries with your critic.
How to do that? You establish boundaries with the inner critic in the same way you would with another person. You start by going into each interaction, knowing that the communication must be respectful.
In actual daily practice, it looks something like this: As soon as your critic says something judgmental, you pause and respond to that inner critic voice with words that communicate healthy boundaries, such as: “I’m going to take a breath. We need to re-do, here. I’ll listen to your concerns, but they must be voiced respectfully.”
Now for a while, this practice will feel ridiculous because you’re going to think, “I’m talking to myself,” and that always feels a little silly. But I point out to my clients that they’’re already listening to, or debating with, an internal voice! They’re already “talking to themselves” when they hear the internal voices that say they’re not enough, nobody cares what you think, why bother trying…it’s all in there, anyway. Why not do something that’s proactive with this voice? While we might feel silly with this practice at first, with time it becomes a helpful way of nurturing positive self talk and encouragement.
You start with no longer seeing the critic as bad, and then you start to enact healthy boundaries–and ultimately what you’re doing is reprogramming an old fear pattern to create a new courage habit. This practice creates the habit of noticing your inner critic voice and responding to it in a different way…instead of avoiding it or silencing it or (worse) getting abusive with the inner critic voice by telling it to shut up and go away.
You–and by extension, your critic–are not “bad.” You’re just in need of a new skill-set that involves setting boundaries with the critical voices and no longer accepting that the way to handle the stress and fear of trying something new is to lash out. Start getting present to this side of you, the inner critic side of you, rather than trying not to see, feel, hear, or recognize the critic.
When you try to silence the inner critic and shut it down, you just put a muzzle on it and it trusts you less–just like a streetwise dog. That streetwise dog needs slow, patient, compassionate rehabilitation to learn how to interact with the people trying to help it. This is something that we can give to ourselves as well, as we stop trying to push away the parts of ourselves that are wounded and hurting, and start seeing them in a different light.
A practice of setting boundaries with the critic rather than silencing the critic gives you what you want in the long term: as the critic heals, it is less critical. You gain a greater sense of self respect.
That’s how you’ll start managing the inner critic voice in a way that keeps it from stopping you, and that’s how you change your life.