Making friends with your inner critic - 6 tips to be gentler on yourself
I’m sure this sounds odd - you’re probably fed up with that negative voice inside your head that tells you negative things about the world and yourself; “you’re useless”, “stupid!”, “nobody likes you”, “nothing is okay, nothing is ever going to be okay”. Or, it may be a feeling, a sense of self-hatred, guilt, shame, or anger at yourself, or whatever variation you have.
The thing is, like all of us, that voice, that angry, hectoring voice in your head, will get louder when you ignore it. And also, if you ignore it, you are ignoring the potentially important information that it is imparting.
Often, our critical voice is a manifestation of fear, anger, shame, or hurt. Or, it may be the voice of someone who was critical of us; a parent, teacher or partner. It may be our way of motivating ourselves, or keeping us safe from criticism. It may be a mixture of all of the above.
6 tips to be gentler on yourself
1. Explore what your inner critic is to you
Take some time to listen to your inner critic. Can you find the intention behind what it’s saying? Some people, for example, find that they learned in their families of origin to “get in there first”, to criticise themselves before others could. Others may find that they learned to turn their anger in on themselves because it was not acceptable to express anger when they grew up; it might have been unacceptable, shameful, or even actively unsafe to be angry.
It may be more than one thing. Explore it.
2. What comes up when you consider not being so self-critical?
It is common to be frightened of letting self-criticism go; we may believe that it motivates us, pushes us to succeed, or it might be deeply interwoven with perfectionism. It may seem that it is keeping us safe.
But, truthfully, I think that we are more productive when we come from a place of firm compassion rather than something critical and punitive. Think about it - who are the best leaders, the ones that inspire you? They are firm, thoughtful, boundaried, disciplined without being inflexible; they inspire through affection and respect rather than fear.
3. Listen for the feeling
Are you sad, angry, ashamed? Can you sit with that and breathe through it? Do you need extra support to be with that feeling if it is a particularly big one? What is it telling you? Also, it might be worth taking some time to sit with how you feel when you're angry at yourself. You might find that it hurts to be on the receiving end of your inner critic.
4. Can you soften the words or the feeling, but keep the message?
Can you pay attention to the message, what is it guiding you towards? Sometimes it is possible to step into the critical voice itself and reframe the way it says what it needs to say, so:
“You stupid idiot! Why did you have to say that? Now nobody will like you”
“I’m scared nobody will like me because I said something I felt was silly”.
You can see that the second is easier to respond to; you can engage your rational brain to empathise with your fears. You might try giving yourself a hug, and reassuring yourself as you would a child or a friend, for example; “You feel scared. I get that. I think it’s unlikely everyone will reject you because you made one remark that clanged, but I get that it feels that way”.
5. Have a “hard boundary” around name calling
Sometimes, we might call ourselves names - “stupid”, “idiot”, “fat, useless ****”, or any number of other permutations. It can be useful to have a hard boundary around how you talk to yourself, to never allow that voice in your head to speak to you in that way. The awful feeling might then remain, but at least you’re not adding something even more hurtful into the mix.
Think about how you’d speak to a friend. Some of us wouldn’t even speak to our worst enemy the way that we speak to ourselves.
6. Can you give your inner critic a hug, and thank it for looking out for you?
It’s usually just trying to keep you safe, even if it isn’t going about it the right way. It’s okay for it to take a break, or just be gentler; you’re listening and you won’t allow it to be cruel, but you recognise that sometimes it has an important point.