How to work with your Inner Critic
There is a more fluid way to understand what is holding you back so you can get back to enjoying your life.
Are these phrases familiar?
“I feel so guilty.”
“I feel so selfish.”
“I’ll do it tomorrow.”
"It's not good enough."
"I'm not good enough."
I see so many presentations of the inner critic in my counseling practice. Self-help books (and many therapists) tend to refer to it as a thing, a boogey man, a negative inner voice. I think we label the inner critic as a thing so we can project our anger and frustration on it as we disown it. Our inner desire is to get away from it, and with good reason. There is nothing pleasing about it. It’s a tug-of-war between the part of the self that wishes to grow (which means risk, loss, work, frustration, etc.) and the part that desires familiarity and “safety” (which does not necessarily mean safe). I am going to make the case that it is a landscape in which you find yourself immersed.
What's it made of?
Think of the inner critical landscape as a collection of old software you are trying to use to open current life “files.” For example, opening a life file called “how to manifest my ideal career,” or “creating a fantastic relationship,” or (and this is a big one) “finding my passion.”
This old “software” is a map of sorts. It is a series of commands that are based on life experiences we have had, “ways of the world” we observed in our parents/caregivers early in life, negative (and seemingly negative) experiences we have had in school, work, and relationships (think of that social trauma from middle school or the toxic relationship that really threw you, or that "best friend" who betrayed you). All of these experiences bubble up in the form of feeling and sensation when we encounter situations involving risk - even mild risk (for example, “I’m going to introduce myself to that person,” or "I saw this tutorial online and I want to try it").
In the inner critical landscape you will encounter feelings of self-deprecation (“I can’t believe I said that. I can never show my face again”), perfectionism (“I’ll have to finish that project, someday"), comparison (“other people have it worse than me”) and just outright fear.
Fun fact: favoring fear is something that has kept us alive as a species (when I run or hide from a predator, I survive) but not everything is life and death.
So now what?
The oversimplified answer to navigating this landscape is to learn effective self-care, customized to fit your location in the inner critical landscape. The goal is to discover how to support yourself through these feelings so you are able to persist, even when you feel unsure of yourself, frightened, or stuck. Attempts to override or ignore inner critical experiences usually make them stronger. You will find more benefit in getting to know where you are in the landscape so you can develop strategies to soothe and encourage yourself to keep going.
Consider an actual map. If you saw on your map that you were heading through a mountain pass, you would expect colder temperatures and dress accordingly. You would NOT insist that the cold shouldn’t bother you in your tank top and flip-flops. Ask yourself what you need in order to successfully navigate the landscape and how you can get it. Do you see how much more supportive that shift in thinking feels? You don’t have to be afraid of the cold in the mountain pass if you have a down coat in the trunk of your car. Hazzah!
Let's apply this idea to a made up, real life scenario (yes I just used "made up" and "real life" in the same sentence). Imagine you are invited to a function where you know there will be people who make you feel unimportant or small. It doesn't matter for right now whether they are actually doing that or if it's just something that comes up for you when you are around them.
Your instinct might be to fluff yourself up and be prepared to show them how big or important you are but that is not coming from a self-care place. It is giving truth and strength to the critical thought by engaging with it. (Ps, the same is true if you decide you will go but hide from everyone. It gives power to the negative thoughts). Now, imagine you decide to simply acknowledge this will be a difficult event. Perhaps you decide to think of a list of people at the event you may be looking forward to seeing or chatting with. Maybe you do something beforehand that you know you enjoy (like a walk or a few minutes on a project you may have in progress) or plan something for afterward that you enjoy (like a hot bath or your favorite robe and a book, etc.) or BOTH (it's your choice, after all). So now, during the event, you are aware of your negative experiences but you have somewhere to go emotionally. You knew it would be tough (how nice of you to validate yourself!), you can reflect on what you did before you came, you can talk to those you looked forward to seeing, you can look forward to your "treat" later and so on. What you don't have to do is spend energy trying to prove the critical thoughts are wrong.
An invitation to know yourself better
My invitation to you is to consider what your critical landscape looks like, especially when you are in the throws of a negative self experience. Are you deep in a scary forest? Are you in the manager’s office, getting reprimanded? Are you at the gate of an exclusive club you are not invited to (because you aren’t important enough)? Ask yourself what you need vs. how to make the feeling go away.
I work with a lot of people to assist them in this process. It can be very helpful to talk with a counselor to understand this part of yourself so you can work more effectively within the landscape. In therapy, we can unpack the contents of your negative self-talk to assist you in drawing a map and ultimately learn better ways to navigate it.