According to the National Science Foundation, we have about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts a day, and 80% of them are negative. I used to be a quiet person who never asked many questions because of my painful past experiences, which included body shaming and bullying. I clamped myself up into an uninteresting bespectacled woman with no opinions. I remember, my inner critic being the loudest at those times, pushing me to craft every little task I did into perfection, convincing me that failures are the end of life, and coercing me into believing that I was a worthless disappointment. I remember hitting one of the lowest points in my life where I felt utterly directionless.
But through that journey, I’ve grown to understand and appreciate my inner critic. I still tread on the border of imposter syndrome, where I avoid taking credit for my work. Nonetheless, I have begun to consciously evaluate the messages my critic gives me to keep things in perspective while pursuing an authentic life. I’ve started journaling to understand and label my emotions and work through them, bit by bit, not to silence my inner voice, but to answer her questions so we can move forward progressively.
In my limited clinical experience, I have come across individuals who deeply struggle with their inner critic. The inner critic is essentially the subconscious voice (a part of our unconscious personality) that judges and demeans us. We have days where we criticize and judge ourselves harshly with statements such as, “I’m so useless,” “Nobody likes me,” “Why can’t I be like her?”
It is important to understand that our self-esteem and self-image are influenced by how we talk, think, and perceive ourselves. If we were to deconstruct the mechanism of the inner critic, it would look something like this…
Our brains primarily developed with basic emotions and instincts that protected us from all kinds of danger. As our brains evolved, they developed an evolved mechanism that continues to try and protect us from danger. This mechanism not only involves our biological instincts; it also draws on past learning. In its efforts to keep us safe, our (painful) past learning gets encoded within our brains and interferes with our present experiences. When we deconstruct our inner critic, we realize that it is just a scared, wounded voice that does not want us to go through similar painful experiences that we might encounter.
The world we live in, which requires us to remain holistic, take care of our physical health, mental health, work-life, and personal relationships amidst a pandemic, is incredibly hard on us individuals. We feel lonely, scared, and helpless, a perfect scenario for our inner critic to pop up and make us judge ourselves harshly. We are constantly working on auto-pilot, paying less and less attention to ourselves. In the process, we’ve lost touch with an important element in our lives: self-compassion. So how can we transform this inner critic, reparent, and allow ourselves to grab a candy bar of self-compassion now and then?
Recognize the critic and spot its destructive narratives. It is important to realize that this voice attacks you when you are feeling down, or if you recently encountered a negative event. Additionally, it can also occur in situations when you’ve made a mistake or have been harshly criticized. Usually, when this begins to happen, we feel highly dysregulated and disturbed.
Disempower and neutralise the voice. When we recognize ourselves getting into a cycle of negative self-talk, it is important to “thought stop” ourselves! In doing this we replace the critic’s voice with our true persona, the voice of positive rational thinking. A widely used trick is to quickly change your train of thoughts to a single word or mantra.
The final step is to – Externalize our inner critic. Like I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’ve externalized my critic to be another person. Someone I can have useful conversations with it for my personal development. The easiest way to initiate this process is to give it a name, voice, and possibly a face (any cartoon character will do). When we successfully externalize this voice, we give ourselves the opportunity and choice about whether we want to obey, argue, ignore, or laugh at it.
It no longer has the power to reframe thoughts as facts and constantly discourage us. Instead, it gives us a choice to accept or reject its opinions just as we would with anyone outside ourselves!
Managing our inner critic has several benefits:
- It clarifies thoughts by introducing facts that allow us to understand that the inner voice generates opinions and not necessarily the truth.
- With practice, we begin to tend to the wounded parts of the inner critic and try to understand what it could be protecting us from (introspection into our fears and core beliefs).
- It changes our feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness into a more empowered mindset.
- By transforming our inner critics into humorous cartoon characters, we can avoid extreme emotions such as depression or anxiety.
- It helps us clarify responsibility and focus blame away from ourselves, helping us live without crippling guilt.
While we are aware that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our way of life, let us work on re-entering the world with a transformed inner-critic that enhances our growth and development!
About the Author: Archana Raghavan, Associate Clinical Psychologist, is an active mental health advocate, and aims to spread the importance of mental health through her Instagram page @mind_alley. She enjoys reading books, writing, trekking, and playing the violin.
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