Neutralizing the Inner Critic
What is the inner critic?
Also called an inner judge or superego, this is the part of you that habitually attacks, judges, criticizes, shames, and blames yourself and others. It's the voice that says, “You should be better than this,” with the implication that there is something wrong about you now that needs to be fixed. It's an expression of fear, usually worried that you are too much, too little, too loud, too quiet, too lazy or too something to be accepted and safe.
How can I tell when the inner critic is attacking?
You might feel moody, irritable, annoyed, depressed, guilty, ashamed, or not very good in general.
Your thoughts are emotionally-charged judgments. For example, “You're not very good at this!” Or “I can't believe they are so thoughtless to leave a mess like this!”
Your body feels tense and ill at ease. Perhaps there is pressure or a desire to push something away.
You want a distraction or pleasurable activity to help you feel better. (This may or may not be related to the inner critic, but it's a good reason to check in and see what’s going on.)
The tendency to judge can be so ingrained that it is the water we swim in. Identifying a thought as coming from an inner critic is a big win, because it means you won’t automatically believe it. You can then respond with more agency.
Why do I have an inner critic?
Why indeed? How does it serve you? What does it protect you from? These are important questions, because they can help you understand how conscious and unconscious parts of you rely on the inner critic. It's not your fault for having an inner critic, because oftentimes it's passed onto us. It’s our cultural inheritance.
The inner critic is often an internalized version of parents, peers and society who taught you certain things were not okay. Maybe you learned that being gay or big or Black or emotional was different in a bad sort of way. Maybe the depth of your fear or anger was too much, and you learned that to be a good kid you had to stay quietly in your seat. You could have learned this through violence, exclusion, mean comments, or you could have picked it up implicitly.
The inner critic at one time internalized the rules so we wouldn't disappoint our parents and teachers, to keep us safe, and to avoid getting in trouble. It granted us whatever love and gold stars were available in our early life.
What do I fear will happen if I stop believing the inner critic?
I'll stop doing the things expected of me, and I'll lose my job and relationships.
People will judge me, criticize me, and reject me. They'll see that I am really incompetent, selfish, and too messed up to be loved.
I'll be especially hurt because I didn't see it coming.
So how do I respond to the inner critic?
1) Know yourself as separate from the critical thought. If you're asking this question, that means you recognize the critic's voice as separate from your own. If you identify with or agree with the critic, you won't be able to mobilize energy to defend yourself.
2) Respond spontaneously with a few words. You don’t want to argue rationally, because what’s at stake is your worthiness. Something like, “If you're so smart, go do it yourself!” Experiment and see what works for you. Here are some ideas to get you started.
Energetic Jiu Jitsu: Don't Resist the Critic
Accept the observation without agreeing that you are bad or wrong in any way. “Yep, I'm not very good yet. I'm really enjoying being a beginner.” “I like my big energy.” This tactic keeps it simple and directly addresses the harmful aspect of a judgment: the implication that you are wrong and need to change.
Own the criticism as a good thing, like a rebellious teenager. “Yes, I really enjoy being lazy and watching lots of TV.” This is similar to the above suggestion, but with more sass.
Exaggerate the critic and your response to it. Act it out with your body and your face, and be way over the top. Take your scared, shameful response to the extreme. This choice is particularly helpful when there is a tendency towards repression. You get to be with what's happening and be playful about it.
Humor. Can you find a way to laugh at yourself? Zoom out and look at your situation differently, like an alien trying to grasp the absurdity of your species.
Disinterest. “Thanks for the advice.” Like dealing with an over-involved parent who always has the same worries, you end the interaction as quickly as possible without adding fuel to the fire.
Aggression / Assertion: “Fuck off! Shut up. I'm tired of your bullshit.”
Indignation: “How dare you talk to me like that?” Self-righteous anger points out the injustice of the inner critic's attacks.
Wring a towel with your hands, bite a towel, growl, hit a pillow, stomp, punch, or otherwise allow your body to fight and defend yourself. Feel free to use your voice as well.
“Who cares what you think?” As soon as you expose the judge, you can have greater access to your own power.
Use your imagination to free yourself from the critic's attack. You can do this with memories as well. Take out a samurai sword, tape the critic's (or your parent's) mouth closed, and do whatever is necessary to stop the attack. If your judge tries to stop you, remember that you are destroying an image. You are stopping ongoing oppression. You are not hurting anyone.
Love & Compassion
Invite in a spacious, loving presence. Call in your spirit friends, or spend some time talking with the trees. Breathe deeply.
Be with the fear that you are unworthy or bad or unloveable. Allow the fear to be as big as it wants to be.
Through allowing this process, you will find more spaciousness and love.
Offer compassion to the judge. No one thinks they are a bad person. The inner critic is no exception. They are probably just trying to keep you safe. See what your critic is scared of. What do they want? How did they get their job? Do they like being your critic? Lean in with compassion. Once you find their true need, you can find a better way to meet it.
Give empathy to the one who is criticized. See what they need to hear instead. Perhaps, “You are so special to me. I love your spunk and pure heart. I trust you are growing and learning perfectly.”
Be with your body sensations. Breathe, aware of the breath. Disengage the mind and increase your awareness of the present moment. Where are you feeling contraction? What happens if you allow it and invite it to relax?
Ask, “Is that so?” Short, simple, and effective. You notice the judgment, but you don't buy into the story.
Do The Work as taught by Byron Katie:
“Is it true?
Can you absolutely know that it is true?
What happens when you believe that thought?
Who would you be without that thought?
Is the opposite as true as or truer than the original thought?”
Speak your vulnerable truth. “When I hear these words, my heart breaks. Stop talking to me this way.”
Use non-violent communication's framework to find and meet the underlying need. Identify:
The objective events that triggered you.
Feelings: happy, sad, glad, or mad?
Needs: What's missing that you really want?
Strategy: How can you meet this need?
Inquire: When did your inner critic learn to talk in this way? Connecting to its origin can evoke compassion and more directly address the causes and conditions that give rise to judgments.
Example Quick Responses
Critic: “You look so serious and mopey. What's wrong with you? Nobody wants to be around your negativity.”
Loving self: “I enjoy my seriousness and relish the sacred darkness. If you don't like my depth, you can go to a cocktail party without me, okay?”
Critic: “You don't know what you're doing with clients. You float around without a clear direction.”
Loving self: “Sounds like you know more than me. Maybe you should put out your shingle.”
Critic: “You are so skinny. Your posture is ugly. Your skin is too pale. I wish you looked better.”
Loving self: “Fuck off. Nobody asked you what you thought.”
Critic: “You have no friends. If you weren't so awkward, we'd have a chance.”
Loving self: “I love being awkward, and I love my awkward friends too, thank you very much!”
Critic: “You'll never find a good partner who puts up with you!”
Loving self: “Is that so?”
Know that changing the moves of the dance between you and your inner critic, like changing any longstanding relationship, is likely to evoke a strong response. Your critic is liable to come on strong, to stir up moods, and find any way to keep the status quo. Call on your inner warrior, respond with a sassy quip, or inquiry more deeply to more fundamentally change this painful pattern.
Inquiry: Releasing the Roots of Judgment
Short responses are great, like a chop to the jugular. But if the pattern continues, it's helpful to explore the roots of judgment. Patiently, with compassion, lean in deeper with the next curious question. You can do this in a journal, or with a professional guide.
Here's how it might look:
Critic: “I am so frustrated that I keep unconsciously putting on these old masks. I can't seem to be myself when I'm around certain people, like my family. I don't know if it's their fear or mine, but it's uncomfortable to be my full self. So I box myself in and stay small and quiet. It happens automatically and unconsciously.”
Loving self: [Slowing things down] “What's the frustration feel like in your body?”
Critic: [Makes a fist and moves it a circle in front of the solar plexus] “Like a fast stir right here.”
Loving self: “And how is it to be aware of the fast stirring?”
Critic: “I don't like it. It's uncomfortable. I want to get away.”
Loving self: “Let's take a deep breath. I know it's uncomfortable. See if you can allow it anyway.”
Critic: [Deep breathing and a long pause] “It's like the stirring has slowed a little. It's more tolerable now.”
Loving self: “Good. It sounds like you have a lot of awareness of this pattern. I'm glad. We can use that to help us. Thanks for doing so much inner work already.” [Validate, empathize and encourage.]
Critic: “Thank you! I've done so much work around here. It's not enough of course—just look at how we shut down and withdrew into our shell during the holidays.”
Loving self: “Yes, let's look at that. The way I see it, our little inner child's nervous system has never felt seen, accepted or safe around our birth family. And instead of helping us feel more safe, your attacks make us feel even more insecure. What are you trying to do when you judge us like that? [Speaking to the impact of the inner critic and seeking to understand rather than judge.]
Critic: “I want us to be beyond the conditioning of childhood. We should be proud of who we are. I want to be vibrant and alive!”
Loving self: “Yes, totally! I want that too. And what else would that give you?” [Deepening the need.]
Critic: “I'd be authentically me, and my depths would be seen and accepted.”
Loving self: “So you want to be you, and to be deeply seen and accepted.”
Loving self: “So in your attempt to be authentic and accepted, you reject the child's experience?” [gentle chuckle that shows good humor and acceptance]
Loving self: “And it sounds like you're frustrated that it hasn't happened yet. How is it for you to see this inner child put on old masks?”
Critic: “I hate it.” [Deep sadness arises. Tears swell.] “It's hard to accept, because I fear accepting it means the child gets to run the show, and we all know that does not go well! People can't stand us, we might get fired, and our life will fall apart.”
Loving self: “That makes sense. Thanks for caring about that. It sounds important to find a way to allow the child's experience so we don't have to fight it, but also not let it drive the bus.”
Loving self: “Are you okay if we explore the child's experience a bit more now?”
The loving self is now free to hold the experience of the child, which is far more straightforward.
You’re Doing Great.
Shame and judgment are endemic in our society. Fat people are ridiculed. Queer people are attacked. Boys aren't supposed to cry, and men are somehow supposed to be emotionally intelligent and caring. Women are supposed to find the middle ground between being sluts and prudes. These struggles run deep, extending back thousands of years.
So when it's taking longer than you'd like, remember that you are doing this for your ancestors going up and down the family tree. Your efforts chart new paths that make it easier for others to follow your energetic footsteps.
You're doing good work. You are deeply loved and supported by life. And if you need a little extra help, just ask.
Byron Brown. Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within. Boston: Shambala, 1999, 246-248.