This is part 3 in a 3 part series by Dr. Jena Field on rewiring your brain for happiness.
Almost everyone has an inner critic. Mostly, our inner critic can be likened to a well-meaning parent, pointing out our mistakes, highlighting our weaknesses, and nagging us to be better.
I liken my inner critic to an annoying cricket. Like the crickets from my childhood that used to move into my house, they tweedle relentlessly and keep me awake at night. So ever-present is this inner cricket, I have conjured (and drawn for you) a clear image of it.
We often have more than one type of self-critical voice that changes tone depending on our mood and sometimes grows dark and abusive. Like a bully, our self-critic can deal out contempt seemingly with the sole purpose of punishing us. Everyone beats themselves up at times. However, habitual self-loathing and self-directed hostility can profoundly damage us.
Often we have lived with our inner critic for so long, we don’t even realise it’s there.
Nor do we realise how much it negatively impacts our lives: how much the resulting guilt or shame blocks our ability to be happy and to accomplish the things we want, or how exhausting, demeaning, and relentless it can be. Psychologist Kristen Neff suggests that our bodies may eventually shut down from the stress it causes, resulting in physical ailments, depression, or anxiety disorders.
Fortunately, we don’t have to live with its destructiveness. We can diffuse our inner bullying voices. But, how we do this might surprise you.
Paul Gilbert is a psychology professor and co-author of The Power of Self-Compassion: Using Compassion-Focused Therapy to End Self-Criticism and Build Self-Confidence. In this book, Gilbert suggests that self-compassion involves embracing every part of ourselves, even the parts that are overly critical.
Embracing a destructive force may seem counterintuitive, but here are three reasons why it’s a good idea:
1. Rejecting our inner critic doesn’t work.
The inner critic’s function is to motivate us to protect ourselves, most often by self-correcting. It ‘protects’ us by guilting (pointing out mistakes) or shaming (pointing out flaws). It has been doing its job for a long time and does not give up easily. Consequently, trying to reject or ignore our inner critic often has an intensifying effect.
2. Our inner critic is trying to help us.
Often people think that without our internal judgements, we would end up self-indulgent, unhealthy, terrible human beings. To an extent, this is true. If we didn’t have some kind of internal value-driven voice guiding us and motivating us to do better, we might not learn from our mistakes, maintain our relationships, or get much done.
Even our most destructive inner voices are trying to help us.
Gilbert points out that abusive self-critiques display anger. Anger is our brain’s protective response that evolved to defend us from threats, such as feeling vulnerable. Our inner bully’s anger often masks other emotions that make us feel unsafe: fear, sadness, guilt, and shame.
3. Our inner bully is scared.
What is most often true about bullies is that they show anger because they are themselves scared. This is true in the outside world, and this is true in our heads.
Embracing our inner critic doesn’t mean agreeing with it or allowing it to govern us. Embracing it means that we listen, understand, and gently translate its destructive input into something more constructive. Here’s how:
- Conjure a visual image of your most severe inner critic. Gilbert suggests that visualising our inner critic can help us clarify and personify our self-correcting voice. Often people imagine an influential person who was (or still is) particularly critical towards them. It doesn’t have to be a person; visualise an animal or object. My light-hearted inner cricket image helps me to diffuse some of its unconstructive judgments.
- Listen to your inner critic with a compassionate ear. Recognise that it is often frightened and misguided. Think about how it might feel and about the emotions that motivate its abusive words. If you are unsure of its motives, visualise sitting down with it. Ask what it truly wants for you and what it is scared of.
- Add a more compassionate and constructive voice to the mix. When self-correcting, emulate the tone of someone who has been both supportive and constructive–someone who accepts all parts of you, fallibility and all. Visualise an encouraging coach, teacher, therapist, mentor, or friend. One woman had no encouraging influences growing up, so she visualised a loving maternal TV character from her childhood.
Thank the inner critic for trying to protect you and add a compassionate and constructive response.
For example, ‘I understand your intention but I did the best that I could under the circumstances. And I can do better next time.’
Mental health speaker, Indigo Daya writes one of the most enlightened real-life examples of this self-compassion practice. Daya’s inner critic was so disparaging that she considered ending her life. What made her change her mind was a suggestion by a man named Andrew. Here is an excerpt from her post:
Andrew asked me about [my critic’s] name, ‘The Judge.’ This question helped me to see that a part of his purpose was obvious in his name: he was a critic, he was the holder of my moral values, and he held me to account against these values with a savage and unwavering focus.
As I sat there, thinking about how terrifying and brutal the Judge could be, Andrew shared his own reflection:
It sounds like the Judge has a lot of responsibility. I wonder if he might be lonely.
I thought, loneliness and responsibility. Not so different to how I have felt myself many times in life. When you feel responsible for a lot, and you feel alone too, it can be overwhelming. It can be hard to hold onto compassion.
Andrew’s simple but insightful little comment instantly took some sting out of my experience of the Judge. It helped me to see him as more human and fallible. It made me think, for the first time, about how the Judge might feel, instead of how I feel.
I mean, I knew that my voice and I were one and the same–but still, we were different, too. The Judge had a job to do, he found it hard, and he was alone in his struggle. Maybe that was part of why he was so harsh?
A new idea began, only just, to grow in me. The idea of listening to the Judge with compassion, rather than with fear. Over time this idea would open up many new avenues in my recovery.
This is only a brief excerpt of Daya’s extraordinary journey. I highly recommend reading her entire post.
Learn more about how to develop self-compassion. Unfortunately, self-compassion is much harder for some of us to practice than it initially might sound, especially if we haven’t experienced supportive relationships in our past. You can learn more about how to develop self-compassion by reading The Compassionate Mind or The Power of Self-Compassion.
If creating a compassionate inner voice sounds unmanageable to you, psychotherapy might be the answer. Gilbert’s Compassion-Focused Therapy focuses specifically on learning to diffuse abusive inner critics, to heal the damage that they cause, and to embrace every part of ourselves.