inner critic
FEELINGS

How to silence your inner critic

We all have a voice inside us that tells us everything we are doing is wrong and sometimes it’s hard to ignore it. But if you try hard enough it is possible to overcome your inner critic and regain control explains Dr Nicola J Davies.

We can all be hard on ourselves, but for some women this can lead to a life of self-inflicted misery. From the way they look, the way they speak, and the way they carry out certain actions, these women will be controlled by an inner voice that bombards them with self-doubt and constant putdowns. This is the work of the inner critic. We all carry around an inner critic inside our heads, whose sole existence seems to revolve around making us feel miserable and full of imperfections. We explore the role of the inner critic in the lives of modern women, discussing why it’s there, what it does, and how we can overcome the potentially destructive power of this inner monster.

Meet your inner critic

Like everyone else, you have an inner voice whose primary interest lies in undermining your confidence and crushing your self-esteem. Seemingly, this is for your own good; to protect you against overstretching yourself, and to prevent you from succumbing to your own destructive, narcissistic impulses. Call it the enemy within, if you wish; others refer to it as the critical chatterbox, super-ego, saboteur, or simply the inner critic.

Whatever the name, we experience it as an independent, negative quality with a mind and will of its own, accompanying the self wherever we go. It delivers non-stop, negative commentary on our actions, looks, feelings, ideas, plans, interests, and more. Modern women are especially vulnerable to the critical chatterbox.

Those making a career for themselves while also raising a family are often racked by guilt about whether they are being selfish or neglecting their partners and children. Yet, stay-at-home mums taking care of the household feel the pressure to seek a career.

Magnifying this is the ceaseless media images of the ‘perfect’ woman. No wonder many women also have doubts about the shape and size of their bodies, their clothes, and whether they “fit in” with the rest of the women at work, on the street, or in their social circle.

Where did it come from?

The inner critic has been there since early childhood, so we get used to its presence and expect it to interfere with our lives. Some say the inner critic is something we picked up just like learning to walk for the first time. Since then we’ve introjected – unconsciously made part of ourselves – other people’s critical comments about us, especially those of our parents, teachers, and adult caregivers. As we grow older we automatically take over the role of these critical people. Others say we’re born with it, like an in-built watchful overseer that has our best interests at heart.

Wherever it comes from and whatever its intentions, most of us wish we could silence this self-sabotaging voice or control it so that we can feel better, have more self-confidence, and generally be more effective and contented. Gaining this control is particularly difficult for modern women, who have an array of pressures and expectations put upon them.

inner critic

 Functions of the inner critic

The inner critic supposedly exists to act in your best interests, even if it doesn’t go about this in the friendliest of ways. You can recognise its voice when torrents of self-criticism, doubt and self-esteem robbing emotions, images and thoughts flood you from within. It’s not that that the inner saboteur is evil, but that it’s bent on keeping you small and insignificant out of fear that, without it, you’ll get hurt along the way.

Two common strategies favoured by the critical voice to create self-doubt are constantly comparing yourself with others and coming up inferior in some way, as well as encouraging you to strive to please others. It will pick people you think are better off in some way – who have more money, a better job, more friends, slimmer bodies, successful children – and make you feel lacking and unworthy of the good things in life. It also tells you that to feel acceptable and to impress others you have to do certain things to fit it. The moment you step outside your comfort zone to take risks or accept challenges to improve your situation, the inner critic will let you know that you are bound to fail or become an outcast and target for social ridicule.

Despite its cruelty, the inner critic is there for a reason and trying to destroy it won’t work. Instead, you need to be on guard to prevent it from overwhelming you with debilitating self-doubt. The best way to achieve this is to try and form a cooperative relationship with your inner critic for the sake of peace and sanity. This involves listening to what the inner critic has to say, but then challenging it, and going against its wishes, no matter how loud, rude and insulting it might become. In this way the enemy within can serve as a source of motivation for expressing the real you, who might be kind, caring, polite, supportive, and positive – all of those things the inner critic says you are not.

What to keep in mind when dealing with your inner critic:

These tactics will help you gain control.

  • You and your inner critic are two different personalities – don’t mistake its voice as yours, and keep the boundaries firm and intact.
  • Learn to show compassion and understanding towards the inner critic – like well-meaning, critical parents, it has your safety and interests at heart.
  • Some people use physical rituals where they put an image or object representing the inner critic away in a drawer, under the bed, or anywhere out of sight – this concrete action expresses that you have power over the inner critic, and that it doesn’t control your life.

Turn it into something positive

Women who actively confront rather than try and ignore their inner critic find that over time it becomes easier to live with, and its power to control actions and moods weakens considerably. Gradually, it absorbs less personal attention and energy. All this starts with making a deliberate effort to get to know your inner critic, listening to what it has to say, and making its presence more concrete. Only then does it become easier to deal with, which provides you with the opportunity to turn it into a source of personal strength.

inner critic

How to silence the inner critic

It’s understandable that people would want to silence their inner critic forever, but that’s not going to happen. That wouldn’t be wise either. More so, we need to learn to recognise the many lies our inner critic tells us, so that we are equipped to challenge them. Here are some suggestions on winning the battle.

Be mindful:  Learn to pay non-judgmental attention to what the inner critic says, and take note of the situations, places, or environments in which it raises its voice. It might be at work, when you look in the mirror, when you start a new challenge, at certain social events, or every time you plan the family budget. Knowing when your inner critic surfaces will enable you to better prepare for what’s coming, and have your own healthy ideas, images and evidence of yourself ready to hang on to when necessary.

Be imaginative: Create a mental image or draw a picture of your inner critic. The funnier it looks, the better. If you can learn to laugh at that part of yourself, it will reduce the impact of its negativity. Also, having a concrete, external image of it makes it more manageable to deal with. You can point at it and give it a piece of your mind if the need arises. This will also give you the feeling that you have more power over it since it’s hard to disagree with an invisible entity.

Katie McCullough, a Playwright from Hertfordshire, says, “I’ve found vocalising (out loud) is a good way to dispel a lot of negativity. I think our brain is well equipped to shut off what could be a good idea before we’ve let it formulate properly and had chance to breathe. Saying things out loud is motivational, but also makes me dig deep to reassure myself that my inner critic is sometimes too quick to judge the situation efficiently. As they say, we’re our own worst enemy, but if you ‘blindsight’ yourself and isolate the issue you’re half way there.”

Challenge your critic:  It might help to write down a list of all the nasty things your critic has to say about you. Getting it out in the open makes it easier to challenge. You will notice that the inner critic likes to speak in absolutes, using over-generalizations to convince you of its perceptions: “You will never find real love,” “You will never lose weight,” “You will always be a failure.” The inner critic tends to discount those times when you did find love, lose weight, or succeed at a goal. This is when you can calmly remind yourself of your successes, attractiveness, and all the other admirable qualities you have, or that others see in you. The more consistent you are, the less power your inner critic will have over you.

Recommended reading:

Big Fat Lies Women Tell Themselves: Ditch Your Inner Critic and Wake Up Your Inner Superstar By Amy Ahlers (2011)

More: Anxiety in women, and why it’s on the rise in Ireland

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When it’s not just ups and downs
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Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

A
In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.

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Ask Allison

Q My sister-in-law and I both work three-day weeks and we help each
other out with child minding on our working days, which up until recently has worked out really well. Between us, our kids are aged between five and nine years – the problem is that it’s now become quite apparent that we have very different parenting styles. I prefer my two daughters (seven and nine) to have a structured day. For example, in my house, we have allocated times for television and iPads, etc. My sister-in-law, however, lets the kids run loose after school – homework is ignored and my kids end up wired after eating sugary treats all afternoon. I am considering looking at after-school childcare for the kids, but I’m worried that this is going to cause a family argument. Is there a diplomatic way that I can ask my sister-in-law to introduce some discipline into her child-minding days? It certainly doesn’t do her two kids any harm when I am minding them in my own house!

A
In a word, no, there is no diplomatic way to do this as it may very likely seem like your saying that your parenting style is better than
hers. As L’Óreal says, ‘now here comes the science bit.’ Dr. Kaylene
Henderson, a child psychiatrist, wrote a very interesting blog about ‘the
science behind the Mummy Wars’. She explains that before she had
children of her own she hadn’t been aware of how parents have a
very specific sense of the right parenting style. She also found that parents could be very definite in defending their chosen parenting style. Dr. Henderson, who describes herself as a curious, scientific, open-minded person, was surprised at how defensive parents could be and, at times, of their judgemental attitude towards each other. She explained the neurology of the Mummy Wars; okay, I’ll need you to bear with me for a second. Warning; I’m about to use some neuro-techie language.

Why do we judge each other?
As we have all had different experiences, this means that we all have very different memories stored in our brains. Most of our memories are ‘explicit’ memories – these are ones that we can recall easily such as important dates that mean something to us; important birthdays, special events or stories of and about our lives.
There is another type of memory called ‘implicit’ memory that plays a
key role in our parenting. This type of memory is the stuff that you do on autopilot. Psychologists call these heuristics or rules of thumb –
such as tying your shoelace, or driving your car (once you have learnt
to do both first!). Otherwise we’d really waste a huge amount of time
pondering over tasks that we have readily available to us. This seems to be where the science bit of our parenting style kicks in. This implicit memory goes all the way back to when you were an infant being parented by your parents. This is when you started the process of storing up how they did it into your memories.
Unless you make a conscious choice and effort to parent differently, what you saw and unconsciously learnt will be your automatic go-to parenting style.

We learn habits
This can really kick into gear when we feel our parenting style is
being mirrored or highlighted by disapproval from another parent. I know the cold sweat you feel when your child decides to make their outstanding bad behaviour performance at, of course, the most public and worst time. The implicit autopilot of how your parents dealt with these outbursts will flow unconsciously from you if you haven’t worked super hard to be aware and consciously change the old habits.
What’s happening for the on-looking parent is that they see you doing something they are used to doing, but you are doing it all wrong. Simply, because that is not how they know how to do it.

Find a way that works
You both have different parenting styles – who is to say which type is correct? You just need to know what works best for your family and that’s the bottom line. The irksome feelings won’t go away. You can talk to your sister-in-law, but I’m adding a caveat that it would be hard not to hurt her feelings. What we’re possibly looking at is that you prefer a more structured form of parenting, whereas your sister-in-law has a more permissive style. I’m not sure the two styles can mix, the mixture is a bit like oil and water.
If a collaborative shared form of parenting style can be agreed upon, then that is great, but our learnt hardwiring may prove difficult to change despite the intent to do so.
Perhaps, your own instinct of changing childcare might work best for you. In terms of making childcare work; the fit is ultimately the most
important aspect as you want a cohesive congruent feeling of the other caregiver to just ‘getting it’, like in any good partnership. Best of luck
with this and I wish you both well.