We all have one... the voice in your head offering a mean-spirited commentary on all your deficiencies, flaws, faults, and missteps. If your dialogue with yourself is littered with shoulds and shouldn’ts, why didn’t you, and what’s wrong with you, that’s your Inner Critic.
Feeling shame, low self-esteem, shaky confidence, or a sense of personal inadequacy? Your Inner Critic has left its mark. The feeling that you are about to be unmasked as a fraud? Convincing you that you’re an impostor is the Critic’s signature move.
What do all these experiences have in common? Your Critic said something you fear might be true about yourself, and you believed it.
So, are you doomed to feeling terrible about yourself? Thankfully, no.
Transforming your relationship with your Inner Critic begins with the insight that it is not you. It’s not your conscience. It’s not your higher self.
This transformation requires releasing the fantasy that it’s possible to get your Inner Critic to shut up. The most popular form of suppression is to counter its negativity with positive self-talk. But no amount of positive thinking can silence the Critic, because its job is to warn you that you’re in danger. This is why the Critic gets louder and meaner when you try and ignore or suppress it. It’s like silencing a smoke alarm without putting out the fire.
The move that changes your relationship with the Inner Critic is simple, if counter intuitive. Turn towards it. Welcome it as an ally not an enemy. Make the assumption that it has valuable information for you.
Minimizing the Critic’s power to define your sense of self requires a shift in attention, from the judgments it makes about you to the rules of behavior it’s operating from. Every Critic attack is trying to communicate which behaviors are safe and which are dangerous. The Critic sounds like a judge or a saboteur, but it’s really an enforcer.
For example, imagine your Critic accuses you of being lazy, because you left the office while your co-worker was still at his desk. What’s the broken rule? Safety comes from working harder than anyone else.
Another example: your Critic accuses you of being selfish, because you said no to a request to give up your Saturday to volunteer for the school PTA. The broken rule? You’re safe when others like you, and they’ll like you best when you prioritize their needs over your own.
Every Critic attack is triggered by a broken rule of this sort. It’s a signal that you’ve strayed from patterns of behavior that kept you safe in your past. The loud, insistent declarations of your inadequacy are not the point. They’re just a strategy to get your attention, to tell you you’re at risk. The Critic’s goal is to get you back in line: keep doing what’s kept you safe and avoid doing (or even contemplating) behaviors that would have gotten you criticized, shamed, or punished at some time in your past.
The Inner Critic is the gatekeeper of the status quo. If you want to be able to create meaningful change in your life, learn to look past the gatekeeper to the gate itself, namely the system of rules which you came to believe were essential to your safety.
When these rules are unconscious, they dictate your choices in life. When you make the rules visible, you can decide if they still serve you, or if you want to try some new rules which better fit your current context and are more aligned with who you wish to be.
Your Critic will, inevitably (and loudly) object to this deviation from the status quo. But once you recognize its accusations and judgments as a signaling device and nothing more, they will hold no power over you.
The Critic never goes away, thankfully. It can be a powerful ally to achieving lasting change if you learn how to listen to it.