“Imagine if someone invented a little tape recorder that we could attach to our brains… we’d discover that not even our worst enemies talk about us the way we talk about ourselves.” Arianna Huffington
If so, you are in good company.
People frequently come to coaching because their inner critic is holding them back. Another, wiser, part of them often knows what the inner critic says is unfair. Nonetheless, its power can be strong.
We get so good at being inner critics to ourselves, we often don’t notice it as criticism anymore. We take it as simple truth, without spotting how unbalanced and unkind it is.
But the impact is all too real.
The good news is there are some well-proven steps you can take to quieten the voice of your inner critic.
A master of disguise
One of the challenges in tackling the inner critic is it has myriad disguises.
Ever felt like a fraud, not as good as others think, worrying you will be found out? This is “imposter syndrome”. It can pop up eg when we start a new job or get promoted. Dig deeper, and you will find your inner critic at work.
If something goes wrong, perhaps you make a small mistake, do you replay things endlessly in your mind? You get 9 great compliments but all you can focus on is that one bit of criticism? Again, say hello to your inner critic.
Or do you feel you must keep pushing yourself relentlessly hard? That if you don’t, you will be lazy or weak? This is your inner critic driving an endless striving. As this is something our culture actively encourages, it is a particularly sneaky version as it attacks you for even seeing it as a problem!
What is common to all these thoughts is they make us feel bad. It can seem like self-sabotage. It narrows our perspective, reduces creativity and hampers our true potential.
Why do we have an inner critic?
In taming the inner critic, it can help to contextualise why it is there in the first place. This involves a brief look at our evolutionary history.
Life for early humans was nasty, brutish and often short. So our cave-dwelling ancestors developed ways to learn from danger. A part of their brain – called the amygdala – became hyper-sensitive to threats. This developed into a lightening quick process – often called “fight, flight or freeze”.
This was fantastic for self-protection – it ensured we survived!
Thankfully, in 2020 there are few tigers waiting to pounce as we go about our day. But neurologically, our brains still process danger as 10,000 years ago. Neuroscientist Rick Hanson says, “we have stone age brains in the 21st century”
In short, we are brilliant at over-learning from potential danger and have to work more consciously on taking in the good stuff. Hanson describes this as us having brains like Teflon for good experiences but Velcro for bad experiences.
This natural negativity bias has biological consequences. When our amygdala gets triggered by potential danger, we go rapidly into high alert and stress hormones flood the body. Crucially, our prefrontal cortex – the bit of the brain which governs rational, objective thinking – goes off-line. This is sometimes called an ‘amygdala hijack” – and is fertile ground for the inner critic.
Intensely stressful life events – such as when there has been trauma – can even cause hypervigilance, where the body is on continual high alert for new dangers, fuelling a baseline of background anxiety – which might explain why, for some, imposter syndrome is an ongoing experience.
So the inner critic’s key motivation is to keep us safe from danger. It may not feel like that when we are stuck in an endless loop of harsh self-criticism. But behind the harshness, we discover often an underlying fear.
How can we tame it?
The inner critic is a quirk of our evolutionary wiring. It may be a universal human experience. But sometimes it feels like the radio in our head has got stuck on “Inner Critic FM” – we are sick of its negative songs, but can’t shift the dial.
To disidentify from these messages and to tune into more helpful stations on your inner radio, the following practices are scientifically validated ways to gain more inner freedom:
1. Creating space – just noticing your inner critic has been triggered is a key step. This opens a space where you can observe the inner critic rather than being fully identified with it. Many find developing a mindfulness practice supports this. We notice that our thoughts are not “truth”. Journaling can similarly boost awareness of patterns and triggers. Then, when you notice you are caught by self-criticism, some simple slow breathing exercises can calm mind and body, taking you back out of ‘amygdala hijack’ and re-establish access to the brain’s prefrontal cortex so you can make more balanced, wiser judgements;
2. Inner kindness – experiencing inner criticism is tough. Ironically, we even criticise ourselves for being self-critical! But as Arianna Huffington’s quote above reminds us, we wouldn’t dream of speaking to others the way we sometimes speak to ourselves. One of the most powerful things we can do is to show ourselves the same kindness we would naturally show a good friend suffering with a harsh inner critic. Chris Germer and Kristen Neff’s work on mindful self-compassion provides many helpful practices for this – such as giving ourselves a “self-compassion break”;
3. Taking in the good – the inner critic depletes our resourcefulness. The brain’s negativity bias means we often skip over things which, if we spent more time taking them in, would give us more resilience. So a good way to counter that is to actively develop ways to boost our focus on things which nourish us. For example, call to mind your inner nurturer – someone you know supports you unconditionally – then allow yourself to really take in how that feels. For some, this might be about being in nature – resourcing yourself by connecting to a cherished part of the natural world. Developing a regular gratitude practice can also make a real difference – eg devoting time each day to noticing 3 things you are grateful for. The key is to spend time savouring how these things feel in the body rather than just thinking about it from the head.
From monologue to dialogue
All of this is not about ‘positive thinking’. It is about more balanced thinking in choosing not always to give priority to negative thinking.
Once we intuit that the inner critic’s real intention is to keep us safe, we can start to transform how we relate to it and to shrink its power over us.
It can sometimes feel like that moment in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy pulls back the curtain and the big, booming, frightening voice is revealed to belong to something far less scary.
We might even get to a place where we can thank the inner critic for its intention, while being clear its methods were misguided.
Catherine Sandler describes this process as moving from ‘inner monologue’ to ‘inner dialogue’. We become increasingly able to access more helpful parts of ourselves to balance the inner critic’s monologue.
Undoing habits inadvertently honed over many years doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to nurture a kinder approach. But the practices above, applied regularly, can be transformative.
 Hanson, R. Resilient, Penguin Random House 2018
 Germer, C. To recover from failure try some self-compassion, Harvard Business Review, January 2017
 Sandler, C. Executive Coaching – a Psychodynamic Approach, Open University Press 2011