Softening Your Inner Critic

As a therapist I often hear my clients describe having an ever-present, critical, nit-picking inner critic. They struggle with self-doubt and shame, unable to see a promotion, a productive conversation, a good grade, or any type of achievement as a win. 

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all have an inner critic. It’s harsher and stronger for some. We can expend enormous time and energy telling ourselves we aren’t good enough, smart enough, thin enough, successful enough, or (insert other adjective here) enough. And what we say internally are typically things we would never say to a friend; we say cruel and harsh things that powerfully impact the way we function.

We know that thoughts and emotions are related. If I’m having the thought that I’m not good enough, my feelings will match this thought with sadness, disappointment, and shame. Becoming aware of our harsh inner critic can help us to begin to challenge the thought and practice self-compassion. I believe that everyone also has a nurturing and encouraging voice, one that often gets overshadowed by our inner critic.

Our inner critic thinks in erroneous ways and can be categorized into what we call cognitive distortions.  Here is a guide to better understanding and deciphering what a few cognitive distortions may sound like:

  • Mind reading: assuming that other people are thinking negatively about you with little evidence to support this assumption. If I don’t know the answer to this question my coworkers will think I’m incompetent.
  • All or nothing thinking: viewing things in extreme, “either-or” categories instead of a balanced view.  I didn’t get all As this semester so I’m a failure.
  • Catastrophic thinking: telling yourself that if the worst happened, it would be horrible, awful, and unbearable. If I lose my job my life will be over.
  • Should statements: thinking that creates feelings of stress, pressure, and guilt if you don’t comply with what you “should” be doing. I should exercise 5 days per week.
  • Overgeneralization: making broad assumptions based on limited events, typically with words such as “always” and “never.”  He didn’t call me back, so I’m never going to find a partner in life.

Negative self-talk is difficult to overcome. Working with a therapist can help us become mindful of our inner voice and better assess our cognitive distortions.  Our inner critic usually has its origins in our upbringing.  Exploring the origins of your inner critic can be a powerful way to separate the past from the present.  If, for example, you grew up in a family where there was constant yelling, you may very well internally yell at, or criticize, yourself.  In other words, you have internalized your earlier environment and your self-criticism is deeply ingrained in your thought processes.  When we can examine and counter our negative thoughts with a more positive and compassionate voice, we can save ourselves from more emotional turmoil. 

Some tips that prove to be helpful for softening a harsh inner critic include using a self-love mantra, asking if you would speak to a friend or family member the way you are speaking to yourself, practicing mindfulness, identifying a few positive qualities about yourself daily, writing encouraging memos and putting them in places you see often to remind yourself to challenge your negative thought patterns. 

We so often get told to be kind to others, why not be kind to ourselves as well?

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