The Inner Critic: 3 Steps To Manage Your Gremlins
I want to share three tools I use when my inner critic gremlin comes out to eat emotional pizza after dark. They are: awareness, acceptance, action.
When my inner critic gets loud, I used to think that it was me talking. I didn’t know about internal family systems, which is the work of recognizing that we have many voices and parts within ourselves. Each has a different and vital role to play in maintaining our inner landscape.
By raising my awareness of when that critic was speaking I was able to spot that voice and to hear the things it was saying as a part of me speaking, not ME speaking. Because I would never consciously say “You totally messed that up, you’re a failure, omg how could you be so dumb. You should have known it would turn out that way….”
I love me too much now to speak to me that way, to say things in my own ear like that that just aren’t true. When we hear those kinds of thoughts and don’t realize that we can dis-identify with them, well… of course we believe what they’re saying! We think we are just making observations about ourselves and our choices when really we’re beating ourselves up.
What helped me to start to tease apart the voice of my inner critic and my own voice is to ask: would I say these things to someone I love? To a client? A friend? Even a stranger?
When the answer is “of course not!” then I know that that voice is my inner critic and I label it as such in my mind. Those are thoughts I don’t need to borrow or believe. Just a voice, saying words — old patterns and habits, old neural pathways getting activated. No need to give it more weight than that in the moment, right?
You are and can ever be your own watcher. You can decide that it’s totally okay that you have an inner critic because we literally all do, and it’s not a problem, it’s just another voice in your mind that you get to be present with.
As always, I also want to call out that so many of our critical inner thoughts come straight outta the mouth of the patriarchy, white settler colonialism and capitalism. Thoughts like “I’ll be happier when I lose the last 5 lbs” “I’d be prettier if my nose was thinner” or “I can feel better about my life when I’m married” are thoughts that most of us humans socialized as girls and women were taught.
Those inner thoughts are so insidious because they’re baked into the advertising we see, the stories we hear, the expectations that the people we love hold for us and it’s so important to remind ourselves: you dont ever have to borrow those thoughts. Ever. You don’t have to believe those thoughts ever. You didn’t make them up, you’re not a bad femeinist if you hear those thoughts. They were literally trained into you.
When our thought habits are based in codependent, perfectionist and people pleasing habits, we often have the habit of being mean to ourselves, overly exigent, and we fear failure or not measuring up to external expectations deeply. We often think we are failures, not worthy of love or care unless someone else validates us.
So it can feel challenging at first to discern which voice is a critic and which voice is our wise self, what some call our higher self, what I think of as the voice of true, unconditional self love — our intuition. And the difference for me is all about the tone and energy.
My inner critic has a harsh tone, rushed and urgent energy, a frenetic feel, a loud energy or volume even, is demanding of my attention and energy.
Meanwhile, the voice of my intuition, of my deepest self love is so gentle and kind, so tender and soft, calm and compassionate, like a kind and loving guide, not a task master.
Somatically, my body feels soft when self-love is speaking. There is a softness to my muscles, my belly feels soft, there isn’t swirling or tightening. Meanwhile, when my critic is speaking, my jaw gets tight, my belly feels like there is lava in it, my hips get tight, that spot in my right upper back clenches and my breathing feels more shallow.
My body does not love tuning in to my inner critic!
This awareness of the critic voice can happen for you in body or mind or both, and if it feels challenging at first to discern which voice is which, ask yourself: would I say this to a child or to someone I love dearly? If not, it’s your critic, not you.
Next, is acceptance.
This step has been so deeply supportive for me. I used to get mad at my protector parts, my defender part, my inner critic. Which is like when you yell at the dog for barking and she’s like, “Oh what?! There is something to freak out about okay beloved human! I will bark LOUDER!” When you get mad at your critic, trust and believe it will get louder as you effectively tell it that there is a reason to go into sympathetic activation, that fight or flight are needed here, that there is a problem.
Instead, I meet it with love. Just like how my beloved dog, Frances Bacon, who went by Frankie, would bark at things she thought were dangerous, my inner critic is doing the same thing.
It wants to protect me from things like feeling too much joy or peace or calm or success — which can be scary if it’s not what you’re used to feeling. Or things my critic deems dangerous like trying something new and risking failure because it knows it’s gonna be so extra harsh with me then. So instead of telling it eff off or shut up, I approach it with love, gratitude, compassion and always curiosity.
My darling inner critic — hello, thanks for joining us today. What’s up for you? What is it that you want me to know? What are you trying to protect me from?
And I do this, I literally talk to myself and my critic this way, because developing intimacy with myself is one of the most important things I can continue doing to keep my codependent, perfectionist and people pleasing thoughts a thing of the past. Because those habits only thrive when we are not sure of our worth and value, when we doubt that we are perfect and worthy justs as we are and we live life trying to prove it.
So I speak to myself, all my parts, from the assumption that they are perfect and just want me to know something, just want to protect me. And as someone with a history of intrusive thoughts, I know this can be so challenging, I’m never saying it’s not. For me, meeting my critic, and my intrusive thoughts, with love and care feels so much better than being mean to me ever did. It’s so much more effective too.
Another useful remedy is to continue to dis-identify with that critic as being you by naming it. My old therapist taught me this one and it’s been so helpful. Call it Mean Mike or Mean Magdalena, whatever comes to you, and no it doesn’t have to be an alliteration, but I sure do love one. Create a character that you can see and not identify with, and see if that’s helpful. It was super helpful for me for years and helped me to accept that this part is just a part of me. It’s not going anywhere, and I have the power to make choices around my relationship to it, like I can with all my human relationships, which brings us perfectly to step 3.
This is the step in which you get to take courageous action for your own life, and to make a conscious, thoughtful, self loving choice about how you will relate and respond to your inner critic.
This part of you that loves you in a way that doesnt feel helpful or kind, like that aunt who always points out your pimples at a family dinner.
You get to acknowledge that your inner critic is no more the voice of your true self than your tia’s voice is. You get to accept that both of them mean well from their own world view, that they honestly just believe they are doing right by you, and you get to decide that you’re going to continue to be your own most loving parent, that you are the adult driving the bus, not that critic, and that you’re not going to ignore or shame or scold the critic (or the tia!) but you’re also not going to give that voice primacy. You’re not going to believe its sneaky siren song, luring your ship onto the rocks below.
So try this process on my tender ravioli: