5 Things to Do When Your Inner Critic Takes Over

Each of us has a side of ourselves that is “on our team,” rooting for us as we move through life and encouraging us to take positive, goal-directed actions. However, we also have another side that is our biggest critic – our worst enemy – in pretty much every sense. A lot of people chalk this up to the fact that we all have good and bad aspects of our personality. Yet, the truth is, our attitude toward ourselves can flip back and forth in any instant with very little changing in our circumstances. One minute we are feeling confident at work, proud of what we’re achieving. The next minute, one passing comment from a coworker leaves us feeling like an all-around failure. We may spend an afternoon joking around with our partner, laughing at their teasing, and 10 minutes later, we’re torturing ourselves over one particular word they used.  We may be feeling pretty good about ourselves as a parent until a single fit from our toddler sets off a tsunami of self-hatred, sinking our mood for the rest of the day.

I’ve written a lot about how we develop a “critical inner voice” and steps we can take to try to understand where it comes from and how to stop it from sabotaging our lives. However, there is a lot of value in learning how to identify and challenge our inner critic the moment it shows up. When did it start chiming in? What words did it use? How did it suddenly alter our mood? Answering these questions can be tricky, because our critical inner voice runs a stealth operation and does a very convincing job of making us believe that it’s based on reality and represents our real point of view. “Ugh. He thinks you’re an idiot,” it warns us when our partner makes a joke about us forgetting something. “She doesn’t see how much you do around here,” it informs us when a coworker asks us to do something. “You’re a terrible mother,” it screams into one ear, while our toddler screams into the other.

So, how can we get ahold of that pivotal moment when our inner critic takes over? How can we recognize it as a false and faulty point of view and stand up to it as the internal enemy it really is? Here are five things to try when our inner critic shows up.

1. Label It

The first step to ousting our inner critic is noticing when it arrives. We can start by designating a period of time, maybe a month, a week, or just one whole day, in which we’re committed to staying on high alert for any signs of our critical inner voice. We should try to take mental note of any moment when our confidence starts to slip or a criticism enters our mind.

This “voice” may start chiming in when we first look in the mirror. “You’re so fat/ ugly/ out of shape/ old looking.” It may come after a slightly awkward interaction. “You sounded so stupid. What is wrong with you?” It may arise when we’re stuck in traffic (“You’re never going to get everything done today.”), before we check a dating app (“No one is interested in you.”), or after we get off the phone with our partner (“You sounded so needy. He’s annoyed by you.”) Whatever the thought may be and whenever it arises, we should just try to notice it and simply say to ourselves, “That’s my critical inner voice.”

2. Limit Interaction

When our critical voice starts to speak up, we don’t have to try to respond or get too caught up in whatever it is saying. It can be tempting to mull it over or argue a case with it one way or the other, but this gives it a lot of power. The point is not to get lost in our inner critic’s content but just to notice that it started to chime in.

The practice of “name it to tame it” is based on the idea that naming a feeling can lessen its impact. Naming a thought as part of our critical inner voice as opposed to our real point of view can help keep us from boarding a train of destructive thoughts. Instead, we can just stand at the station, letting the thought ride by, waving as it passes, but limiting the amount of time we interact with it. When it comes to the inner critic, I find it helpful to follow the saying, “Allow your thoughts to come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.” If a particular thought is really stuck with us, we can even tell ourselves we’ll come back to it at a later time.

3. Postpone Action

Our critical inner voice is not just a commentator but a dictator, trying to control our actions. “You should just shut up; no one wants to hear what you have to say,” it states. “Who do you think you are? You can’t do this,” it warns. Whatever action this mean inner coach is shouting at us to engage in in a given moment, we should try to do the opposite. Unfortunately, in the split second when our inner critic is laying into us, it’s hard to have the presence of mind and confidence to resist it completely. However, we can still resist it by rejecting its advice or, at least postponing whatever self-limiting action it’s pressing us to take.

For example, if our critical inner voice is filling our head with thoughts like, “Just go home. You are going to make a fool of yourself at this party. No one cares that you’re here,” we should stay longer. If it’s telling us, “She doesn’t feel attracted to you anymore. Who would be? You should call her out and make her tell you how she really feels,” we should give ourselves time and space before we talk to our partner. If a self-soothing voice chimes in, “Just go home and have a drink. Who cares how it makes you feel. You don’t need to work out today,” we should not head home right away.

Eventually, we can push ourselves to take a more aggressive stance against our inner critic, perhaps by starting a conversation with someone at that party, being vulnerable with our partner, or driving straight to the gym, but we can start by postponing any action that is directed by our inner critic. Simply putting time between the thought and the action can help us reconnect to our real sense of self.

4. Seek Distraction

In any instance where our critical inner voice is on blast, we should try to seek distraction. Anything from taking a few deep breaths to a 15-minute walk can be a great way to hit the pause button.  If we have the chance to engage in a distracting activity, we should give ourselves permission to do so. If we’re at work, we can switch temporarily to a different task (assuming that’s an option). If we’re in a heated exchange with our partner, we can let them know we’re going to take a few minutes to step away and calm down rather than continuing to escalate the situation. We can go do dishes, play with our dog, run to the market, or read an article. It may sound silly and specific, but seeking a distraction when our inner critic’s engine is just starting to rev up is a good way to avoid getting completely absorbed in its content.

5. Identify Triggers

As we become more aware of our critical inner voices, we can become more curious about why specific voices are being stirred up. What are the triggers setting off our self-critical thoughts? For some people, it may be a tone of voice or specific word directed at them. For others, it can be a certain circumstance: a feeling of being ignored or overlooked or a situation that makes them feel shy or put on the spot. It may leap on any failure or even a success.

We should try to remember that it is not just what happens in our lives that creates our reactions but what we’re telling ourselves about what happens. And what we tell ourselves is often linked to our past. If we grew up feeling undeserving and ignored, we’re likely to be sensitive to situations that conjure up these adjectives. If we were treated as needy and annoying, we may be sensitive to anyone seeming overwhelmed or irritable, taking it personally. If we can get to know the kinds of situations and reactions that trigger our critical inner voice, we can actually start to anticipate when we would typically feel turned on ourselves, and we can begin to understand this reaction as a side-effect from our past as opposed to the reality of the present.

Beneath any self-attack is often a well of painful memories that brought that attack into our consciousness. Therefore, one of the most important tools we can carry with us in this process is self-compassion. Standing up to our inner critic requires us to meet its criticisms and any feelings it stirs up with self-compassion. Remember, we came by these definitions of ourselves honestly, and challenging them, even through a simple action in a seemingly unimportant moment, can mean shaking the very groundwork on which we built our sense of identity and allowing ourselves to see the real, often painful, roots of this internal enemy.

The point of recognizing and labeling our inner critic in the moment is not to pretend we are perfect or to refuse to acknowledge our flaws and shortcomings. Rather, it is an exercise in separating who we really are and who we’d like to be from a cruel, distorted filter that tells us who we are and what we deserve. In many of my blogs as well as the book Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, co-authored by my father Dr. Robert Firestone, I’ve outlined what I believe to be an empowering approach to combat this destructive voice on a deeper psychological level. However, we can take on this inner critic on a daily basis by persistently peeling away its negative overlays from our real point of view. In doing so, we can become more resilient in our fight to act in ways that reflect both our real selves and our best interest.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012).Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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