You know that voice inside your head; the one that’s always pointing out all the things you’re doing wrong, and all the things you could do better? Yep, that’s your inner critic, and we all have one. Much like everything else in life, your inner critic has good intentions (always bettering!) but is only beneficial in moderation. When that nagging voice begins to take a toll on your mental wellbeing, confidence, or self-esteem, it’s time to take the reins and tame your inner critic.
1. Name It
Many studies have shown the importance of naming your emotions. Taking the time to name a feeling or emotion that comes up and labeling it, it’s helpful. Researchers have seen a reduction of activity in our amygdala. This is responsible for detecting fear and setting off a number of biological responses (think fight, flight, or freeze).
There are many emotions that may come up with your inner critic. The first step to taming your critic is to name it by closing your eyes whenever you hear that voice come up. Imagine what it looks and sounds like, and then coming up with a name for it.
Questions to help you name your inner critic:
- What does it sound like?
- What does it look like if you had to draw it?
- Does it remind you of anyone or anything?
- What’s your inner critic’s biggest fear?
You can name it anything you want! Some of my clients have named their inner critics Karen, Charlie, the wolf, and Judgemental Judy – it’s up to you! I always like to think of the movie Inside Out, my inner critic can look a lot like Mindy Kaling’s character, Disgust and that helped me give it a shape and look.
Naming your inner critic allows you to get some space from that negative voice and realize that you are not a problem that needs to be fixed, but rather your inner critic is something outside of you that is showing up for some reason. This key differentiation starts to diminish the power of your inner critic so you can begin to tame it.
2. Fact Check
Beck’s cognitive model, also known as the Cognitive Triangle, proposes that events are not directly responsible for the way we feel. Rather, it is our interpretation of events that influences how we feel and view the world. This model implies that we can change the way we feel by changing the way we think.
The first step is changing the way we think by fact-checking our thoughts with reality. It is easy for us to believe our inner critic right away and take everything it says as fact, but just as we would fact check a news article or a really unbelievable trivia answer, we should fact check our inner critic.
To fact check your inner critic, follow these steps (based on Cognitive Behavior Therapy):
- Situation: Can you think of a recent time during which you changed the way you were feeling? What happened? Where were you? Who were you with?
- Emotion: What emotions or feelings came up for you in this situation? What did you feel in your body? How strong was the emotion from 1 to 10?
- Negative Automatic Thought (NAT): As a result of your experience, what thoughts popped into your head? What memories came to mind?
- Evidence to support these thoughts: What facts or evidence support the images or thoughts that came to mind? What makes you think that “NAT” is true?
- Evidence that does not support the thought: What evidence or facts suggests that this thought may not be 100% accurate? If you’re having a hard time with this, think about what you would tell your good friend if they came to you with the same problem.
- Alternative thought: Given all the evidence, what thought would be more helpful in this situation?
You can practice fact-checking in the moment for an instant de-escalation of your inner critic or as part of your daily journaling routine to deeply reflect and plan for the next time it shows up. Feel free to use this worksheet!
3. Talk to Yourself
One thing we’re good at as humans, especially when we’re in a vulnerable headspace, is listening to ourselves and taking everything we think or feel as the whole truth. Now that you’ve named your inner critic and identified and reflected on your negative automatic thoughts, it’s time to take control back and talk to yourself.
Next time your inner critic speaks up, how can you talk back? What does your inner critic need to hear to quiet down its fears? If you’re working out and your inner critic says, “You can’t do this, you’re so out of shape.” Speak back with kindness and say, “Thank you for your concern, Charlie, I feel strong and determined and I know my body will take care of me” or it may be something more like, “You’re right, Charlie, this is really tough and I haven’t exercised in a while. I’m going to take a break, drink some water, and get back into it!”
It may sound or feel silly at first, but I urge you to embrace the silliness — the whole point is for you to shift your relationship with your inner critic and you can start the process by doing the talking instead of only listening.
Talking to yourself can take many different shapes. Here are some ideas on how to integrate this idea:
- In the moment, just take this step as literally as you can. Talk to your inner critic when it comes up. Think of what it needs to hear to relax or quiet down. How can you separate yourself and reality from your inner critic?
- Take the alternative thoughts you identified in Step 2 and turn them into mantras or affirmations—write them down in your journal, on your mirror, in a sticky note. Say them out loud every day!
- Journal with this prompt when your inner critic is particularly loud: “Dear [Inner Critic Name], Thanks for showing up, I hear you – what are you trying to tell me?”
Lastly, part of taming your inner critic is to elevate your wins and be your own biggest fan. Make sure you’re celebrating your wins—big or small— so you can build a collection of feel-good moments that highlight your successes and remind you of how capable and strong you are and save those for a rainy day to help get you out of a funk.
Taming your inner critic is not a one-and-done thing. It is constant work and requires you to stay present, engaged, and active in your own life. Naming your inner critic is step one, and step 2 and 3 are meant to be used in a wash, rinse, repeat cycle. Add these tools to your toolbox, integrate them into your daily routine, and be kind and compassionate with yourself through the process! Remember, we’re always here if you need some help!