We’ve all experienced it: the little voice in our head telling us our work isn’t good enough, our parenting skills aren’t up to scratch, or our partner is oh-so-annoying. For some, these thoughts are fleeting and have little effect. For others, they can negatively impact overall mental wellbeing. “Our inner critic often takes the form of a destructive, self-deprecating voice that runs on autopilot,” explains psychologist Amanda Charles (thepsychicpsychologist.com). “[It exploits] our desire to be accepted, good enough, and wanted. It magnifies every imperfection or mistake.” As much as we tell ourselves our inner critic is there to protect us, this isn’t the case. “It would like you to believe that,” says Jo Shrimpton, coach and mentor (joshrimptoncoaching.com). “However, research shows we would succeed even more if we were ‘pulled’ by inherent positive feelings and love for ourselves.”
Getting to the root of criticism
While it might not be until adulthood that you notice and pay attention to these negative thoughts, the inner critic first develops during our younger years – when our minds and personalities are most malleable. “The inner critic usually sets root in childhood and grows forever stronger with every life experience that reinforces it,” Charles states. “Children are like sponges, soaking up the negative attitudes and beliefs they are exposed to from close and influential relationships, such as with parents, primary caregivers, teachers, siblings, and friends.” Cast your mind back to early experiences, and you might be able to work out where some of your nagging, critical thoughts stem from. For example, maybe you had a teacher who always marked and put you down, no matter how hard you tried – and now you constantly fret your professional work isn’t good enough.
The real impact of your critic
Despite its pretence as an ally, the inner critic does a lot more harm than good – in ways you might not even consider. “People that have internalised an extremely critical inner voice have been shown to be far more likely to suffer from mental health difficulties, low self-esteem, and a lack of self-confidence,” says Charles. Furthermore, “our inner critic can, and will, affect the quality of our lives, mental health, and happiness, if we let it,” concurs Shrimpton. “It’s the original cause of much of our anxiety, distress, and suffering, as well as the cause of many of our relationship problems. It also promotes self-sabotage and prevents us from reaching our full potential.”
When it comes to relationships, the inner critic can impact in two key ways. Firstly, it causes you to doubt yourself, making statements such as, ‘I’m not fun or cool enough for my friends.’ These types of thoughts can cause you to feel anxiety, withdraw from social situations, or become a source of frustration as you constantly seek reassurance. On the other hand, our inner critic can stir up negative thoughts and opinions about others. For example, did your mum not call when she said she would? That’s because she doesn’t care about you, the voice would argue, potentially triggering anxiety and distress. The longer you let your inner critic prevail, the stronger its grip becomes. “The more you identify with the thought, the more you reinforce it and give it life and meaning, the harder it becomes to separate and gain an alternative perspective,” notes Charles.
How to switch gears
It’s important to take steps to quieten your inner critic and put yourself back in the driving seat. The great news is there are a variety of ways you can do so. Being aware of this negative voice is an important starting point. “Self-awareness is key to catching the inner critic at work in your mind, whenever it arises,” Shrimpton explains. Charles concurs, stating that having an awareness can also help you recognise triggers – allowing you to look out for them, so the critic doesn’t have a chance to take hold. “Perhaps rewind a little and notice what was happening for you,” she suggests. “Once you have identified the trigger, can see the thought processes, and pinpoint any negative outcomes, you can…consciously start to take action to free yourself from its grip.”
Developing self-awareness can be challenging though, especially if you feel overwhelmed by negative or biased thoughts. However, “you can cultivate selfawareness through yoga and meditation and also the work of ‘Positive Intelligence’ (positiveintelligence.com),” Shrimpton reveals – the latter being a method she uses with clients to help them reduce the negative thoughts that sabotage their happiness/success, and build mental fitness. Being kind to yourself is also a powerful approach, as the more you believe in and appreciate yourself, the less your inner voice has to criticise. “Bringing in self-compassion can not only lessen the hold of the inner critic, but can also change a person’s relationship with themselves,” Charles shares. To help cultivate selfcompassion, you could consider keeping a journal of attributes you like about yourself or moments you’ve felt valued – a “bank of contradictory evidence”, adds Charles.
You could also ask loved ones for input, but it’s worth noting that appreciation might have to come from you. “Success is entirely possible through this route,” shares Shrimpton. “However, it can depend on the individual.” Tackling your inner critic can be challenging, so don’t be afraid to seek professional assistance. “Positive Intelligence-trained coaches and therapists can support you in understanding your inner critic,” Shrimpton says; and they can also provide you with practical tools and resources that support your success. With the inner critic having such a longstanding stronghold, there’s no denying the prospect of taking it to task can be daunting. But doing so can bring about a sense of mental freedom and enhanced wellbeing in the short- and long-term – meaning it’s definitely worth the effort.
Apps for mental TLC
Engaging in mindfulness, meditation, and yoga encourages calmness and “can help you find relief from the critical voice [by] enabling you to learn a process whereby you disengage from it,” notes Charles. Why not try one of these apps* to get started?
• Headspace: includes mindfulness and meditation sessions on appreciation, kindness, self-esteem, and self-love.
• Calm: with mindfulness sessions on self-esteem, self-care, confidence, and non-judgement.
• Find What Feels Good with Yoga by Adriene: meditation and yoga classes focusing on awareness, compassion, self-love, and acceptance.
• Mediation.com: offering meditation sessions on gratitude, being non-reactive, selfcompassion, and resilience.