Our self-help columnist Athena Laz is a qualified psychologist and the creator of the online wellness e-course Own Your Power. She works with women worldwide, helping them to reclaim their ability to feel good. You can see her work here.
The year is 2006, and I’m at a wellness retreat when the host tells us that we are going to participate in a stream-of-consciousness exercise. We’re prompted to take out our journals and write down every single thought that enters our minds for the next 30 minutes. I start: “Hmmm, I wonder what food there is”; “My leg is falling asleep”; “Do we always have to sit on yoga mats?”; “I wonder how many things I need to write down”; “I wonder if she’s going to come read these things”; “I need to book that dentist appointment”; “I wonder if Jessica is finding this boring too”; “Maybe, I’ll…”
When all of a sudden, my mind is flooded with a fury of critical statements: “You’re going to fail”; “Do you think this retreat is really going to help you?”; “You’re alone because you’re not easy to love”; “You’ll never be able to…”
There it was: my inner critic, memorialized in black ink, spilling the inner turmoil that I had been carrying for so long. At that moment, I realized that I needed to start to speak with this darker side of myself, or I would be held hostage by it for the rest of my life. That experience sent me on a healing journey that would eventually lead me to become a licensed psychologist. As well as simply a more self-compassionate human being.
Why do we all have inner critics? And where do they come from?
Your inner critic is that voice inside your head that spews out negative and fear-based statements that keep you locked in repetitive cycles of pain or shame. It’s the voice that constantly tells you that you are not enough. Not good enough, not smart enough, not good-looking enough. You’re always lacking something when it’s around. In fact, your inner critic feeds off your insecurities, locking you in a state of always striving for but never quite arriving.
I’ve found that people’s inner critics usually come from painful experiences in their past. For example: maybe one of your parents or ex-partners was highly critical toward you at one point or another. Moving forward, in your current relationships, your inner critic then morphs into a more contemporary version of these past players, spewing out statements designed to leave you feeling like a big, unlovable mess. Your inner critic can also be created from a story that you keep reaffirming about yourself that has no real weight in reality. In either circumstance, your inner critic is really just the tool that you use to hurt yourself.
The silver lining is that you created this inner critic, and you have the power to heal it too.
4 Steps for Dealing with Your Inner Critic
Step 1: Bring Awareness to It
In order to heal your inner critic, you need to know when it’s speaking to you. I recommend that you get a small notepad and carry it around with you for a minimum of one week. During that time, write down any of the critical statements that you catch yourself saying, either out loud or mentally. (They can be statements like “I’m so stupid”/ “I really crashed and burned at that”/ “He hates me”/ ‘They’ll never be into me”/ “You’re so ugly”/ “You’ll never get there”). A note here: It can feel very disheartening and disappointing to read all the hurtful things that you say (and even believe) about yourself, so remind yourself that you are ready and willing to heal this part of you.
Step 2: Recognize Who it is Mimicking
After a week of writing down your critical statements, review them. Go through each one and see if it sounds like anyone from your past. For example, if you wrote down “I am so fat,” have people in your past directly said that to you? Or was it through a story that you started telling yourself that you began to believe it? The point of this exercise is not to fall into a victim state and blame others for your inner dialogue. Instead, the aim is to recognize whose voice you may have unintentionally internalized OR which past situation may still need healing, forgiving, and resolving.
Step 3: Confront It
Gain external support and have someone guide you through the process of healing your inner critic. (Remember, your inner critic can be sneaky and actually try and isolate you—so outing “it” to someone else can be incredibly helpful in minimizing its hold on you!). If you cannot reach out to a professional, you can listen to this restorative journey that will help you to confront your inner critic.
Step 4: Check in With Your Inner Dialogue Every Day
Much like any fitness routine, developing a healthier dialogue requires patience and perseverance. The most helpful way to set yourself up for a more compassionate way of living is to become mindful of how you are walking through your everyday life. Set some time out every morning to focus on how you want to experience the day. Focus on enjoying being you. Lastly, it is helpful to learn to recognize who or what (outside of you) triggers your inner critic. The more you learn to recognize the events that trigger you, the more compassionate you can become.