We all have moments of self-doubt. Whether you’re prepping to give a big presentation at work and feeling nervous, or you’re having a tough day with your children and questioning your own value as a parent, life comes with highs and lows. That voice of doubt, your own inner critic, that sometimes creeps up is always going to be there—but you can learn how to keep it dormant.
Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., researcher and author of the book Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, describes this mental menace as “an internalized critic that comments on every action” and is “a thought process that casually yet ruthlessly puts us down and sabotages our successes.” She calls it a filter that ignores all of the positives and focuses solely on the negatives in your life.
This little (or sometimes not-so-little) voice shows up in a variety of ways. It might whisper that you’ll never get the job you interviewed for, that your first date was a disaster, that you’ll never be a great mom, or that you’ll never look good in your clothes. Sound familiar? Learning to recognize and combat those negative self-evaluations with more realistic ones will not only give you a much-needed reality check but will also empower you to embrace your best self.
What Happens When You Believe Your Inner Critic
We all experience self-doubt (hello, impostor syndrome). But if you listen to this inner critic exclusively, you are guaranteed to feel miserable all the time. If you believe your inner critic, your negative thinking will influence your actions, relationships, and goals.
This self-fulfilling prophecy cycle is known in the world of psychology as the Rosenthal, or Pygmalion, effect. Essentially, our beliefs influence our interactions with others, which in turn influence the outcome of events.
For example, if you go into a job interview thinking, “I’m going to bomb this interview because I’m so nervous,” you’ll be so focused on the fact that you’re nervous that you will look nervous—not the confident best candidate you were going for. If you aren’t your best self at an interview, your chances of getting the job aren’t as high as if you were on top of your game and feeling confident.
Instead, approach the interview thinking, “I’m nervous, but I’m going to try to relax and do my best to answer each question.” Positive thinking does wonders for your physical and mental health. Don’t fall victim to the self-fulfilling prophecy trap that your inner critic sets up for you.
Recognize When Your Inner Critic Is at Work
In order to deny your inner critic its power, you have to immediately recognize when it’s rearing its ugly little head. Firestone recommends staying aware of when your inner voice turns up the volume. Is it during specific situations?
Knowing your triggers (situations, actions, words, thoughts, or people that act as a switch) can help you better manage your reaction. In her book, Firestone also emphasizes that it is helpful to acknowledge that the events we react negatively toward “are often not the primary cause of distress; instead, trouble usually arises when we interpret these incidents by filtering them through the critical inner voice.”
Firestone also emphasizes that it’s important to recognize that your inner critical voice is not the real you. She says the critical voice “undermines our ability to interpret events realistically, triggers negative moods, and sabotages our pursuit of satisfaction and meaning in life . . . while our healthier side (the real self) strives for freedom from the constraints of these defenses.” Have I convinced you to silence your inner critic for good yet?
Change Your Mental Ways
Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of the bestseller 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, emphasizes that just because a thought crosses your mind doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. “Our thoughts are often biased, exaggerated, and disproportionate,” she cautions.
In fact, Martin Seligman, Ph.D., founder of the positive psychology movement and author of Learned Optimism, writes, “Emotion comes directly from what we think.” If you think, “I’ll never get that job,” you’re likely to feel defeated and hopeless about your future as a job-hunter. On the other hand, if you think, “I wasn’t my best in the interview, but I’ll send a follow-up email and thank-you note,” you are likely to feel more optimistic, hopeful, and positive toward yourself.
To help silence your inner critic, Firestone recommends turning your critical thoughts from “I statements” (“My idea was rejected at the meeting because I never have good ideas.”) into “you statements” (“Your idea was rejected because . . .”), which will make it easier for you to create distance between yourself and your inner critic and will also help you challenge these negative self-evaluations.
Then take these negative “you statements,” and generate alternative explanations. Here, “I statements” are fine because you’re affirming yourself; for instance, “Someone else might have had better ideas than I did, but that doesn’t mean mine was bad,” or, “I was having an off day, but I have had good ideas in the past and will continue to have good ideas.”
There’s an exercise that I like to use in my work as a therapist called the “Field of Dandelions.” It’s based on how one person can look at a field of dandelions and see hundreds of stubborn weeds, whereas another person can see a sea of beautiful and delicate flowers blowing gently in the wind—there are positive and negative ways to view the same experience. “This was the worst interview ever,” becomes, “So I didn’t handle it as well as I wanted, but now I have a better idea of where my weak spots are, so I can address them next time.” Give the dandelion exercise a try, and see what your inner supporter can come up with.
Be Compassionate Toward Yourself
Think about the things your inner critic says: “You’ll never make it,” “How could you even think that was a good idea?” or “No one will accept you for who you really are.” Can we take a moment to recognize that all of these statements are incredibly rude? If a friend, coworker, family member, or even a random stranger on the street made these statements to you, it would be completely inappropriate and unacceptable. So, why is your inner critic allowed to treat you this way?
Allowing yourself to be overly critical will impact your self-esteem, which has been linked to increased frequency of negative thinking, says Christopher J. Mruk, author of Self-Esteem and Positive Psychology. If your inner critic has been particularly vocal as of late, it’s a good idea to invest some quality time in activities or relationships that boost your confidence. That could mean hitting up the gym (endorphins, please!), taking up a new hobby, signing up for a half marathon, or scheduling a cooking class with friends. Be creative, and try to find fun ways to boost your self-confidence.
Take a stand, and make a commitment to treat yourself with more compassion. Amy Morin recommends that you “treat yourself equally as kind as you’d treat a friend, and apply those words of encouragement to your life.” In other words, be kind to yourself instead of tearing yourself down. My guess is that you’d say something like, “I know this is really disappointing, but other opportunities will come your way.”
Life is too beautiful to let your inner critic drag you down. There’s no reason you are required to listen exclusively to your inner critic and be your own worst enemy. Instead, treat yourself with empathy. Forgive yourself for your mistakes, and encourage yourself to work toward your goals. Believe me, learning how to turn the volume down on your inner critic will do wonders for your confidence and sense of well-being.
Photo Credit: You Made My Day Photography