We all have a critical inner voice. That voice can take on a comforting tone to make us feel better when we’re down. It can tell us that we are safe and everything will be fine. But other times that voice can be very harsh. It can beat us mercilessly reminding us everything we have done wrong.
That voice represents one of the different “self” that inhabit us. In fact, according to the “Possible Selves Theory” our personality is composed of a multiplicity of selves who take control as necessary, to protect us from dangers, guarantee our survival and make us less vulnerable.
One of those selves takes on the role of critic and may tell us things like “You haven’t tried hard enough”, “Pay more attention”, or “You never do anything right.” Although many times the recriminations of that “inner critic” are not pleasant, we must pay attention to it because it follows a hidden agenda that usually has a great impact on our mental balance.
The 3 reasons that drive our inner critical voice
1. It tries to motivate us. Our critical voice can tell us that “We are hopelessly lazy for not going to the gym” or that “We are losers for having missed an excellent job opportunity” to try to motivate us, although it may seem paradoxical.
When our voice assumes this tone, it is generally repeating a pattern we learned in childhood, perhaps because our parents or teachers used those words with us. In practice, our inner critic believes that berating ourselves for what we have done wrong pushes us to try harder and move on.
This is why this critical voice berates us severely and can awaken memories of other mistakes and missteps in the past. It constantly reminds us that we have not been up to the task to encourage us to grow and it punishes us for generating negative feelings from which we want to get rid of by improving our performance.
Unfortunately, a study conducted at Brandeis University revealed that being overly hard on ourselves and punishing ourselves with negative thoughts does not bring the expected results. In fact, it can make us feel more incompetent, flawed, or lacking. On the contrary, taking a more compassionate attitude and accepting failure motivates us more to improve ourselves.
2. It tries to give us back the control. When the level of uncertainty increases, it can be particularly difficult for us to deal with the feeling of loss of control. In these cases, our inner critic may intervene to tell us things like “If we had tried harder we would have succeeded” or “If we had paid more attention we would not have failed.”
These phrases are actually a fight against the feeling of helplessness and lack of control. While they may sound like recriminations, their ultimate goal is to reinforce the locus of control internal. In other words, it remind sourselves that we can do better if we try harder. This strategy can have a collateral effect: demanding too much of ourselves.
What should apparently have an empowering effect can work against us, making us become victims and executioners of ourselves. “This self-referentiality generates a paradoxical freedom, which, because of the structures of obligation immanent to it, turns into violence, so that each one ends up taking with him or her his forced labor camp”, as the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han warned.
Actually, we must be aware that some things are under our control, but others are not. We must not make the mistake of blaming and overexerting ourselves more than we can give, just because we are afraid to admit that we cannot control everything.
3. It tries to protect us. The “protective self” is one of the first aspects of the personality that develops to keep us safe. It is a kind of bodyguard that is constantly vigilant to detect the dangers that threaten us and determines how it can protect us.
That critical voice will tell us things like “Don’t poke fun at yourself” or “Don’t sweat, don’t blush, don’t move your hands so much or they’ll realize you’re nervous.” In fact, it constantly scans the environment to determine which behaviors are most likely to be socially accepted.
It ensures that we follow a series of rules because these will guarantee our safety and a certain degree of social approval. The critical voice that is activated in our head makes sure that we do not act in an inappropriate or ridiculous way. It helps us avoid mistakes, it allows us to follow benchmarks to maintain a certain level of performance or avoid being inattentive or rude.
One of the main problems with this type of criticism is that we lose spontaneity. We become less authentic because our controlling or protective selves are monitoring and telling us what to do to please the others.
If this self-criticism becomes too strong, very soon we will feel overwhelmed and will be triggered a self-observation mechanism that will generate precisely the opposite effect: it will make us more nervous and we will be less effective in our social interactions. In fact, a study conducted at Harvard University revealed that nothing is fixed as intensely as what we want to ignore, is what is known as the Rebound Effect.
How to use the inner critical voice to grow
Actually, that inner critical voice is necessary. There is nothing wrong with being self-critical. But we must make sure that it does not take command and, above all, we must be careful with its messages because the way we talk to ourselves, the discourse that we weave around our failures, weaknesses and mistakes is very important.
A study carried out at Kingsway Hospital in the United Kingdom revealed that our inner critical voice is not a unitary process, but acquires different functions, follows different objectives and feeds on different emotions. These psychologists concluded that “Self-critical people, compared to those who calm down, have a higher risk of suffering from some psychopathology.” In fact, another study conducted at Georgia State University linked elevated levels of self-criticism with more severe depressive symptoms.
The goal is not to eliminate that “critical self” but to learn to deal with it. Fighting against these claims or trying to ignore them is usually not very effective. Self-criticism often seems to reflect the truth, which makes it very compelling.
Instead, we can practice defusion. It is a technique that will help us to recognize that our self criticisms are only ideas, not facts. This way we can differentiate our thoughts from reality and reduce the negative impact of criticism, weakening its control over our mood and behavior.
One of the techniques of defusion consists precisely in capturing the hidden objective behind the criticisms we make ourselves. Then we must treat our inner critical voice in a more compassionate way. We can say, “I understand what you are doing and I appreciate it, but there are other ways to approach this situation.”
Ultimately, our inner critical voice is only trying to protect or motivate us. Only sometimes it can’t find the best way to do it and we must consciously give it extra help.
Breines, J. G. & Chen, S. (2012) Self-Compassion Increases Self-Improvement Motivation. Pers Soc Psychol Bull; 38 (9): 1133-43.
Gilbert, P. et. Al. (2004) Criticizing and reassuring oneself: An exploration of forms, styles and reasons in female students. British Journal of Clinical Psychology; 43(1): 31-50.
Wegner, D. M. et. Al. (1987) Paradoxical Effects of Thought Suppression. J Pers Soc Psychol; 53(1): 5-13.
Johnson, S. B. et. Al. (2018) Compassion-Based Meditation in African Americans: Self-Criticism Mediates Changes in Depression. Suicide Life Threat Behav; 48(2):160-168.