“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval”, wrote Mark Twain. And that tells us that we all have an inner critic who can be more or less tough, relentless or even cruel. On some occasions that voice can take command, becoming a constant and deafening a monologue that silences reason.
That critical self will tell us that we are not intelligent or talented enough, that we are not attractive enough, sociable, thin, successful… It will continually remind us of every mistake or failure of the past – however remote, small or inconsequential it may be – crushing mercilessly our self-esteem and throwing away any trace of motivation that might have ignited.
If we do not balance that critical self and give it wings, not only can it become frankly unpleasant, but it can end up limiting or even harming us. We can become our worst enemy and our biggest obstacle.
Your inner critic is not you
Our inner critic is one of the different selves that coexist in our personality. According to the “Self Theory”, our personality is composed of a multiplicity of selves that take command as necessary, to protect us from danger, guarantee our survival and make us less vulnerable.
But those selves do not always protect us – or at least not in the best way. Sometimes they can display a self-destructive drive, as in the case of a self uncontrolled and uncritical with itself. If we let our inner critic dominate over the other selves that make up our personality, sooner or later we will end up having a problem.
In other words, if we are much more critical than kind to ourselves, if we slap ourself more for the mistakes than rejoice for the achievements, it is easy to fall into a loop of negative thoughts that in turn generate great inner discomfort, which can cause us to start limiting and harming behaviors for ourselves.
That critical self does not come from nothing, it begins to develop in our childhood. In fact, if we pay attention to its dialogue, we are likely to be astonished discovering that some of the phrases that make up its speech and that we use to criticize ourselves do not even belong to us, are a reminder of those of our parents or other figures of authority.
That means that if our parents were very authoritarian, perfectionist or demanding, it is likely that our critical self is one of the predominant selves in our personality, so we cannot even take a step without being assaulted by its critical discourse.
How to balance the inner critic?
When self-criticism is excessive is not good. Psychologists at the University of Missouri found, after studying more than 800 teenagers and young people over a period of six months, that those who used to complain and criticize themselves frequently exposed themselves to a greater risk of suffering depression or anxiety.
The criticism itself is not negative, but when it is constant and excessive it becomes limiting, to the point of paralyzing or reducing our self-esteem to ashes, so it is not strange that we end up suffering immense anxiety due to fear of failure or a severe depression generated by the feeling to be worthless.
Unfortunately, silencing the inner critic is not so simple, especially when it is one of the dominant selves of our personality. We can argue with that voice looking for counterarguments, use positive affirmations or even make as if it did not exist, but none of those strategies usually works. In fact, they usually have the opposite effect: they reinforce the inner critic and give it more power, making him the only voice we hear.
To achieve real change, the key is to detract power from our critical self. A simple, practical and very effective trick is to give it a name. When we associate a name with that voice, we automatically detract from it authority and importance.
Giving it a proper name, which differentiates our critical self from ourselves, will also allow us to assume the necessary psychological distance, which will help us evaluate its speech with greater objectivity. We must not forget that due to selective laziness, 60% of the time we would be willing to reject our own arguments when exposed by someone else.
That means we are more critical of others’ ideas than ours. Giving a name to our critical self will allow us to be critical of its ideas.
Of course, the ultimate goal is not to get rid of the critical self because a dose of self-criticism is always necessary. It cannot become one of our repudiated selves. The ultimate goal is to ensure that this inner critic is in balance with other more kind and motivating selves, in a way that helps us grow as people, instead of condemning ourselves to permanent dissatisfaction with ourselves.
Rose, A. J. et. Al. (2007) Prospective associations of co-rumination with friendship and emotional adjustment: considering the socioemotional trade-offs of co-rumination. Developmental Psychology; 43(4):1019-1031.
Trouche, E. et. Al. (2015) The Selective Laziness of Reasoning. Cognitive Science; 1-15.
Smith, C. (2015) 3 Ways to Outsmart Your Inner Critic. In: Psychology Today.