Does Your Inner Critic Fuel Anxiety? What Can You Learn Instead?

Rear view of person in suit sitting and looking outside large window with hands behind head with sunspot illuminating areaWhen you make a mistake, how do you react? Are you overly critical? Do you always blame yourself, even for the smallest mistakes? That’s your inner critic talking.

The inner critic is the part of us that wants to point out all of our faults. It expects perfection and won’t accept anything less. It also assumes it knows how others think and feel about us. Listening to this inner critic can often make us feel really bad about ourselves.

Why Do We Believe Our Inner Critic?

The Internal Family Systems (IFS) model of therapy is based on the idea that we all have many different parts inside of us. The expression of these parts differs from person to person. In other words, we all have an inner critic, but for some of us that critical part is much louder and meaner. Our inner critic can make us feel anxious or depressed by telling us we aren’t living up to others’ expectations.

Many people feel like their inner critic reminds them of the things they didn’t do. As a result, they might believe they’d never get anything done without this critical voice. 

But in reality, bullying doesn’t make us more productive. Quite the opposite, in fact: research shows bullying in the workplace lowers productivity and increases depressive symptoms. Research has also shown that self-criticism tends to accompany social phobias and depression. Self-criticism has also been shown to increase the severity of combat-related posttraumatic stress (PTSD), eating disorders, and body image issues.

What Does Your Inner Critic Want You to Know?

So if our inner critic leaves us feeling bad about ourselves and increases the risk of some mental health concerns, can we learn anything from listening to that part of us?

Is it possible that it wants to protect us from harm? Does that critical part of us come from a place of good intent?

Many people feel like their inner critic reminds them of the things they didn’t do. As a result, they might believe they’d never get anything done without this critical voice.

When we approach the inner critic from the IFS (parts) model, we can begin to understand that this critical part is actually working hard to protect us. It says all those mean things with the best intentions. It truly believes it is helping us.

But if we were trying to help someone else, like a friend or family member, we wouldn’t be that hard on them, would we? We probably wouldn’t ever be that hard on anyone other than ourselves.

So how do we get the inner critic to quiet down? To be less critical?

How Can We Do Things Differently?

1. Tune in.

The first step we can take is to really tune into the inner critic. Try to draw a mental image (you can actually draw it, if that helps!) that part of you. How old does it feel? What does it look like? Does it sound familiar? Perhaps it sounds like a person from your past, a parent, or an ex-partner. Maybe it sounds like someone currently in your life.

2. Get curious.

As you begin to have a clearer picture of that critical part, the next step is to start noticing how often it shows up. Does it chime in when you make mistakes or when it worries about being judged? Does it tell you to avoid new places and situations? How often is it present? Does it show up once in a while, or does it offer a constant stream of negativity?

3. Ask some questions.

You might notice that the critical part hangs around a lot, especially if you’re feeling anxious or depressed. The next time you hear your inner critic, try asking some questions to find out more about it:

  • “What is it you’d like me to know?”
  • “What are you afraid might happen if I don’t follow your directions?”
  • “When you say critical things to me, what is your intention?”

4. Use compassion and curiosity.

As you take time to listen, see if you can be compassionate and curious. Would you like to ask that part some other questions? Try to be kind and curious at the same time. Each time your critical part answers a question, you can let it know that you heard it.

You’ll probably learn that your critical part is reacting from deep-seated fears. It’s trying to protect you from future harm. It wants to keep you safe. When you learn that your part wants to protect you, you may feel less likely to tell it to shut up and leave you alone. You might even begin to feel some compassion for the critical part because it’s always responding from fear.

5. Listen and respond.

As you become more familiar with when and how your critical parts show up, you can start responding differently. You can say something like, “I hear you. I know you’re worried I’ll make a mistake or get hurt by others, but I don’t want to live my life in constant fear. Thank you for worrying about me. Right now I’m going to ask you to step aside while I decide what I’m going to do.” You’re telling that part that you hear it. You are compassionately asking your critical part to let you, not it, decide what’s next.

Talking to your inner critic takes a lot of practice. I’m willing to bet it’s had your ear for a long, long time. But in time, you’ll find it’s easier to notice when it shows up and easier to get it to calm down as you try new things—and hopefully even have fun doing them! 

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If you are struggling to reach your inner critic, consider reaching out to a compassionate therapist or counselor who can help you explore this critical part of you.

References:

  1. McTernan, W. P., Dollard, M. F., & LaMontagne, A. D. (2013, November 7). Depression in the workplace: An economic cost analysis of depression-related productivity loss attributable to job strain and bullying. Work & Stress: An International Journal of Work, Health, & Organization, 27(4), 321-338. doi: 1080/02678373.2013.846948
  2. Neff, K. D., Germer, C. (2017). Self-compassion and psychological well-being. In J. Doty (Ed.) Oxford handbook of compassion science (371-386). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
  3. Schwartz, R. C. (2001). Introduction to internal family systems model. Oak Park, IL: Trailhead Publications.

© Copyright 2018 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Elizabeth Cush, LCPC, therapist in Annapolis, Maryland

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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