Taming the Inner Critic: Understanding and Overcoming Self-Criticism

Did you know that every person has an inner voice that constantly chats away inside their head? Some call it self-talk, while others might know it as the “inner critic.” But what is this voice, and why does it seem to be more negative than positive?

What is the Inner Critic

We all experience self-criticism. It’s a form of self-talk, but it’s not always the cheering and supportive type. Sometimes it’s more like that pesky cloud that casts a shadow on even the sunniest day. We All Have It! Each day, our minds generate about 85,000 thoughts. A staggering 50,000 of these are self-talk, and 80% of this self-talk is negative. That’s about 40,000 negative thoughts each day! But why should we care about this? When left unchecked, this critical voice can lead to several mental health problems, making it the top vulnerability factor for these issues.

Why Do We Have It?

Humans, by nature, are talkers. By the age of two, we start internalizing language and soon after, we start converting our reality into self-talk. Just as fish swim and birds fly, humans talk – both out loud and inside their heads. Okay, that’s good, but why does it have to be so negative? This self-talk has its roots in our biology and evolution. It helped our ancestors navigate through physical and social challenges, keeping them alert to potential dangers. The “smoke detector principle” is a metaphor often used in psychology to describe the functioning of certain systems in our brain, particularly those related to anxiety and fear responses. Just as a smoke detector in a house is designed to alert us to the potential threat of fire, certain parts of our brain are designed to alert us to potential threats in our environment.

However, just as a smoke detector might sometimes go off due to burnt toast rather than an actual fire, our brain’s “threat detection system” can sometimes overreact to perceived threats that are not actually dangerous. The system is designed to err on the side of caution because missing a real threat could be deadly, whereas false alarms have no serious consequences. So, if you think about it, we are the descendants of all the humans whose alarms were going off “too often” rather than “too little”, given that “just right” is hard or impossible to get, ask any engineers.

This would all be great news, and it is, at least for most animals. But we humans have something in our heads that other animals don’t have. As British psychologist and compassion-focused therapy founder Paul Gilbert explains, the rapid evolution of the neo-cortex, has given us the ability to think, reason, and reflect. However, it also introduced complexities. Our ability to reflect on ourselves, our place in the world, and our past and future, can lead to existential anxiety, rumination, and worry.

While imagination has many benefits, it also means we can imagine threats, failures, and negative scenarios, often leading to anxiety about things that haven’t happened or might never happen. This is tricky, because our “old brain” perceives the workings of the “new brain” as real threats, engaging the sympathetic nervous system (the anxious one), sometimes almost constantly. This is why, as Robert Sapolsky eloquently explains, “zebras don’t get ulcers”, even though they deal with being chased by lions. Zebras don’t ruminate on being chased by lions. We do. And we get stomach ulcers as a consequence of perpetual stress.

The “Tricky Brain” Concept

The “tricky brain” concept helps explain why humans, despite our advanced cognitive abilities, are prone to mental health challenges, including self-criticism. The same brain that allows us to create art, build civilizations, and ponder the cosmos also leaves us vulnerable to rumination, self-doubt, and harsh self-judgment. Recognizing this inherent trait of our evolution

can guide us toward strategies that help mitigate its challenges. Here’s how we can reclaim our joy by navigating the quirks of our unique human brain:

1. Distance: Recognize the Critic. Our minds grant us the ability to introspect and self-reflect, but this can also lead to spirals of self-criticism. One way to manage this is to externalize the critic.

Action Steps: Give your inner critic a name. By doing this, you create a distinct entity separate from your true self. Maybe call it “Grumbly Gus” or “Nervous Nellie”. This helps in understanding that not all your thoughts define you. You are not your self-critic! Draw it. Bringing it to life visually can give you a tangible representation to address and even challenge. Talk to your inner critic, befriend it. After all, remember, all it wants is to keep you safe.

2. Gratitude: Embrace the Positive. Our tricky brain often leans towards negative bias, recalling bad experiences more vividly than good ones. Counteracting this tendency requires a conscious effort.

Action Step: Adopt a gratitude journaling practice. By routinely recognizing and noting positive events, you start rewiring your brain to notice the good over time, genuine or even when “faked”. Yes, this works even if you fake it until you make it!

3. Self-Compassion: Your Inner Coach. The varying impulses of our brain’s layers sometimes clash, causing inner conflict. Embracing self-compassion allows us to navigate these challenges without unnecessary self-blame.

Action Step: Instead of a harsh inner critic, cultivate an inner coach. This compassionate voice recognizes that mistakes are human and encourages growth and learning instead of berating. Encourage the inner critic to adopt a different tone. Tell it that you are still going to listen to it, but that it will be more effective if the general tone is more positive. Think about it. “You are horrible at this” contains the same information as “You are still learning”, but the latter doesn’t engage the sympathetic nervous system. And “You are still learning” can sound in your head in different ways: a squeaky annoying voice, or a Gandalf-like one (replace with any compassionate character of your choice, Obi-Wan can be a great one too).

4. Other-Compassion: Look Beyond Self. Our tricky brain often gets us stuck in loops of comparison, eroding our self-worth. By focusing on compassion towards others, we lessen these self-imposed pressures.

Action Step: Engage in acts of kindness. Celebrate others’ achievements without juxtaposing them with your journey. Understand everyone has their unique path, and comparing only amplifies the tricky brain’s tendencies. Somebody else’s promotion can make us feel very threatened. The smoke detector goes off: why them and not me? am I going to lose my job? Am I going to become homeless? Am I going to starve to death? The new brain knows these are irrational fears, but the old brain might not. Keep in mind, that comparison is the thief of joy!

5. Internal Rewards: Joy in Growth. Our society often prioritizes external validations. But our brain thrives when it recognizes internal achievements, reducing dependency on outside affirmation.

Action Step: Set personal milestones, no matter how small. Celebrate your personal growth, the books you’ve read, or the skills you’ve acquired. This internal reward system provides a counter to the constant need for external validation, a common pitfall of our tricky brain.

By understanding our brain’s evolutionary nuances and taking active steps to cater to its quirks, we can lead a life filled with more joy, compassion, and fulfillment.

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