Are you a truly terrible person? An abject failure at life who can’t get anything right? Just stupid, stupid, stupid, no one likes you, why would they? You’re crap at your job, you are a terrible parent/partner and what’s wrong with you that you can’t even keep your house tidy? Everyone else can manage all these things, why are you so pathetic? Your friends probably think you’re a neurotic energy drain. And look at the size of that gut; you’re a beast, no one could ever find that attractive to look at. Wait, are you a narcissist? Why else would you be so obsessed with yourself? What is WRONG with you?
Does any of the above sound familiar? And if it does, who has been saying it to you? If someone else is saying those things, then we need to look at that relationship, but for many of us the only person saying those things is ourselves. Our constant companion-the inner critic.
How many times have you thought that you are your own worst enemy? It can feel like there is a constant battle in your head and no matter what, you can’t stop making the wrong decisions or repeating the same mistakes. No one shouts louder than your inner critic; even those times when you receive external praise, it’s right there shouting ‘No, no, no, that’s not right!’ It can feel like an ever-tightening vice as that voice gets louder and louder, drowning out every other sound in the room.
Where did it come from?
All of us have some form of inner dialogue. When our inner dialogue is behaving itself, it serves many purposes. It keeps us safe, helps us plan our day, encourages us to try new things and helps us reflect on our decisions. Some people are naturally harsher on themselves than others, but we all fall somewhere along the continuum. Those prone to self-criticism tend to have a higher propensity towards feeling emotions such as guilt and shame and place a greater emphasis on achievement and ‘getting things right first time’.
We are not born with an inner critic; often those with the loudest inner critics had high expectations placed on them by caregivers in childhood or have been victims of controlling, abusive relationships. We will have internalised how we were spoken to in these relationships and found coping strategies which prioritised staying silent, striving for perfection and fulfilling the needs of others above our own.
The inner critic is a tricksy beast because it is very good at disguising itself as reality. It knows all your innermost fears after all, so it is incredibly skilled at forming an argument which has a hint of truth in it and blowing it up into something completely disproportionate to the situation. We are all human and as such we are imperfect beings; we all make mistakes from time to time. We can grow and learn from these-again that’s what makes us human. But the inner critic can shout over that learning and keep shouting about the mistake. Plus, if we criticise ourselves first, then (so our false argument goes) external criticism will be less upsetting because we have already thought of every possible taunt/judgement/opinion that may be served against us.
It is also important to note that we live in a world which is rarely fair to those who do not fit the cultural norm. Racism, homophobia, and sexism continue to unfairly discriminate. Neurotypical behaviours are prized above neurodiversity. Physical disability means constantly navigating barriers that the able-bodied take for granted. Socio-economic factors have a significant impact on our life opportunities. If you belong to a minority group, you are so conditioned to being ‘othered’ that it can be easy to internalise the implied criticism that you are somehow inferior to the ‘norm’.
What can we do?
The inner critic doesn’t have sole a residency in your head. Somewhere, maybe a little bit hidden away, is another voice. Maybe it hasn’t been allowed to speak up until now, maybe it’s a bit quiet and intimidated by the big bellowing inner critic. But it doesn’t have to remain that way. Both voices are yours. What if the inner critic is actually quite terrified of all the danger it perceives and that’s why it’s shouting? What if…you answered back? What would it sound like to be firm with your inner critic when it starts bullying you? How would it feel to issue it with a hard no, not today thank you? Or what would it feel like to show it compassion? To reason with it? Maybe even take ownership of it? Are you going to evict it or are you going to change the tenancy agreement and allocate it a smaller room?
All of these are possible and counselling can offer you a safe space to explore these options-along with any others that might work for you. We can explore when your inner critic took residence and what might have been happening in your life at that time. We can go back to give that earlier version of you the love, care and respect you were due. It isn’t always an easy process to heal past trauma where a harsh external critics voice has been absorbed into our internal world, but past pains can be healed. There is no ‘one size fits all’ and good therapy is completely bespoke, working with you in all your unique, imperfect beauty.
Paying attention and taking a pause to really listen to your inner dialogue can be helpful. Often, we are so ingrained to it chattering away in the background that we take it for granted. Becoming more aware of the inner critics’ presence can be help us identify when it starts to ramp things up and allow us to start challenging it before it gets too loud and domineering. This, of course, takes practice, but the rewards of taking back control soon mount up.
It might be a counselling cliché, but it’s true; you would never speak to a friend the way you speak to yourself. Take a pause, go back and read that first paragraph and imagine saying it to someone you respect and care about. If that makes you shudder, then perhaps it’s time to make some changes to that inner dialogue. You are worthy of that same care and respect. Being kind to yourself is not self-indulgence or vanity. It is self-compassion. And that is nothing to feel guilt or shame over.