Wow, is that really the best you can do?
You can never do anything right
Everyone else is smarter than you
Ugh, I'm so stupid
No wonder no one likes you
Yikes, those are some harsh words. If anyone said those words to you, it would probably make you feel super upset, angry and hurt.
But here’s a plot twist to consider: what if those words weren’t coming from outside of you….but from inside?
Think about it: how many times have we said those same phrases to ourselves?
I’m so stupid
I can never do anything right
Why do I even try? I should just give up now
I’ll never fit in.
Nothing I do is enough
I just about mess up everything
Maybe you've said these phrases to yourself when you made a mistake at work or said something slightly awkward in front your friends…does that sound familiar?
At one point or another, I am sure most, if not all, of us have criticized ourselves pretty harshly. This “inner critic” is a part of our daily lives, and can be pretty…well, critical.
I’ve touched on the topic of this nagging voice before on this blog, where we talked about the effects of low self-esteem on anxiety and your overall mental health.
In this post, we will cover:
What is that critical inner voice?
Where did it come from?
And why is it so harmful?
Tips to combat that critical inner voice
Let's dive in!
What Is The Critical Inner Voice?
The critical inner voice is a part of our internal monologue and exists to varying degrees in every person. It manifests as a pattern of harmful thoughts, that are often directed towards ourselves. It can affect our relationships, our work and academic performance and our confidence and self-esteem.
Whether we realize it or not, a harsh inner voice plays a significant role in how we view the world and how we live our lives. The voice reflects the part of us that is turned against ourselves – our own worst enemy. It consists of negative thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes that oppose our best interests, diminishing our self-esteem.
This internalized dialogue can be self-destructive as it may encourage us to engage in maladaptive behaviour, while discouraging us to act in ways that will ultimately benefit us. This hostile, judgemental voice can also affect the way we perceive other people.
It’s crucial to remember that this critical inner voice shouldn’t be mistaken for our conscience. Our conscience guides us on what is morally wrong or right, while this harsh inner voice is critical, degrading and demeaning.
The problem with this voice is that although it is an “inner” voice and not coming from outside of us, it does not mean that it speaks the ultimate truth. Because the things that this voice tells us are often so internalized and ingrained within our thought process, we forget that we can challenge what it's saying.
Before we get to that part, let’s talk more about where this voice comes from.
Where Does This Voice Come From?
As we grow up, the way people behave towards us shapes the way we see ourselves. When our caregivers show us love, compassion and kindness, we are able to internalize those attitudes towards ourselves.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. Critical and destructive attitudes that are directed towards us by our parents and other caregivers can become internalized and affect our self-image.
Children also pick up on the negative and critical thoughts our parents/caregivers have towards themselves. In fact, children may take on those same self-attacks as their own.
Furthermore, children can be particularly sensitive to when parents react critically towards them in moments of anger and stress.
Additionally, it’s not just our parent’s attitudes that affect us - family members, teachers and peers and society at large can all affect the development of our critical inner voice. This can diminish our self-esteem and confidence.
When Is The Critical Inner Voice Harmful?
Story Time With Sarah
To help us better understand how the critical inner voice can be truly harmful, let me share a personal experience.
A while back, I was presented with an opportunity at work to take on more responsibility. It was a really cool chance for me to learn new skills, beef-up my resume and put my name out there.
Sounds great, right? You’re probably assuming that I took that opportunity.
Alas, I did not. At the time, I made excuses. I was too busy, I didn’t have the time, it probably wasn’t that great of an opportunity and it wouldn’t amount to much professionally. So I politely rejected it and the opportunity went to someone else.
Looking back while writing this blog post, I realized something – in that moment, I let my inner critic win.
See, as soon as I heard about the opportunity and started to feel excited about it, the nagging little voice flipped on like an annoying switch.
“You’re too inexperienced for this kind of responsibility. You’ll just mess it up. They’re going to see you for the imposter you are, and realize you shouldn’t even have gotten here to begin with.”
As harsh and untrue as those words are, at the time, I believed them. I internalized them so significantly that it was second nature to agree with it was saying.
Of course I couldn’t accept the position. I would fail anyways and it would all blow up in my face. There was no point.
Do I regret it now? Definitely. But now that I know that the inner voice isn’t a reflection of my actual self, and more of an “external” process of destructive and maladaptive thoughts, it’s easier for me to re-calibrate myself when the voice gets too loud and too annoying.
The Inner Voice & Our Mental Health
This scenario reminds of how influential this inner voice can be. These critical thoughts can negatively affect our self-esteem and confidence. In turn, we know that self-esteem is deeply related to our mental health and the manifestation of various mental illnesses.
When it comes to self-esteem and both anxiety and depression, there is evidence to suggest that low self-esteem can predict greater levels of anxiety and depressed mood.
So does this mean every person with a critical inner voice is going to have anxiety and/or depression? Well, no.
But it does mean that this critical inner voice should not be taken lightly. If left unchecked, it can slowly and surely diminish our self-esteem and the way we view ourselves, which in turn can affect our mental health.
Alright, so now we what our harsh inner critic is, where it comes from and how it can negatively affect our well-being.
So how do we manage this?
4 Tips To Combat Your Harsh Inner Critic
The first step is crucial - recognize and identify the harmful and critical internal dialogue coming from your inner voice.
What is the inner voice saying? When does it show up?
Write down these thoughts as they show up and start to notice the patterns. Do the thoughts attack your work performance or your relationships? Have they changed your behaviour or actions in a negative way?
Remember: these thoughts are not facts or the ultimate truth.
Create some distance between the thoughts and yourself. Change the "I" statements ("I'm so stupid") to "you" statements ("you are so stupid").
Sounds a little strange, but by separating the thoughts from yourself, you're taking the first step in being able to fight back against these criticisms.
After you've created the distance, challenge these statements. Are you really "stupid"? Or are you just a human being who makes mistakes sometimes? What does the objective evidence say? When does the inner voice call you stupid?
Writing down these counter-statements will help you take a closer look at why these thoughts come about in the first place and create a more balanced perspective based on the facts.
4. Be Compassionate
The most important tip to combat your inner self-critic is probably this: be kind to yourself. The inner critic can be mean and vicious, and so internalized that we forget that we're able to fight against it.
Instead of an inner critic, build on your inner "caretaker". Think of it like this: for every unkind, harsh criticism, counter it with a kind, loving statement. It will be difficult at first, but it is necessary.
Another helpful tip may be to think of how you speak to your friends and loved ones. You probably (and hopefully) don't say the same kind of harsh words to them, and instead treat them with patience and kindness - so why not show yourself the same level of compassion?
Be patient with yourself. This won't be easy but fighting back against your inner critic is necessary in order to build your self-esteem back up, and ensure that you're reaching your full potential.
A Reminder Before You Go
In this post, we talked about the inner critic and hopefully now, you're able to identify and recognize those insidious inner thoughts that creep up on you and diminish your self-confidence.
This inner voice is often based on our experiences as children and the way our caregivers and peers spoke to us as we grew up. While it may seem somewhat hopeless to fight back against this harsh critic when it appears to be so internalized, it is possible and it is necessary.
Remember: these thoughts are not facts. Those harsh words do not reflect objective reality.
It can often be difficult to even identify these thoughts - they are ingrained within our minds that we assume they are a part of who we are. But they are not.
We often forget to be kind to the most important person - ourselves. So here's your reminder: be kind to yourself. Be patient. Be compassionate. We all make mistakes but all deserve a chance to learn from them. We are all capable of growth but we just give ourselves a chance to do so.
How have you dealt with a harsh inner critic? How has it affected your life?
Until next time!