Not only does a little self-loathing do great harm...we must be vigilant about noticing all instances in order to stop its negative effects.
I read a lot of articles on psychology, self-help, nutrition, happiness, mental health, marriage, dating, and a host of other topics. I hope and believe all this reading makes me a better therapist and a better human being. The downside is that sometimes ideas blur together and it takes a really outstanding or meaningful concept to hold my attention for more than a few minutes. So when I found myself thinking about the same sentence for several days in a row, I knew I had to share. Here it is: implement a zero-tolerance policy for your inner critic.
I am not much of a fan of implementing a zero-tolerance policy for most things. It’s the sort of black-and-white thinking that sets people and systems up for failure. Zero tolerance for alcohol turned into a costly and violent fiasco in the United States. Abstinence has never proven to be an effective method of birth control. My zero-sugar diet has only increased my sugar cravings ten-fold.
However, sometimes even a little of something is too dangerous. Diabetics must stop eating simple carbohydrates. Serious alcoholics generally cannot “cut back,” on their drinking. In both cases, a little of something equals huge negative consequences. I believe not only does a little self-loathing do great harm, it is such a pernicious and subtle habit that we must be vigilant about noticing all instances in order to stop its negative effects.
Here are the ways your inner critic is harming you:
1. Your inner critic is hard on your physical health.
We all know stress is hard on our hearts and our immune systems. Too much stress makes us sick, gives us heart attacks, causes cancers, and makes us prone to all sorts of physical maladies. Imagine the amount of stress caused by having someone walking next to you and continually telling you what a loser you are, you have no friends, you are too fat, too lazy, too – whatever. Argh. If we had a roommate do this, we’d (hopefully!) kick them out. If we had to live with a partner or a family member who constantly criticized us, we’d likely be sick all the time.
2. Your inner critic sabotages your relationships.
Sometimes the voice in our head is so loud, we can’t hear other people, much less pay attention to them. The inner critic keeps us from reaching out (too afraid of rejection), of being genuinely happy for friends’ accomplishments (because we’re too busy comparing ourselves), or of complimenting someone else (in case it makes them look better than us by comparison). Just writing these things makes me cringe. Our inner critic does not serve us well in relationships.
3. Your inner critic causes depression and anxiety.
If we can’t silence our inner critic, it wears down our self-esteem and makes us too upset or uptight to leave the house. Our inner critic keeps us from interacting with others. Even if we’re good at hiding it, our inner critic is always there in the background gnawing away at our confidence, making it hard to hear positive messages that can combat anxiety and depression. We know instinctively too much criticism makes us feel crazy.
4. The inner critic prevents you from taking risks.
Have you ever avoided a party because you weren’t sure you’d know what to say? Ever kept yourself from buying a fabulous dress because you weren’t sure what someone else might say? Did your inner critic ever talk you out of approaching someone you wanted to ask out or just be friends with? Another way of saying this is your inner critic stops you from growing. Ack!
5. Having an inner critic is a drag.
Seriously, listening to someone criticize you or belittle you all day long is no fun. It’s exhausting and just thinking about it makes me want to run and hide.
Those are all the good reasons for finally silencing your inner critic, but before we jump into how to silence the inner critic, I want to take a moment to say a fond farewell. No really. Here’s why: we developed our inner critic for a reason. He or she arose as a way to protect us from something; our critic prevented us from taking some risks which might have led to rejection and hurt. The critic made fun of you before the mean kid in school could make fun of you. The critic was also trying to make you a better person. I’m a big proponent of having compassion for those who act badly because they don’t know better.
I have read many authors who say they give their inner critic some silly or demeaning name in order to take away it’s power. I’m going to suggest you don’t. In the movies we always applaud when the bully is humiliated, but the humdrum reality is less dramatic: gently, calmly, and strongly holding your ground works better against bullies and your inner critic is just a bully you created in order to take care of yourself in some way. Ok, so your inner critic did not read the current parenting books before it took on the role of protecting and improving you. Your inner critic was doing the best it could with the tools at hand. So, let’s thank the inner critic for doing it’s best and then we can go about the hard work of disabling it forever.
Alright, we’ve given our inner critic a nice eulogy, below you’ll find 6 ways to begin silencing her forever.
1. Gently refocus your attention every time you notice your inner critic starting in. Let’s say, for instance, you are standing in front of a mirror getting dressed. Typically your inner critic says something like, “God, look at those thighs. Are you ever going back to the gym? You look like your Aunt Ethel. No man is going to want you with cellulite.” Etcetera. Gently but firmly turn your attention. “My hair looks fantastic today. I love the way this blue sweater offsets my eyes.” Or whatever. The goal is to eventually be able to say, “My thighs are magnificent!” but we’ll start with turning away and refocusing.
2. Don’t allow name calling in your head.
Your inner critic is not allowed to call you fat, stupid, lazy, dumb, ridiculous, idiot, ugly, or any other derogatory name. If you wouldn’t say it to your child, your partner, or your boss stop saying it to yourself (if you say any of those things to your child, your partner, or your boss you need to be reading a different blog). You can’t say things like, “Don’t be stupid,” or “You sound like an idiot.” No more. It is time to educate your inner critic: name calling is not an effective motivational tool.
3. Stop black and white thinking.
Banish these words from your inner dialogue: “always”, “never”, “forever”, “again”, “everybody”, “nobody”, “impossible,” and any other words that leave no room for nuance. “You never remember to put your keys away,” “You are always late,” “Nobody wants to sit next to you,” “You’re alone on Saturday night again,” “You will be stuck in this job forever.” All phrases your inner critic is using to try to motivate you to do something. You know the truth: nagging and black-and-white thinking are the opposite of motivational. Thoughts like this land us on the couch binge-watching Netflix. Your inner critic is killing your motivation.
Try this instead, “How can I remind myself to put my keys away at home?” “Who do I want to sit next to next week?” “How early do I need to get up in order to leave for work on time?” These are solution-based sentences, not criticism. It’s not about pretending; you aren’t saying, “You’re never late.” You’re just working on finding a solution which is so much more effective than criticizing.
4. Remember mistakes are human and owning mistakes makes us likeable and accessible.
You will screw up. Our inner critic wants us to be perfect, but a) it’s impossible, and b)nobody likes a perfectionist. How much more approachable is the person who says, “I’m afraid I double-booked your schedule for next Wednesday and I’m sorry. What’s the best way for me to help fix this?” than the person who says, “You’re double-booked next Wednesday, you better figure out what to do about it.” Or how about, “I am trying to lose weight, but I am having a hard time staying away from the donuts in the break room,” versus, “I never eat carbs.” You get the picture: people own their mistakes and move on are human. People who pretend they never make mistakes are difficult and people who never eat carbs are just inhuman.
5. Don't forget: others are more focused on themselves than they are on you.
Insecure people are busy criticizing themselves, secure people are busy getting on with their lives. If people are criticizing you, stay away from them. Really, just get the hell away from them.
One caveat: sometimes people in power criticize us and we have to suck it up. The best you can do is surround yourself with others who care about you, don’t let this be an excuse to feed your inner critic, and if you can’t talk to the person in power about how they treat you get away as soon as you can.
6. Leave middle school behind. It isn't real life.
Honestly no one cares if you spill soup on your shirt, laugh too loudly, or accidentally wear two different socks. We’re not on the set of “Mean Girls.” Just let go and laugh at yourself. Others will like you for it.
There is a strange paradox to all this: we think by criticizing ourselves, we are protecting ourselves from the criticism of others but just the opposite is true. Those who silence their inner critic are more likely to be able to hear what other people say and calmly decide what to do with the information. The more self-compassion we find, the less sensitive we are to the criticism of others. Of course you aren’t a robot; sometimes people will say mean things that hurt no matter how kind you are to yourself. However, when you silence your inner critic, your resiliency goes up; you’ll bounce back faster from the slings and arrows.
So be compassionate with yourself and others, laugh about your own mistakes, and lighten up. Life without an inner critic is so much more fun.