Quieting the Inner Critic

Photo by Simon Wijers on Unsplash

Your Personal Drill Sergeant

We have all had some exposure, likely through Hollywood movies, to the overbearing drill sergeant yelling at a group of soldiers:

  • “You’re a maggot!”
  • “You smell like failure!”
  • “You’re worthless! . . .  Drop and give me twenty!”

The drill sergeant’s objective is not to provide care and compassion, but to yell, push, and criticize in order to prepare the soldiers for threats. It may be hard to identify at first, but if you slow down and notice some of messages you tell yourself, you may find that a voice similar to the overbearing drill sergeant has taken place in your mind. This is called the “inner critic.”

  • “I’m so lazy.”
  • “I have no self-discipline.”
  • “Of course I screwed this up.”
  • “I am a terrible mom/dad/parent/partner/student/etc.”

The inner critic will likely not demand twenty push ups, but the messages of worthlessness and never-enoughness are similar, and begin to wear on us, resulting in stress, insecurities, anxiety and depression.

The Purpose of the Inner Critic

Why does this inner critic exist? Why do we constantly allow a part of ourselves to injure us with words that most would never dream of saying to someone else?

While it might feel ironic, the inner critic does not exist to do you harm. It exists to keep you safe, much like the drill sergeant.  It is essentially trying to protect your well-being, even if it does so in harmful, unhelpful ways.  For example:

  • Your critic might say, “You always ruin relationships,” to protect you from starting a relationship that may result in a broken heart.
  • It might say, “You’re going to fail on this project,” to prevent you from trying harder, which may protect you from disappointment.
  • Your critic might say, “You are a terrible partner,” to push you to withdraw rather than become vulnerable and engaging, trying to protect you from the pain of rejection.

When people first begin to notice their critic, and to notice the pain it is causing, it’s common to want to get rid of it. Of course we want to push it away: it’s mean. But trying to smother it often results in the critic getting louder.

The Key to Quieting the Inner Critic

The key to quieting the inner critic does not lie with trying to suppress it. The key is self-compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff, explains there are three interacting components to self-compassion, which can quiet our self-criticism:

  1. Mindfulness: Become aware of the critic’s messages and how they make you feel. The words might be difficult to recognize at first, but the emotions connected to the criticisms are clearer: fear, self-doubt, shame, irritability, and hopelessness are common. Noticing the pain the critic is causing you can help you respond in a warm way
  2. Self-kindness: Replacing harsh commentary with unconditional acceptance. Recognize that the intention of the inner critic is to protect you from painful experiences, then offer statements of warmth and self-compassion to soften those harsh criticisms. “Maybe it’s not because I’m worthless” or “It’s normal to mess things up sometimes.”
  3. Humanity: By remembering that perfection is not possible, and that all people experience failure and difficulty in life, we can begin to feel like we are less alone, and more connected when we are hurting.

As we come to view the critic as a fearful, protective part of ourselves, rather than as a cruel drill sergeant figure, it ultimately loses its power to do harm and makes way for a kinder, more gentle approach to ourselves, leading to healthier, happier lives.

If you could use support in quieting your inner critic, give us a call! 720-468-0101

About Jessica Downs

Jessica Downs, MSW, LSW provides individual and couples counseling for adults and teens at Colorado Counseling Center. She has received specialized training in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy, a proven approach to treating trauma and anxiety disorders. To learn more about Jessica's counseling specialties, please visit: https://www.coloradocounselingcenter.com/jessica-downs/ Jessica approaches her work with compassion and a sincere desire to understand her clients.

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