I have a client who is struggling with a terminal illness. To make matters worse she’s beating herself up for all the things she thinks she did to trigger her condition. The guilt and what ifs are paralyzing her. We’re working on helping her let go of the never ending story of imperfection, lose and self-loathing and the inner critic, which has haunted her for decades. She’s starting to rewrite her story so that she can move forward and enjoy the time she has left.
We all have multiple parts including our self-compassionate part and our self-critical part. Most of us would love to part with our self-critic, aka the inner bitch. She’s as brutal as Cruella DeVil hurling indictments, wearing us out and stopping creativity before we even have an original thought.
Once upon a time I thought I needed my inner critic to motivate me to improve and excel in all areas of my life. In college and high school my inner critic made sure I adhered to A+ behavior and achieved a 4.0 GPA. Plagued by negative body image she was a constant companion compelling me to exercise more and eat less.
But then something shifted. I realized that despite how hard I worked or worked out I was never satisfied with who I was or how I looked. Beating myself up for my faults, imperfections and failures provided an illusion of control, but it wasn’t meeting a deeper need to love myself and feel satisfied with my life.
Many of us struggle with our inner bitch, the negative voice that triggers self-loathing and seeks to undermine us. Women typically have a louder inner critic than men, because we’re socialized to fit in rather than stand out. And the voice assaults us at the worst possible times when we’re launching ourselves in the world and need self-confidence not insecurity.
It’s not our fault. We learn to be hard on ourselves from caregivers and teachers looking to protect, mold or control us. In an effort to please we internalize their critical voice. In addition, if we have a self-critical parent we may eventually learn to model their behavior.
Although our inner critic causes us pain, ironically underlying the self-criticism is the desire to keep us safe. The censor is part of our ancient reptilian survival brain. Created to detect threats, it scans the environment for danger and tells us when to hold back and when to move forward. To your inner-critic striking out and being original is potentially dangerous so she preys on your insecurities and undermines your dreams so you stay put.
However, self-criticism isn’t harmless. Not moving in the direction of your dreams keeps you small and makes you feel sad, stuck and depressed. Beating yourself up triggers fight-or-flight and generates the stress hormone cortisol. Over time elevated cortisol levels can increase your risk of weight gain (especially around the middle) diabetes, gastrointestinal and fertility problems, cardiovascular disease and contribute to insomnia, depression and chronic fatigue.
If self-criticism is so harmful why do we keep doing it? We’re so accustomed to the disparaging inner dialogue that we don’t even notice we’re doing it it let alone realize how it prevents us from shining, being successful and feeling good about ourselves. We also erroneously think that if we criticize ourselves and draw attention to our flaws others won’t reject or abandon us.
Fortunately you can give your inner critic the boot and stop the self-sabotage. Here are 3 easy steps.
- Get to Know Your Inner Critic
Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster. —Sun Tzu
Although your self-critic causes pain, the first step is to get to know her better. Why is she there? What function does she serve? Identify her origins. Who in your life made you feel ashamed, guilty or unworthy? Is your self-critic the voice of a parent who was trying to shape or control you? Did you have a mean sibling or so-called friend who purposefully held you back? Or was there a teacher or boss who criticized you in hopes of helping you succeed?
Go back in time and identify at least three people who undermined your self-worth. If you like to journal write about one critical horror story. How old were you, where did it take place, how did you feel? Bringing the story to light will help you ditch your inner bitch and reverse some of your negative core beliefs.
Once you’ve identified the origins of your self-critic give that self-critical voice a name. One of my clients called her voice “Peter” after a former boss who constantly told her she was doing everything wrong. Notice what tone of voice the inner critic uses and how you feel when she rears her hideous head. All of this research will help you externalize and stop using it.
- Practice Self-Compassion
Self-compassion entails treating yourself the way you would a good friend with kindness rather than judgment. It’s the complete antithesis of self-criticism. When we give ourselves compassion we generate positive emotions. We also release, oxytocin the hormone responsible for care and connection that calms us down and decreases anxiety and stress.
Once you’ve noticed what the critic sounds like (Step 1), soften the voice. Instead of criticism talk to yourself the way a BFF or sister would with acceptance, understanding and compassion. Become your own cheerleader. Focus on your strengths and accomplishments. Use affirmations— positive, strong statements that say something already is so. (Follow my Facebook or Twitter page for a daily affirmation.) One of my clients successfully banished her inner critic by writing down dozens of positive affirmations on post-it notes and placing them around her apartment.
When you notice you’re stressed or suffering rather than making it worse by beating yourself up, offer yourself encouragement and kindness. For example replace the I’m such an idiot I can’t believe I ….. with, May I be free of suffering, may I be happy, may I be kind to myself and accept myself as I am. Or try a technique called hand-on-heart.
Don’t worry if your inner critic rears her head when you start saying positive, kind things to yourself. She loathes anything that boosts your self-worth. Just notice her nasty little blurts. Write them down and use them to help you understand your inner critic so you can clear out your negativity closet.
- Do Your Best
This is a powerful principle that I learned from Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements. Doing your best completely shuts your inner critic down. When you do your best she can’t berate, judge or shame you.
Your best will change from day-to-day and even moment-to-moment. Some days we wake up excited and ready to embrace life. Other days we feel like slipping under the covers and hiding from the world. Both are okay.
Regardless of how you feel, keep doing your best. Don’t push yourself (that’s what the critic wants you to do) beyond what feels right to you. You’ll exhaust yourself making it harder to reach your goals and maintain wellbeing. However, don’t do less than your best. When you don’t do your best you give your self-critic an opportunity to unleash blame, frustration, worry, shame, guilt and regret.
Doing your best, you are going to live your life intensely. You are going to be productive, you are going to be good to yourself, because you will be giving yourself to your family, to your community to everything. —Don Miguel Ruiz