Killing Your Inner Critic: How Self Judgement Destroys Your Ability To Succeed

“It’s too complicated. I can’t do it. I’m not good enough. I’m too fat. I never have any luck.” Do these statements sound familiar? Everyone occasionally hears the inner chatter of self-doubt. That negative voice draws on past experiences to predict your ability to deal with present and future challenges. It compares your beliefs about yourself to your perceptions of how the actual world works.  It has a purpose, but too often it hides your ability to grow and thrive.

Why are you so hard on yourself?

“The critical inner voice is there to protect us,” says psychotherapist David Klow, founder of the Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago. “It will usually beat us up before anyone else does in order to buffer the sting of external criticism.” Your inner critic may become overprotective. It can hold you back when you really should be moving forward. At work, your critic might have you keep your ideas under wraps for fear of ridicule, or you may fail to pursue that promotion believing you are not truly qualified. You may muddle through your social life under a cloud of self-consciousness. Extreme cases of negative self-image can manifest as depression and anxiety, serous disorders.

The source of your inner critic

When you are young, and just beginning to develop your sense of self, you draw from external sources, other people and experiences, to form beliefs about yourself. Clinical psychologist Dr. Joseph J. Luciani, in Self-Coaching: The Powerful Program to Beat Anxiety and Depression, writes, “Early wounds, whether physical or psychological, are unavoidable. From these wounds, insecurity sends its roots deep into your psyche.” The seeds of your self-beliefs may have first been planted by a critical parent or a schoolyard bully. Luciani then goes on to note that these beliefs are usually just vestiges of your childhood. You’ve grown. You should question these old beliefs.

Changing life-long patterns of self-criticism

It may be an interesting exercise to find the roots of your self-beliefs — “What made me think I’m bad at math?” — but it is not necessary to root through your entire childhood and blame your mother. The first step is to recognize the critic. Be aware of the voice and listen to it as a detached observer. Is the voice being rational and reasonable? Maybe your last job interview didn’t go well; is it reasonable to think you will never get a job? When you look at yourself in the mirror, do you compare yourself to airbrushed photos of fashion models? Is this rational?

You are not your critic

Recognize that the voice is not you. It is a confluence of voices and experience from your past, something separate from your core being.  “Continually criticizing oneself can be an entrenched phenomenon because people will often strongly identify with that critical inner voice,” says Klow.  You may want to give the voice a name, a separate identity. Call it Joe (unless your name is actually Joe), and when your inner critic is too active, tell yourself, “Wow, Joe is really busy today,” and then go about your business.

Self-talk is more than a comedy routine

In popular culture, self-affirmations have been the subject of jokes, most notably as a Saturday Night Live comedy skit, but studies have shown that that how you talk to yourself does influence your behavior. One study of 46 tennis players found that players who engaged in motivational self-talk increased their sense of self-efficacy and along with that, their performance on the tennis court. A regular “It may be hard, but I can do this” pep talk will help change the direction of your thoughts.  

The Queen is amused

Another study found that talking to yourself in the third- person (instead of using the pronoun “I”, insert your own name, e.g. “Jane Doe can do this”) sharply reduces social anxiety. Study participants who used non-first-person self-talk were less nervous during social interactions. By talking to yourself as if you were another person, you create some psychological space, which gives you room to see the larger picture.

The nuts and bolts: How to turn your thoughts around in three steps

1. Question your inner critic

When your inner critic says, “you can’t do that,” question the accuracy of that statement. Don’t accept that automatic “I can’t do that” as truth. Maybe you can do it. If the voice is attacking some aspect of yourself, your appearance or over-all intelligence, question the basis of this judgment.

2. Turn the negatives into positives

Your inner critic says you can’t. It may be a difficult task, but tell yourself you can handle it. It may require learning something new, or breaking the task into smaller parts. Think of ways you can apply yourself to the challenge. If your critic says you’re not smart enough, or talented enough, think back on past successes and see how you can apply what you learned there to your new challenge. Follow each negative thought with a positive statement — “This is too hard, but I am strong.”

3. Be kind to yourself

Recognize you will make mistakes, you might fail, but that’s okay. Life is a work in progress, and you make no progress if you don’t throw yourself out there and try.

Make friends with your inner critic

According to Klow, “The most lasting way to turn around negative self image is to befriend the inner critic.” The critic is there to motivate you and prevent bad things from happening. You need to tell your critic that you can handle whatever the day demands. Assure the critic that, “… we will indeed be okay, and that we will still reach our goals even if we are not perfect,” says Klow. Your inner critic can then relax. “Finding a strong, soothing inner voice that both reassures the critic, as well as our fragile self-esteem, can go a long way towards a healthy lifestyle.”