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How to Identify and Tame Your Inner Critic

Most people experience an inner monologue – a voice that they perceive in their mind as they go about their day. This phenomenon is completely normal and is often referred to as self-talk. Some people have an inner voice that’s primarily helpful and encouraging. For many others, though, self-talk often takes the form of a harsh “inner critic.” The quality of your self-talk has a major influence on how you see yourself, your abilities, and your place in the world. If your inner voice is frequently negative, it could be holding you back in ways you aren’t even aware of. Keep reading to learn more about where the inner critic comes from, how you can recognize it, and what you can do to prevent it from getting the better of you.

Finding the Origins of the Inner Critic

If you have a strong inner critic, chances are it’s been with you for most of your life. This harsh, self-condemning inner voice is usually born in early childhood, and it comes from a child’s parents or primary caregivers. Because young children are completely dependent on their parents, they are acutely attuned to how their parents see them and act towards them. Children can pick up on a parent’s negative attitude towards them, even if the parent does not verbalize it. Young children are also very perceptive of how their parents feel towards themselves and other adults. A child who grows up in an atmosphere of impatience, judgment, or hostility internalizes these attitudes, which then resurface in the form of the child’s own critical inner monologue.

Even caring, well-meaning parents can unwittingly instill a strong inner critic in their child. This is because people are more likely to notice and remember threats and problems than positive or neutral stimuli. On an instinctual level, a young child perceives their parent’s bad day or bad mood as an impending threat to their survival, even if their parent acts kind and calm most of the time. It only takes a single incident to form an emotional imprint that will show up later as the inner critic.

Identifying Your Inner Critic

Plenty of people reach adulthood without ever realizing that their harsh inner voice is an echo of things they once heard their parents say. In fact, many people don’t realize that they have an inner critic causing them problems at all. It’s common for people to take their inner monologue for granted, assuming that everything they think is simply the truth. Some people even mistakenly think that their inner critic is actually the voice of their conscience.

If you think you might have an overactive inner critic, you can start to identify it by taking a conscious step back from your own thoughts. Observe your thoughts as they pass, and remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts – they are not you, and they are not necessarily true. Pay particular attention to what your inner monologue is like when you’re feeling bad about yourself or something in your life. If your thoughts are especially harsh, or if you’re thinking about yourself in black-and-white, always-or-never terms, you’re probably hearing the voice of your inner critic. This is especially true if you tend to have the same negative thoughts about yourself over and over.

The inner critic isn’t always cruel on the surface. Another sneaky way it shows up is in defeatist thinking. This type of thinking often plays a role in addiction – for instance, Today was so stressful, I deserve to have a drink. I’ll worry about quitting another time. Your inner critic may try to persuade you to give up on your goals or not push yourself to do challenging things. This voice might sound helpful and reasonable on the surface, as if it’s just trying to spare you from pain and embarrassment, but it’s really a form of self-sabotage.

Fighting Your Inner Critic

If you have a lot of negative self-talk, learning to quiet that inner voice can have a beneficial effect on all areas of your life. Developing a more positive attitude towards yourself will make you more confident and assertive at work and school. When you don’t beat yourself up for not succeeding at things the first time, you’ll have an easier time trying new things and taking healthy risks. Being kind to yourself will put you in a better frame of mind to develop and nurture strong relationships with other people, too. Fighting your inner critic takes practice and patience, but you stand to gain a lot from it.

Disarming your inner critic is about learning to talk back to it. When you identify a thought that is coming from the critical inner voice, take a mental step back from it and challenge it. Ask it questions. For instance, maybe you’re trying to challenge the thought, I’m too stupid to figure this math problem out. I should never have signed up for this class. Instead of letting this thought turn into a negative spiral, put the figurative brakes on and say to yourself, Wait a minute. Is this actually true? You might remind yourself that plenty of smart people struggle with new math concepts and still manage to learn the material with some practice. You could also challenge the negative thought by coming up with a list of specific actions you could take to understand the new material better, such as talking to your instructor or forming a study group with your classmates. Another approach could be to bolster your self-confidence by reminding yourself of all the times you have successfully learned new things in the past. When you face your inner critic and challenge it head-on, you diminish the hold it has over you – and in doing so, you empower yourself.

The Final Word

It’s normal to experience negative self-talk from time to time, but you don’t have to live with an inner monologue that sounds like an enemy hiding in your brain. The keys to taking on your inner critic are to recognize it and to challenge it. When you stand up for yourself against your own negative thoughts, you’ll boost your mental health and become better able to achieve what you want in life.