We are suffering an epidemic of self-criticism that keeps us fearful and unfulfilled. Every week, one in six adults experiences anxiety and depression, according to the 2014 Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey. As a life coach, my diary burgeons with people caught in toxic cycles of beating themselves up. If you haven’t yet been formally introduced, then you probably recognise the voice of the inner critic. It comes in many forms – in its slippery way, not all of them obviously critical – and may run your life unless you take some conscious action.
I have skin in this game. I speak publicly for a living, and whenever I do, a harsh voice pops up in my head in the shape of a scornful audience member, telling me I don’t know enough. I call this the Scoffer. Whenever I sit down with a blank sheet of paper ready for the creative muse to waft in with ideas for workshops, a voice says “no-one is going to pay for this”. I call this the Auditor. When I plan a gathering, the worst voice of all is the first to arrive: “No-one will come because you are unlovable”. Ouch.
The short history of the inner saboteur begins in childhood. Helpless in early years, we are predisposed to scan for the approval of caregivers who will – we hope – keep us safe. As we develop socially, we internalise the voices of those who correct us to stay safely accepted and connected.
As we mature, this old programme keeps running. The threat to life may be gone, but the inner critic – birthed in our vulnerable childhood – still speaks as if it hasn’t. When we fear losing connection, the mechanism activates. Its voice can be harsh, but it can also gently infantilize us like an indulgent parent. The intention is the same: to keep us safe. Yet the effect is sabotage. If we can’t feel vulnerable and still step into the arena to risk being bloodied, whether it’s starting a new business, telling someone we love them (or we don’t), or standing up for our beliefs, then we live a limited life. Due to lack of confidence, we don’t grow, we don’t contribute our full potential.
What can help? Here’s a three-step process I use with clients: notice, accept and choose. First, notice your inner critic has grabbed the wheel. Check the tone of voice and feeling it gives you: if it’s judgemental and leaves you anxious and demotivated, then it’s the voice of a saboteur, rather than an inner coach using tough love to push you. Get familiar with its scripts. Give it a name: the Judge or the Perfectionist, for instance. Next, check that you don’t double down and criticise yourself for having an inner critic. It’s a normal, if redundant, psychological survival strategy.
Finally, consciously choose a more helpful way to respond. Here are three options. One, work at an embodied level by noticing and then reversing your automatic contracted stress response. The body and mind are connected. Centre yourself by relaxing your belly and jaw and, as you exhale, imagine you are shining out like a lightbulb.
Two, speak back to the inner critic and have the last word. For instance, I tell my Scoffer that I don’t need to be brilliant, just useful. This switch from ego to service is powerfully effective. I thank my Auditor for trying to help and tell him to back off until I need his skills. And as for the critic who tells me I am unlovable, the third option comes into its own. I have created a family of inner allies who speak to me just as powerfully as the critic, if I let them. There’s the Good Parent who says “I am not going to abandon you”; my Inner Friend who says “I wouldn’t let anyone talk about you the way you talk about yourself”; and if all else fails, I ask what would Helen Mirren say to my inner critic. “F**k off,” rather helpfully.
I wish I could say that I hold the secret to an easy and successful life. Life can be confusing, uncertain and challenging and we will feel vulnerable. Noticing our patterns of thinking and feeling about that vulnerability, then compassionately choosing to change our response might make it less hard than it is.
If you are in London, join my Guardian Masterclass on Tackling Your Inner Critic on November 12th. Book your place here.
Image: Andre Hunter