Lakeasha Sullivan, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Atlanta.
My patients are not a unique group. I’ve never met a person who doesn’t have an inner critic. It “is not volitional, it is already in your nervous system,” says Steven C. Hayes, foundation professor of psychology at the University of Nevada at Reno, and co-developer of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). “It’s not going away.”
Its methods may seem harsh, but its intentions are noble. The inner critic is hypervigilant, anxiously scanning the environment for threats. “The inner critic is activated when we’re trying to survive, because it’s trying to keep us alive,” says Kathy Steele, a psychotherapist in Atlanta. “Only, it sees everything as a threat at some point, especially other people.”
Social rejection is a real threat to our survival, and the inner critic tries to protect us by shaming us before someone else might. It attacks to push us to develop characteristics that society rewards, such as competence. It calls us stupid [or fill in the blank] to motivate us to do better.
Are the alarms occasionally justified? Perhaps. “Sometimes it’s emotional wisdom,” Hayes points out.
‘Whose voice is this?’
The inner critic “is built upon and through our experiences over time,” Steele says. The inner critics of many of my patients use the same phrases as a parent would when they were young. When asked “Whose voice is this?” or “Who said this to you?” it can be a lightbulb moment.
Its harshness also can be contextual and dependent on a person’s sensitivity toward being shamed, their mood and the situation. For example, I have patients whose inner critic regularly berates them about their appearance but remains quiet about other issues until a significant stressor appears.
One such stressor was the pandemic. In my practice, I noticed a significant increase in my patients anxiously comparing themselves to friends, colleagues and even strangers about their ability to cope with the demands of family and work. Online, it looked as if everyone else was thriving — learning a language, baking bread, reinventing themselves.
The inner critic uses social comparisons to determine if you need to do more to be socially accepted. Trapped in isolated bubbles without everyday social cues, many an inner critic had people feeling as if they were falling woefully short of elusive goal posts. There were times when nearly every session involved a patient convinced that they were inherently deficient.
The inner critic rarely speaks on matters of life or death, so suppressing or ignoring it can be tempting. That can provide merciful, albeit brief, relief.
Exerting mental and emotional control to suppress a thought, however, takes energy and can result in psychological depletion. Running out of psychological resources not only affects our mood, but can also make us more passive and less persistent, and cause us to struggle with problem solving. Now we’ve given our inner critic even more ammunition to use against us.
How to befriend your inner critic
Rather than trying to suppress negative thoughts, learning to live with the inner critic is an essential skill that we can learn. Here are some strategies that can help.
Name your critic: Many of my patients name their inner critic and create a fictional backstory for it. The inner critic may be a disgruntled relative or a scared child. “What are the benefits of it? Figure out if it’s tapping into parts of your history,” Hayes says.
This strategy involves changing your perspective about the inner critic. The subtle shift of “third personing” the inner critic can be liberating. “Make friends with it. Dialogue with it. Be curious,” Steele suggests.
Offer counterevidence: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy teaches us how to counter negative self-talk. This empirically validated approach capitalizes on holes in the inner critic’s logic. For instance, if your inner voice says, “You’re such a failure,” you should cite examples of success. “I know I’m not a failure. I’m good at my job.”
Be open to painful thoughts and emotions: A recent study by Hayes and others found that being open to painful thoughts and emotions is an important therapeutic tool that accounts for significant change among patients in therapy. “What if you could take a magic pill and erase all of your pain? But you also had to remove the wisdom and values you learned from it?” Hayes asks. “I’ve never had a client who wants to make that bargain.”
Stay mindful: Mindfulness is another powerful distancing technique. “When we hear the inner critic being harsh, we could notice it, recognize it, thank it for trying to help, remind ourselves that we would never say things like that to someone we care about and see if we can be a little more kind to ourselves,” writes Ruth Baer, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky who specializes in mindfulness.
“Practicing mindfulness is like mental exercise,” says Baer, who compares it to physical exercise. “It’s not always fun or comfortable and just doing it a few times won’t have much impact.” But with regular practice, you can reap the benefits. “We learn to respond more skillfully to difficult experiences, and that can lead to a greater sense of peace and calm,” Baer says.
I have recommended apps such as Headspace to my patients as a starting point, and Baer agrees. She also recommends exploring mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) or mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) courses. Many centers offer evidence-based courses and free resources online, such as the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion and the Mindfulness and Health Institute.
Use the inner critic for growth: Once understood, the inner critic can be useful. It can, for instance, help us lead a values-driven life. Chronically late people, for example, often experience a harsh inner critic who scolds them for looking bad in front of others and being immature. But if the patient values reliability, they can thank the inner critic for reminding them of this value and start applying time-management skills. In this and other cases, the inner critic brings something important to our attention, and we can use the experience to align our actions with our values.
We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.
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