Why is our inner critic often so harsh? And what can we do about it?

I saw the film Birdman recently, where Michael Keaton’s critical alter ego looms so large as to become quite corporeal (and visually reminiscent of the amazing wings in the Digital Revolution exhibition described below). It got me thinking about the idea of the inner critic, how difficult inner criticism can be to live with, and what solutions contemporary talking therapies have to offer us.

An inner critical voice or a bent towards perfectionism can be helpful in some situations, to make us try to perform better, to keep us trying to improve… but it can get out of control so easily. This type of critical inner voice is a very human feature, and one which is sometimes linked to impostor syndrome, or many clinical diagnoses such as depression and anxiety.

Image by Professor Joseph Ciarrochi www.acceptandchange.com

Image by Professor Joseph Ciarrochi http://www.acceptandchange.com

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a type of talking therapy with some really helpful ideas around managing a rampant inner critic. ACT is one of the ‘third wave’ cognitive behavioural approaches, more recent than CBT but drawing on some similar foundations. “ACT focuses on helping people to live more guided by their personal values, rather than their fear,” says Eric Morris, clinical psychologist, ACT expert and Director of the La Trobe University Psychology Clinic, Australia. “ACT is a practical approach – encouraging you to consciously choose and act – and to learn from your own experience.”

ACT encourages us to try to identify key values we want to live our lives by, and use these as motivations for what we do, rather than listening to the negative chatter of an inner critical voice. So instead of listening when our inner monologue says things like: “don’t bother trying, you’ll just make a fool of yourself, everyone will realise you’re crap”, ACT would encourage us to notice these thoughts but not change our actions because of them.

But why is all this criticism there in the first place? Is it normal? Eric thinks it is – that it relates to part of what has made us evolve to be such a dominant species – our human ability to think, to problem solve, and to be influenced by ideas from other people. “Our ability as a species to use language is both a blessing and a curse.” says Eric. “This is tremendously advantageous, as we can share knowledge and build upon it. However, this ability also means that our judgemental minds can turn toward ourselves, and do comparisons, engage in unhelpful problem-solving, make dire predictions etc. It is the price of having a mind!”

Our minds have evolved to be good at spotting potential problems because of developing in a world where we weren’t always safe, and where we needed to be clever to spot danger and avoid predators. This contrasts with the situation most of us are in now. “Many of us live in environments where we are pretty safe, while also having these minds that are still focused on checking for threats,” says Eric. “Because of the many advantages of “being in our heads”, we can be a little blind to discovering when it is useful to pay attention to your mind, and when it is useful to be guided by your direct experience, here and now.”

Easier said than done right? Try these six suggestions from ACT to try to sideline your inner critic.

  1. Remember this advice from Eric: “The inner critic is there, because you have a mind that likes problem-solving and judging everything, including you. The trick is to consider this as just your mind doing it’s thing, and that you don’t have to follow it.”
  2. Eric suggests trying to view all the different inner voices you have a bit like advisors: “It’s like you are the President of a country – the United States of You! – and all these different parts of yourself – the optimist, the pessimist, the father, the daughter, the music-lover, the critic – are like government advisers.” Instead of only listening to the loud and bossy voices, we can try to listen out for other points of view as well.
  3. ACT encourages us to try not treat critical thoughts as a problem (your inner critic can also criticise itself!), but instead to gently notice them, be curious about them, appreciate them as part of your ability to problem-solve. “Your inner critic is along for the ride,” says Eric “you don’t need to worry that it will disappear – you can use that perspective when it is useful, as well as notice and connect with life as it is being lived.”
  4. Forget trying to ‘fix your mind’ or push away critical thoughts (they often get louder).
  5. Try to practice noticing what your mind is doing, like an observer, watching your thoughts without having to get caught up in them. Mindfulness is fab for practising this.
  6. Identify your key values, the ones you want your life to stand for, and try to call these to mind when you’re making decisions about what to do or how to behave. Use these as a compass instead of immediately doing what your inner critic would suggest. 

“This is not to say that life will get easier,” says Eric. “However it may get more meaningful.”

Eric Morris is co-author of ACTivate Your Life: Using Acceptance and Mindfulness to Build a Life that is Rich, Fulfilling and Fun, to be published by Constable & Robinson in February 2015.

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