You had a bad day at work. You screwed up a customer’s order, misplaced important documents, misspoke at a meeting, or made a mess across your desk.
“I’m a horrible employee,” you think. “I’m never going to get better. I’m probably going to get fired.”
We’ve all had thoughts like this—negative, self-defacing stirrings that make an already bad day worse.
Your inner critic is that little voice inside your head that says you messed up or that you aren’t good enough.
When tamed, this critical voice can be pretty useful; you can identify where you went wrong, and use it to motivate yourself to do better.
Unfortunately, self-critical thoughts can run wild. Let’s consider where this inner critic comes from and what you can do to take back control.
Where Does the ‘Inner Critic’ Come From?
Psychologist Lisa Firestone states that critical thoughts form because of negative childhood experiences. We hear harmful comments directed towards ourselves or others. As we grow, we internalize these thoughts.
The inner critic is like a warped, overactive defense mechanism. At first, it seems like it’s protecting you—that situation you’re nervous about may hurt you, so it tries to keep you safely in your comfort zone.
If you’ve already ‘prepared’ yourself for defeat, it shouldn’t hurt as much if something bad does happen. Right?
But when your critic starts to run the show, it can keep you from starting or finishing things you really want or need to do.
Here are a few warning signs to watch for (and how to fix them):
You constantly engage in negative self-talk
Negative self-talk is the most obvious sign your inner critic’s on a rampage. You hear yourself saying that you’ll never be good enough; you’ll never look nice enough; you’ll never be happy enough. You’ll never get this date or get that job.
To fix this, pay close attention to what you say and think. When you notice yourself saying negative things, stop the thought in its tracks and turn it into something positive. For example, instead of thinking “I really tanked that interview,” consider how much you learned and jot down a few ways you can do better next time. This not only stops the initial thought from hurting you, but also gives you a way to avoid it in the future.
You worry all the time
You find yourself constantly concerned about what’s happening around you. You worry about what others think; you worry about what you may or may not have done. It’s a constant cycle of anxiety.
Try to catch these thoughts as they occur and examine them with a critical eye. Ask yourself why you’re anxious over a situation. If it’s something you can control, take control of it. If it isn’t something you can control, ask yourself if it’s worth worrying about when you can’t make a change.
You can also use anxiety-relieving activities, such as meditating or running, to reduce worry and clear your mind of critical thoughts.
You never take time for yourself
You might not think staying busy could possibly be related to your inner critic. After all, constant work can help silence the critic for a while… until you stop and ask yourself why you never have any time for yourself. In many cases, it’s because you’re worried that if you stop, you won’t complete a certain task or project. Maybe you feel like you aren’t good enough, and that you have to work harder and longer than others to be successful.
Unfortunately, working away your inner critic isn’t a sustainable process. Never taking a break can lead to burnout, which can reduce your performance or cause you to stop working altogether. Your inner critic will then come crawling out of the woodwork to reprimand you for your failure.
Remind yourself that it’s not only okay, it’s important to take time for yourself. Taking a break is something everyone has to do. It helps recharge you mentally and physically, so you can do (and feel) better when you go back to work.
You feel insecure in your relationships
You look at your friends, family and significant other, and wonder if they really like you. “How can they?” you think as you start listing off your faults. Sure they told you they love you before—and they’ve constantly been there to support you—but you just can’t bring yourself to believe them.
Remind yourself of all the things they’ve done for you, and of all the good times you’ve had together. Try to focus on the positive when negative thoughts come around. Talk to your loved ones; their validation can help quiet your inner critic.
You compare yourself to others
You look at your work, your body, your relationships, your success… and then you look at others’.
“They’re doing so much better than me,” you think.
The thing to remember here is that others’ success doesn’t define your own. Remind yourself of your own successes and take pride in your accomplishments. This way, when you look at others, you can know that you’ve still done well, and feel encouraged that you can still improve.
What Else Can You Do to Quiet the Critic?
The most important thing is to recognize when your inner critic is speaking. Once you can identify it, there are a few additional ways to help silence it.
- Write down critical statements starting with “you” instead of “I”. For example, a thought like “I’m not good enough” should be written as “You’re not good enough.” This will help you differentiate between the critic and what is actually true.
- Leave reminders about why you’re trying to silence the critic in first place. This way, when it inevitably comes around again, you’ll have an external way of remembering why it’s important to quiet it. Relatedly, leave positive notes for yourself around the house as a way to combat the critic.
- Write down all the negative thoughts, and then write an answer to them. Read the answer back to yourself when you’re done. Don’t let your inner critic control the conversation.
Perhaps most importantly, reward yourself for your successes! When you make progress, celebrate! You’re that much closer to controlling your inner critic.
You Can Keep the Critic Quiet
Learning how to silence your inner critic can take time, especially when negative self-thoughts have been ingrained since childhood. If you work at it, though, you’ll hear your inner critic less and less (and be able to differentiate what it says from what is actually true).
By using the tips in this article, you can retake control of your thought process, and put your inner critic in its place.