How to stop your inner critics from taking over

Everyone has a voice in their head saying they’re not good enough. It’s time we learnt why those inner critics exist and what to do about them says Megumi Miki.

American psychotherapist Carl Rogers, observed a kind of ‘conditional positive regard’—a more critical view of oneself—in therapy patients. According to Rogers, this self critical view stopped children from working toward ideals and led to excessive approval seeking in adulthood. In the past decade, scientific research revealed strong correlations between negative self-talk and psychopathologies such as depression, social and performance anxiety, aggression, perfectionism, eating disorders and self-harm.

Have your inner critics ever taken you to dark places you don’t want to be, where you feel anxious, afraid and small? Or to places where you feel frustrated with yourself or belittle yourself so much that you can’t meet your expectations?

Some of you may have these inner critics taking over regularly, others of you only sometimes. When they do take over, though, it’s difficult to take back control. When inner critics take over, you might notice that:

  • You hold yourself back and stay in your comfort zones. You talk yourself out of doing something new, different or unusual, saying things like “that’s not me,” “I can’t,” or “I shouldn’t.”
  • You are overly critical of yourself. Others tell you that you are doing well and you still put yourself down.
  • You find it difficult to receive praise. You find ways to deflect acknowledgement—that it wasn’t just you, that you were lucky, that it wasn’t a big deal.
  • You don’t own your strengths and feel ashamed of your weaknesses.
  • You compare yourself to others and work too hard to fit in.
  • You create reasons why you don’t or won’t succeed.
  • You have perfectionist tendencies. You don’t share your ideas or complete tasks because there’s always more to fix.
  • You worry too much about what others think. You fear being seen as incompetent, feel embarrassed or exposed.

So, what can we do about these inner critics? Most importantly, suppressing or trying to ignore these voices is the least helpful strategy, according to many psychologists. What is more helpful is to take them off the driver’s seat and keep them in the passenger seat by:

  • Becoming aware of these inner critics. When we are not aware of these voices, they are in the driver’s seat and we don’t even realise that we are been driven around by them.
  • Remembering that these inner critics are originally not yours. You didn’t have them when you were a toddler. They were installed through conditioning at home, school, religious institutions and society such as to “be a good girl,” “don’t do anything risky,” “don’t show off.” These messages turn into inner critics such as “you can’t do xx,” “you’re bragging, too bossy,” “you’re not good enough.”
  • Listening to them from a distance, as if you’re listening to a teenager in the passenger seat. For some of the inner critics, the content is actually useful even if the delivery is poor. Others are exaggerated or unfounded.
  • Having a conversation with the inner critic passenger. Ask questions such as “what makes you say that?” “What evidence do you have?” Or request that they give you advice rather than be so critical.
  • Adopt the approach ‘feel the fear and do it anyway.’ Acknowledge that the inner critics are fearful, listen to what’s useful, then do what you need to do anyway.

Many of our inner critics have resided with us for a long time, so they won’t go away so easily. But what you can do is reduce their power by bumping them off the driver’s seat altogether.

Megumi Miki is a leadership and culture specialist and founder of Quietly Powerful. Megumi helps individuals, leaders and organisations to unlock their hidden potential. She is the Author of Quietly Powerful and Start Inspiring, Stop Driving.