This past weekend, my inner critic — who had been quiet for a while — suddenly launched a full blown attack on me out of the blue, and left me reeling. This is how it happened.
On Saturday evening, I was feeling adventurous. I decided to push my comfort zone and try something new. I don’t have a strong track record of excellent performance the first time I try something (I know, who does?). So I took my shot, missed, and felt … silly. That feeling “silly” quickly turned to feeling “inadequate” and before I knew it, I had spiralled deep into self loathing and telling myself I couldn’t do anything right and that I’d never be good enough.
This was my inner critic speaking, of course. That noble part of me that tries to keep me safe by reminding me that I am a creature with limits. That keeps track of all the evidence of times when things didn’t work out for me, so that I can be realistic and rational about future decisions and things I try out.
Of course, having an active inner critic is only helpful when there’s an active inner advocate to balance out its effects, to remind me not only of my limits, but also of my potential. But the inner advocate, as many of us know, can be a bit slower to action than the inner critic. This is because survival (the inner critic’s function) usually trumps growth (the inner advocate’s function).
I have a go-to script when I’m having a conversation with my inner critic. The first question I ask when it tells me I’ll never be good at anything, is this:
Is this provably true?
The inner critic will quickly bring to mind evidence of all my past failures, all the reasons why I should expect bad things to happen. It can make it look seriously appealing to crawl under a rock and live there forever. But to examine whether that evidence is enough to prove the statement, it’s important to create space between my inner critic and my full inner voice.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the inner critic IS me. But it is only a part of me. It is the part that exercises extreme caution—when left unchecked, to the point of toxicity.
I must summon the inner advocate to balance out the voice of the inner critic. The inner advocate is capable of remembering the good in me, and bringing to mind evidence of my successes, my strengths, the resources available to me, things I can be proud of, and things that set me apart. The inner advocate carves a window into the rock I’m hiding under, and shows me the wonders of the world outside.
The inner critic might have such a strong hold on me that even if I can see that its statements are NOT provably true, and I can see the world outside with my rational mind, I might still stay under the rock a little while longer. Just to hold on to that illusion of safety in self diminution. But if the inner critic’s statements are NOT provably true, it’s important to remind myself that, and eventually crawl back out from under the rock.
Now if, despite knowing that the voice of the inner critic is not true or the complete picture, the feelings of inadequacy and self hate remain, I proceed to this second question:
Is this helpful?
Sometimes it IS a bad idea to proceed down the path I am considering, and even if the inner critic’s reasoning is flawed and evidence is false, it might still be helpful to pay attention to the feelings that are holding me back. But this is rarely the case — most often it’s the opposite. Most often I actually WANT to go down this new path, and going down this path would be great for my growth, but the inner critic is simply trying to keep me “safe” — by keeping me from the challenge of entering unfamiliar territory.
So I ask myself: is this helpful? Trying new things is already challenging enough, I’m already up against enough external obstacles, does my own inner voice need to be betting against me?
So if the voice of my inner critic is neither true, nor helpful, what keeps me from requesting my inner advocate to reframe the evidence? Reframe it in a way that will nurture the opposite feelings in me, and create an emotional state that increases rather than threatens my likelihood of success?
For example, if my inner critic reminds me of ten past failures and says “don’t try something new for an eleventh time — you will fail.” I examine the evidence from within me and without. I see that I have failed at things many times before and by persevering, have eventually succeeded. Not only has this been true for me, but for everyone who has succeeded at anything.
Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it is part of the journey to success. It is not helpful to think “don’t try something new — you’ll fail”. It is more helpful to think “if you try something new — you’ll probably fail until you figure out how to succeed, or until you decide it’s not for you. And that’s okay. Failure isn’t a problem.”
You might think this is where we make the inner critic an ally, by partially validating its original statements, and therefore appeasing it. If only it were that simple. We will eventually get there! But first,
The Inner Critic Fights Back
A few paragraphs ago, I alluded to the inner critic’s potential to get toxic. There’s one thing the inner critic really doesn’t like — it doesn’t like being shut down or dismissed. It knows it has an important role in protecting me, and it has great faith in itself. Which is ironic, considering what it’s trying to do to my faith in myself.
Here’s what happens when I challenge my inner critic. It looks at me in disbelief while I speak to it through the voice of my inner advocate. It knows that the inner advocate is not wrong. It knows that I’m probably going to listen to the inner advocate. And then it absolutely loses its shit.
I’m talking full blown toxic tantrum — it digs deep into my memories, all of which it has access to. Everything is fair game — my trauma, my mental illness, my relationships, any and every vulnerability it can lay its hands on. “Do NOT ignore me!” it yells, stabbing me with reminders of all the pain I’ve ever experienced, “I SEE YOUR PAIN AND I LOVE YOU AND I ONLY WANT TO PROTECT YOU!” Stab. Stab. Stab.
I recently took my dog to a vet to have a chat about behavioural issues. She told me “there’s no point training a dog when it’s in the red zone. You have to bring it back at least into the orange zone if not all the way back into the green zone before you can train it to behave differently.” This is true for dogs, humans, and inner critics. When someone loses touch with reason, and is in a state of pure aggression, all you can do is ride the wave and wait for it to pass, which it will — the red zone exhausts itself after a while. The worst thing you can do when faced with someone in the red zone is to be aggressive in return. The best thing you can do is be present with their aggression, be a soothing presence, and be ready to do some healing work with them when they’ve calmed down again.
So as my inner critic screamed and stabbed, I lay in bed with ice cream and potato chips and my cuddly dog, with text messages to and from kind friends, with postponed activities, with all kinds of self care to help me ride the wave. And I watched. I observed all the attacks that my inner critic brought out to me. Painful memories, painful events, painful betrayals, painful failures. Some of them didn’t affect me at all, like tapping on an old scar from a childhood injury. Healed injuries don’t hurt. What hurts is an open wound.
Do you know the feeling of rubbing hand sanitizer into your hands, only to discover a little cut that you didn’t even know was there? OUCH.
That’s where my inner critic became my ally. In all its toxic raging against me, it actually guided me to the exact places in my life where I still need to heal. Wounds that I am either in the process of tending, or haven’t yet begun to address. Which brings me to the third question, the question that finally reconciles me with my inner critic:
Is it relevant?
When the inner critic is having a toxic whinge, what its saying will almost never be immediately relevant. For example my inner critic was bringing up nonsense from my childhood which has ZERO to do with the new thing I tried out and didn’t do perfectly on my first attempt (all this from that little incident, sheesh!).
But “is it relevant” is a question in two parts. Is it immediately relevant, and is it relevant to my healing journey on the whole? If what its saying is relevant at all, even if not relevant right now, the inner critic has actually served a purpose, can breathe a sigh of relief in having “helped”, and can agree to retreat for now with dignity, leaving me and my inner advocate to do the work of healing and growth.
My inner critic brought up certain open wounds that I realized weren’t immediately relevant, but definitely needed to be dealt with. I made a note of those things and am working on them now to figure out what I need to heal. (Often it will be things like more rest, or a change of direction, or new boundaries that will help address things like these). But taking those things seriously is what made my inner critic quiet down, in the end.
Because sometimes we know there’s a problem that needs fixing, we just have to wade through a lot of non-issues to uncover what it is.
The inner critic is unpleasant, and it can be a toxic little shit, but it’s not always an enemy. We never have to take its advice or give it the reins of our life the way it thinks it wants, but if we only ever dismiss it and shut it down, we might miss out on acknowledging the one thing it does do well — which is guide us to where our open wounds are, so that we can work on healing them.