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If you do not adapt, if you do not learn, you will wither, you will die.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Taming Your Internal Critic

Something you do not want to take with you into this brand new year is an overly active “internal critic” who is constantly judging, criticizing, and condemning you.

“Good isn’t good enough, look at others, they’re so much better.”

“Don’t you dare mess this up, you’ll be a failure.”

“How come you still haven’t mastered this yet. That’s pretty darn dumb!”

I’m sure you at least recognize one of these internal messages, and they are totally fine as long as it’s a first response rather than a strong and persistent belief that greatly affects how you think, feel, and respond.

Just to be clear, absolutely everyone has an inner critic, a disapproving inner voice, and in fact, this is originally a good thing. Part of the inner critic is the rational analysis of self, a mechanism that can be helpful to understand and anticipate criticism as long as it doesn’t harm your self-concept in the long term. In addition, your critical inner voice originally had good intentions: It wants to help you succeed in life and it strives for a great job and wonderful relationships. It wants for people to love you and it likes to see you happy and successful.

So where does this inner critic come from and how does it develop into a liability rather than an asset? Your internal critic was formed when you were a young child. It is based on messages you received from parents, caretakers, and other significant people in your life. These messages were internalized into your own ‘little parent’, into your ever present critical voice. Its goal was to protect you by teaching you to adjust to the world and to the people around you in order for you to meet people’s expectations. For the internal critic to be functioning well it had to keep your desires and demands under control. This was done through stern and strict criticizing and correcting of your behavior so that negative comments and disapproval from the outside world could be prevented. This is, to a certain extent, a helpful mechanism, however, for many people their critical inner voice grew wild and out of control, acting too eagerly and fanatically, thereby defeating its own purpose and threatening you and bringing you down more than helping you and lifting you up.

To make matters even worse, an overactive internal critic is hard to recognize as an originally protective mechanism. Its messages wrongly turn into set facts that are not debatable. The inner critic conveys messages that turn what was supposed to be a helpful guideline, into harsh and judgmental commands. Your inner critic does not know (anymore) how to moderate and control itself and is like a wild, dangerous animal on the loose. Many experts believe that the self-criticism of your inner critic is almost always destructive, rarely constructive. They state that a habit of internal criticism will penetrate to your very essence, and you will think and feel like a failure in important life areas. Sometimes the critical self judgments will be so pervasive that you can feel like a total failure. Of course we are talking of a very active and wild inner critic which you might or might not recognize. The important thing is that you do not need to continue these anxious, depressed, hopeless ways of thinking. Cognitive behavioral techniques can provide the necessary correction and relief, and for some just common sense.

Before we move on to helpful techniques to counteract the harsh critic and the negative self judgments that damage your self-esteem and impact your functioning, I want to stress again that the above is not the complete story of the inner critic. That would not be a very hopeful picture, of course, but more importantly, it would not be a realistic one either. I am sure it is obvious that there are vast differences between people in the effectiveness of their inner critic. For some people it still functions as a helpful companion to get closer to whatever goals they have set out to pursue. Not everyone’s inner critic is out of control or devastating.  But for those whose inner critic took over, there are successful ways to detect and correct your inner critic before it runs wild or turns for the worse, so that it can be working in your best interest again. There are ways to regain control over your beliefs about yourself and the world around you.

In order to detect a dysfunctional inner critic you have to borrow from cognitive psychology and its tools like the RET, the Rational Emotive Training, also known as the Rational Effectiveness Training. According to cognitive psychology and the RET our emotions are caused not by situations or people but by the way we perceive them, by the beliefs we hold of them. Some beliefs and some lines of thinking are healthier and more rational than others.

Recognizing and minimizing mistakes in perception and thinking

In order to use cognitive techniques to keep your inner critic under control, you first have to be aware of and understand which particular perception and thinking mistakes you make. The most common ones are:

1.   Black-and-white thinking, e.g. dividing your characteristics and qualities into absolute all or nothing categories.

2.   Identifying yourself with your characteristics and your mistakes, thinking that this is who you are. 

3.   Exaggerating, such as looking at a one-time negative experience as a recurring situation rather than realizing it is an incident - nothing more, nothing less.

4.   Mental filtering: the tendency to convert neutral or positive experiences into negative ones and constantly preoccupying yourself with these ‘negative’ experiences.

5.   Mind reading: this refers to the tendency to instantly and persistently think you know what others are thinking, including what they think about you, like that people look down on you and think negatively of you, without any verification whether this assumption is correct.

6.   The crystal ball: predicting the future with an ever bad ending without any sensible data supporting this prediction.

7.   Responding emotionally: using your emotions as the basis for your thoughts and actions rather than the other way around. One example is: “I feel inferior so I must be inferior.”  

8.   Should/must be – should/must have thinking: criticizing yourself with should-haves and overly strict rules and impossible demands.

9.   Self-blame or accountability gone wild: holding just you responsible for things that have happened (or not happened) in situations where you are only partly or totally not responsible. Be assured, this is not a plea against personal accountability which I regard as a crucial element of a healthy person and a healthy society.

In many cases, knowing these ‘faulty beliefs and thoughts’ and being aware of when they pop up, can help you tame your internal critic. Extra measures to take include:
1.   Repeating short, concrete sentences  like: “Stop, this is bad for my self-
confidence and it’s not getting me anywhere.”

2.   Confirming your self-esteem by realizing that your worth as a person doesn’t change with a mistake, and it is not just comprised of your failures. Your self-esteem starts with accepting who you are, with your strengths and you’re your shadows. (This is again, not a license to not hold yourself accountable. It is just a license not to condemn and criticize yourself overly.)

3.   Make the internal critic redundant by a healthier handling of:
a.    The absolute need to do everything right, the first time.
b.    An over-concern with praise and a total melt-down in the absence of praise.
c.    The need to control all negative feelings like the feelings associated with failing. The good news and the bad news is one and the same: Everyone who lives and takes risks, will fail at some point in time. Fail forward and upward by learning from it and by realizing that failing is part of living.
d.   Fear of rejection, anger, and frustration. Three feelings commonly known as ‘negative’ feelings but they are part of life. Know them, see them developing, curb them where you can and accept that they are part of life just as joy, pride, and happiness are.

4.   Be kind to yourself. People with a strong internal critic usually haven’t properly learned to be kind and to take care of themselves. What do you see when you look in the mirror? Are you highly critical of yourself? Do you just see that slight dent in your nose and that pimple on your cheek that seems to be growing more and more important as you look into that mirror longer? These perceptions and thoughts leave you feeling inadequate and unattractive. Or do you notice that your hair has a beautiful shine to it and that your eye lashes are long and beautiful, despite the dent and the pimple that are also there?  The picture in the mirror, of course, remains the same, but what you focus on, whether it’s when looking in the mirror or when evaluating your day or your skills and accomplishments, your positive and caring thoughts about yourself make a difference in terms of your mood and your self-esteem, and therefore in your next steps and the results you create.

5.   Last, the way you handle guilt and mistakes is often related to the internal critic. Guilt is only a helpful emotion up to the point where it leads to insights and correction and where ever it leads to more responsible future behavior. For many people, however, guilt simply leads them into feeling bad, worried and depressed, possibly avoiding the issue or self-medicating with alcohol or drugs. Remember, guilt can go on forever, while a mistake, so common for humans, can often be corrected.

To sum it all up: Don’t allow your inner critic to become a source of self-criticism, shame, worries, depression, and a lack of self-esteem. Know that your inner critic is always present and will never be satisfied, so better learn to tame and control it rather than trying to satisfy it. Don’t let your inner critic convince you that others are necessarily better, smarter, more beautiful. Tame your inner critic into a voice that, in a mild and friendly manner, reminds you that something might not be such a good idea rather than yelling “What a stupid idea, once again” at you.

1 comment:

  1. Nice job, Carolien!

    The inner-critic is especially harsh on seemingly life action we have no control over. Our inner-self says we do from past experiences, but continuing reality tells us different. My resilience has been acutely test as I am having more severe physical challenges as I age. The inner-critic does not always understand this...that's where resilience comes back into play,,,