Welcome to Am I Normal?, where writer and mental health advocate Jill Stark challenges our notions of ‘normal’ and celebrates our differences in this myth-busting series offering hope, comfort and practical advice to anyone who’s ever wondered "Is it just me?".
My inner critic knows just how to make me feel like the world’s most hopeless loser.
She is loud, relentless and impossibly cruel.
And when I’m doing it tough, she never shuts up.
A cross between Regina George from Mean Girls and Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she loves to point out all the ways in which I suck at life.
In those moments, it’s like being trapped in a circus hall of mirrors. My view of myself is so distorted I can’t see any positives. I only see my failings. My many, many, many failings.
If this sounds familiar, then know that you’re far from alone.
That persistent internal voice can create a paralysing feedback loop of shame, judgement and negativity for so many of us.
But psychologist Sabina Read explains that everyone has an internal critic and we’re hard-wired to be self-judgemental. “There is an historical and physiological bent on us searching for the negative and what’s not working because in our caveman days it was vital to survival.
“If we were just always thinking about how great our relationships are, how wonderful the world is, we might miss some of the threats that we needed to attend to – like a sabre-tooth tiger coming for us,” she said.
Being critical of ourselves is our primitive brain’s way of practising self-improvement to help us outrun the tiger and survive.
“But that doesn’t mean that the inner critic is always giving us valid messages. Often, if you’re living with symptoms of anxiety or depression that inner critic will seem louder,” Ms Read explained.
“If you have a low sense of self-belief and self-worth, these are all going to dial up that voice.
These self-judging inner narratives usually come from lessons we picked up from our adult caregivers, teachers or peers during early childhood – a time when we were emotionally fragile and absorbing everything around us.
Ms Read said that even the most well-intentioned, loving parents can unknowingly pass on messages that help feed that harsh internal voice.
“A parent might say, ‘You can be anything, you’re amazing’, to bolster their child’s sense of self. But a child can hear that as, ‘If I try to do something and I don’t succeed, then am I a failure? Am I not good enough?’ This is where even positive messaging can land poorly and the inner critic voice starts to grow,” she said.
And if the parent routinely judges themselves harshly, these messages can also be absorbed by their children.
“Parents are flawed and human so if Mum says, ‘I’m just hopeless because I can’t resist chocolate cake,’ the child learns without even being told that you’re weak if you can’t manage food in a healthy way. Then that inner critic comes back to you every time you feel that you’ve over eaten, and that voice can spiral and develop over the years even when the original message may not have been intended for you.”
So how do you take the sting out of your inner critic?
The first step is to listen to what they’re telling you – you have to name it to tame it.
Once you’ve acknowledged the self-critical thinking, remember, that thoughts are not facts.
“When the critic is on high-repeat we just take it as gospel that whatever’s being said must be the truth and we don’t stop to challenge it. Then there’s a reinforcing loopback because physically or emotionally our body responds, and we feel sick in the stomach and it makes us think that the fact is even more watertight,” Ms Read explained.
One way of challenging the stories that your internal voice is telling you is to take your thoughts to court.
“If you wandered into a courtroom and said, ‘Well, I’m just hopeless, there’s no way I’ll be able to thrive in this relationship or cope in this job’, it’s unlikely a judge and jury would accept such a sweeping statement. The legal team would say, ‘Where’s the evidence for that?’ And if there was no evidence your case would be thrown out of court.”
Learning to speak to yourself with kindness, the way you would speak to a friend or loved one, is also key to turning down the volume on that harsh inner critic.
“If you saw someone who was bleeding and crying and fragile, you would just lean in naturally as an act of humanity and that’s what we need to do with ourselves. A sense of self-compassion is so important.
“It’s not useful to tell someone with anxiety to ‘just relax’ or someone with depression to just ‘put a smile on their dial’. It’s the same with the inner critic – you can’t just say, ‘oh, shush’. You need to try and retune that message in the way that you might talk to someone else who was struggling.”
So, the next time that voice in your head is beating you up, try pausing to offer yourself some kindness. It might not be easy at first but with practice, you can dial down the noise on your inner critic and learn to be your own best friend.
Tips for taming your inner critic:
- Name it to tame it – listen to what that internal voice is telling you.
- Remember thoughts are not facts – take your thoughts to court to see if there is evidence to back up your inner critic’s judgements.
- Be kind to yourself – treat yourself the way you would a vulnerable child or a loved one. Offer compassion, not blame and shame.
You can also join in the conversation on the Beyond Blue forums thread Talking to your inner critic and share your own tips and strategies for changing your relationship with your inner critic.