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Inner Critic: Friend or Foe?

I had this article rolling around in my mind for weeks before putting my fingers to the keys and, I admit, I procrastinated for days before getting this down. What was stopping me from writing it and why couldn’t I find the words?

“You don’t know enough about this subject.” “You can’t help anyone because you too experience low self esteem.” I realised that ignoring these harsh statements from my inner critic wasn’t silencing them. The critic was only shouting louder, desperate to be heard. And the result of ignoring these messages was that I avoided writing the article all together, putting it off for another day while telling myself I’d get it down when I felt more confident.

Once I realised this simply wasn’t working and the deadline was looming I tried another tactic. I stopped avoiding my inner critic and instead listened to what was being said. I realised I had to accept that this was coming from inside my own head, therefore it was down to me to solve my issue. This acceptance gave me back some sense of control. Initially I was allowing the inner critic to control me and this caused the behaviour of procrastination. When I realised this was the wrong way around, something deeper inside me said no, we need to take back some control here. This new thought led me to thinking that perhaps I should approach this another way. With a little courage I decided to sit with these critical statements, listen to them and consider where they had come from. Were they true? Were they serving me? Or were they temporary thoughts that needed challenging? It can seem very daunting to pay attention to your inner critic as our reaction is to battle it and not let the negative statements seep in. However, waging war with our thoughts puts us in a heightened state of emotion which can reduce our ability to think clearly. Whereas, sitting quietly with them may lead to a better understanding of them and a more compassionate reaction. Consider your dealings with people. Does the communication go better when you listen and are calm or when you shout over each other? If we approach our inner critic the way we would approach another person perhaps we can come to a healthier understanding of where those negative thoughts are coming from.

Before we can challenge our thoughts we perhaps need to befriend them. Consider what kind of persona they have taken on. For example, does the voice sound authoritative or dismissive? Unkind or concerned? Are they telling us off, that we can’t do something because we’re not good enough, strong enough, experienced enough? What does your inner critic's tone sound like? Is it harsh and uncompassionate? If so, they might be speaking to us out of fear. The fear of failure perhaps, and if that is the case the inner critic might be trying to protect us. Here we may find we can show compassion to the critic and even thanks for the protective consideration. But it doesn’t stop there. Here we have managed to accept and show compassion to the negative thoughts. Giving them a voice so they do not need to shout over us. Good progress. But we’re not there yet. The next step is to challenge these statements. If the inner critic is posing questions perhaps offer up some questions of your own.

Statement 1: “You don’t know enough about this subject.”

Challenge: I have worked in mental health and wellbeing for over 30 years, is it likely I do not know enough about this subject to mean writing this article is not worthwhile?

Statement 2: “You can’t help anyone because you too experience low self esteem.”

Challenge: Do we not all find comfort and knowledge in peer to peer support from those that have been through something similar to ourselves? By sharing our own experiences of challenges and vulnerabilities we may be able to offer up solutions others may not have tried. We all require an individual self care strategy but by learning about how others manage tricky feelings, thoughts and experiences we can learn together and are in a better place to support each other. What I say may not work for everyone. But even if it helps one other individual is it not worth sharing?

Our inner critic can essentially become the enemy of self esteem. And, I discovered in the lead up to writing this month’s article, that the result of not befriending and then challenging our inner critic is to feel low self esteem and, at work, this can translate into the unhelpful, enemy of productivity; procrastination. When we do not feel confident about our ability to complete a piece of work we may put it off for when we feel stronger. This can lead to anxiety and a guilt reaction that we are not performing as we should at work. We are not getting on with it. In a work context, keeping our self esteem and confidence in the green and our inner critic in check is vital to productivity.

A technical way of looking at self esteem would be to look at the locus of evaluation. This relates to the value we place on ourselves regarding our appearance, our thoughts, our behaviours etc. Internal locus of evaluation is what we think about ourselves. External locus of evaluation is when we look outward for another opinion. What we would typically see in a psychologically healthy person would be that the individual’s internal locus of evaluation is enough that they can get themselves together, dress, leave the house and present themselves to the world without requiring external validation. If however a person needs external validation before they can leave the house regarding how they are presenting themselves, how they look, what they are wearing etc. this is an indication of low self esteem. What we are looking for is a balance. If we rely too much on internal locus of evaluation we may lose the ability to listen to others and take on other opinions. If we rely too much on external locus of evaluation we may never leave the house at all unless we have another person telling us we are ready and ok to do so.

Another term we could look at to potentially describe the problem I had getting this article out is imposter syndrome. We hear this term a lot in popular psychology so let’s take a look at what it really means according to Very Well Mind:

“Impostor syndrome (IS) refers to an internal experience of believing that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be. While this definition is usually narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it has links to perfectionism and the social context.”

So, while my inner critic was questioning my competence I wonder, was I actually thinking that others perceive me to be more competent than I am? In honesty, this was not really the issue therefore not the correct definition of my problem. I did not feel like a fraud about to be found out, which is a common feeling with imposter syndrome.

While imposter syndrome is a very real experience for many we must be a little cautious in our use of this term, as many psychological conditions and syndromes make their way into the headlines it can perhaps be a little overwhelming and frightening as we can all identify with many symptoms of many conditions. All I would say is don’t be too quick to pop a label on your behaviours. Instead perhaps try listening to your thoughts, accepting how you feel and showing compassion to your inner critic before you seek to challenge. Many of us struggle with confidence and self esteem. Do not be fooled. Often the most successful outwardly ‘confident’ people have the loudest inner critics and the extroverted among us are often experienced with imposter syndrome. No one is immune to the odd confidence crisis, it is how we manage those crises when they come that matters.

Good luck and have a well February.

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