How to Get to Know — And Start to Quiet — Your Inner Critic

A man with curly black hair and a button down denim shirt sits outside among leafy green trees and writes in a journal.

Even if you don’t think about your inner critic much, chances are you’ve talked with it today. Or maybe it talked at you.

Worst case scenario? Your inner critic chatters away so much every day that what it’s saying barely registers anymore. You may not even notice that it’s there, but you may notice that it leaves you feeling low. And you’ve gotten used to feeling like that.

But what if you could better understand and manage your inner critic? What if you could befriend it? Show it some compassion? It’s possible, but first you have to learn what your inner critic is and how to spot it. Let’s start there.

What is an inner critic?

Your inner critic is essentially negative self-talk. It’s that voice inside your head that judges and criticizes you. It whispers reminders of all the mistakes you’ve made and things you could have done better. It holds you up to unrealistic expectations and undermines your accomplishments.

It’s thoughts like, “There’s no point in working out today. I’ll never look like the people I see on TV. I should go home.”

Or: “I only got the job because they couldn’t find someone better.”

Harsh, huh? That’s by design. “The goal of the inner critic is to keep us stuck,” says AbleTo Clinical Content Producer Sarah Dolling, LPC. “Its criticisms can lead to guilt, shame, and low self-esteem.”

To protect ourselves from these feelings, we may begin avoiding our triggers. This may look like giving up during a hard task, not applying for a new job, or isolating ourselves. But behaviors like that are counterproductive. “In the end, avoiding our triggers can make us feel worse,” says Dolling.

So why do we pay attention to our inner critic at all? We often listen to our inner critic because it so closely resembles our conscience — even using what we perceive as logic to back up its claims. But there’s a difference between our inner critic and our conscience.

“Our conscience points out when something goes against our moral values,” says Dolling. “Our inner critic criticizes or demeans us whether or not the criticism is justified.”

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How to spot — and deal with — your inner critic

Everyone has an inner critic; there’s no avoiding that. These types of thoughts will pop into our heads from time to time, whether we like it or not. But we can begin to notice them and challenge what they’re telling us. Here’s how:

Identify how you’re feeling
Experiencing a difficult emotion is often the easiest way to catch your inner critic in the act. When you start to feel bad, that’s a clue that you may have been entertaining unhelpful thoughts. Try to name the feeling. Is it shame? Anxiety? Numbness? Distraction? Something else?

Learning how to name what you’re feeling can make it easier to identify (and deal with) in the future. It also helps put some healthy distance between you and that emotion, which can help loosen its grip.

Take stock of your situation
Were you doing something that triggered these feelings? Starting to understand what types of situations trigger your inner critic can help you proactively manage them in the future.

Notice your thoughts
When you encountered this situation, what thoughts ran through your head? Be as specific as possible. If there were a flurry, it may help to write them down.

Check your thoughts
Just because you had a thought doesn’t mean it was true. Or helpful. “Ask yourself if your thoughts are unrealistic or flawed in some way,” suggests Dolling. Maybe they’re exaggerated. Or perhaps you’re predicting an unknown future. Be honest with yourself. What would you tell a friend if they shared these thoughts with you?

“Because the inner critic is often protecting us from feeling vulnerable, it can also be helpful to consider what it would mean if our fears actually came true,” says Dolling. “Just kind of play out the tape.”

For instance, let’s say you thought, “I’m not going to get this project done on time. I’m a terrible employee.” What would happen if your project were late? Would you really get fired? Really? And then what? Would you never be able to find another job? Would you lose your home? Are these things actually likely?

By doing this exercise, you can start to find flaws within your thoughts.

Reframe your thoughts
Once you’ve identified the thoughts making you feel bad, it’s time to change them. Think about what would be a more helpful framing of the situation at hand.

For example, let’s say you thought, “I was so mean to Sarah today. I’m a bad friend for commenting on the dirty dishes she left in the sink. You could rephrase this to, “I shouldn’t have said anything about Sarah’s dirty dishes. She has a lot going on. I’m going to call her and apologize.”

This rephrasing strips away the shame. It also gives you a plan of action toward fixing your mistake.

Talk to your inner critic
No one has complete control over every single thought that goes through their mind. Talking to your inner critic like they’re another person can help offload blame and responsibility.

Try saying something like, “Hi, inner critic. I appreciate you trying to help me with this issue. But the way you word things is hurtful and unhelpful. I hear you. Now please take a step back. I’ve got it from here.”

Or, you can try to connect your thoughts to your core values, going so far as to thank your inner critic for bringing them to your attention. Here’s what that might sound like: “Thank you, inner critic, for reminding me how much I care about my friend Sarah. I’ll call her to apologize for what I said and let her know I’m here for her.”

Be gentle with yourself

Everyone has an inner critic. You’re not alone in letting it get the best of you sometimes. When it starts to surface, tap into the tips above. And remember: If you continue to struggle, help is available. Consider reaching out to a trusted loved one or mental health professional. Your self-esteem is worth it. You’re worth it.

Need help putting these tips into practice?

You may be eligible for virtual therapy, coaching, or on-demand self care from AbleTo. Each program is designed by clinicians and grounded in science. Sign up today and get the support you deserve.

By Kaitlyn Pfiester

As a teen, Kaitlyn Pfiester began her writing journey in the fiction world, immersing herself in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Once adulthood hit, the world of mental health opened her eyes to a hurting world. Over time (and months of therapy), her passion shifted from baking Lembas bread and speaking elvish to learning more about trauma and how it affects everyday life. Now she is committed to bringing light to these struggles through her writing. You can see more of her work on her website.

Clinically reviewed by Hayley Quinn, PsyD, Senior Manager of Clinical Product Experience at AbleTo.

Photo by Vergani Fotografia/iStock. Individuals in photographs do not represent AbleTo participants.

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