August 29, 2014
When you dare to try something new, speak up for yourself, or admit to a mistake, do you ever hear a voice in the back of your head telling you that you can’t do it? That you’ll only embarrass yourself? That it’s not even worth trying because you always fail?
If you have, you’re not alone. That voice is known as your “inner critic,” and unfortunately many of us have one. The messages from one’s inner critic often lay the groundwork for feelings of shame, inadequacy, anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem.
The good news is, even if you have an inner critic, it doesn’t have to run your life. Overcoming the critical voice in your head may seem to be easier said than done, but there are a few steps you can take to start shifting your perspective for the positive.
Our inner critics are often quick to discount our strengths and successes. Many people have a tendency to only focus on the negative event, while undervaluing themselves. For example, let’s say you interviewed for a promotion at work but another employee was chosen instead. Your first reaction might be to think, “Of course they would hire someone else; you’re not good enough to get that job. Who do you even think you are, thinking you were qualified for that?”
This is a self-defeating way to think. Remember that everyone has been turned away from something they really wanted. Acknowledge that sometimes, the simple act of trying shows strength. One example of a more constructive way to reflect on this event would be to say to yourself, “Well, the company found another person more qualified for the job right now. If I keep working hard, I might be able to get a promotion one day too. Applying at all is brave and shows that I am ambitious.”
Relentless perfectionism is often found in people struggling with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and/or low self-esteem. Similar to the thought process described above, perfectionistic people can hear a thousand compliments but will still focus on the one critical comment they receive. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to do your best, but the problem is that perfectionism often gets in the way of a person truly living. Their perceived flaws may prevent them from putting themselves out there, whether it’s submitting their art to a gallery or attending a friend’s party.
Let go of the idea of “perfection” and learn to value your own talents and abilities. No one is the absolute best at everything, but everyone can be good at something. It’s okay to make mistakes or be a beginner.
Our negative thoughts tend to be personal attacks, not constructive criticisms. When you catch yourself engaging in negative thinking, consider whether you are focusing on what you did or who you are. If you mess up at work, do you think, “I am so stupid and useless, I never get anything right” or “I made a mistake and might need to be more careful next time”? The first thought doesn’t leave much room for growth; it essentially says you are inherently unworthy. The second thought still recognizes the mistake, but doesn’t cut you down in the process.
Know that you are not defined by your failures. Dr. Brene Brown, a shame researcher, points out that this way of thinking is an indication of shame. She explains that there is a strong difference between saying, “I’m sorry, I made a mistake” (demonstrating guilt) and “I’m sorry, I am a mistake” (demonstrating shame). One focuses on behavior, the other focuses only on you. If you focus on how to change your actions for the better (rather than just belittling yourself), you’re more likely to see positive changes in your life.
Your inner critic’s voice might be pretty loud sometimes, but that doesn’t change the fact that you have a voice too. As we’ve discussed here, the critical voice in our heads often misses the mark. When you hear your inner critic telling you to just give up, take a moment to pause and reflect. Ask yourself, is this thought rational? Is it realistic? And lastly, is it helpful or hurtful to your overall wellness?
Often, our negative thoughts are based in assumptions, perfectionistic attitudes, or irrational thinking. When these self-defeating thoughts lead to engaging in harmful behaviors (such as alcohol/substance abuse or self-injury), that can be a sure sign that it’s time to re-evaluate your self-talk. Many critical thoughts can be shifted into more constructive concepts. Learning new ways of thinking can be challenging, so don’t be afraid to seek additional support. Counseling can be a great way to get started on this process and ultimately develop a better relationship with yourself.