Have you ever found yourself avoiding practice that you sorely need? Or been in the middle of practice (or worse, a performance), and heard a voice inside your head that said something like:
- I’ll never get this right.
- I have to practice, practice, practice until I get this right!
- No one wants to listen to me. I’m going to make a fool of myself.
- I’m a fraud. People are going to find out I’m not as good as they think I am.
These are just a few examples of the things our Inner Critics might say to us. Inner Critics are the parts of us who keep us stuck in a loop of self-criticism, procrastination, or defeatism even when we are actually quite talented, accomplished and successful.
Although our types of Inner Critics and the words they use are highly individualized, almost everyone has one or more Inner Critic who often shows up at the most inopportune time. The voices of our Inner Critics can cause us a lot of pain, and sometimes that pain also ripples out to impact the people around us. It’s human nature to avoid pain, and the Inner Critic is no different.
The most common approaches of dealing with Inner Critics are one of the following:
- Listen to it, believe it, and let it stop us from performing or taking risks.
- Stifle it, distract ourselves or find some way to push away the nagging voice.
- Try to talk ourselves out of it with reason and rationale
There are also many books and tutorials that offer ways to conquer or defeat the Inner Critic, setting the stage for us to battle and arise victorious against our own minds. A long time ago, when I told a friend of mine that I had been fighting with myself about something, her response was, “Who’s winning?” Little did I know back then that she wasn’t just being funny, she was actually really onto something.
The go-to tactics we employ may work very well in the short term. By not taking risks, we temporarily alleviate anxiety, but that may keep us from doing something meaningful or important to us, like going to an audition for a dream gig.
Distraction or avoidance can also be a great transient tool for silencing the Inner Critic. Out of sight, out of mind works for many of us for a while, until little by little the voice starts to creep back into our thoughts, first as a subtle whispering and gradually increasing until once again, we can no longer ignore it.
Rationalizing with ourselves seems like the most mature and reasonable approach. After all, we are adults who can weigh evidence and make sound and balanced decisions. But the emotions underneath the Inner Critic are often immature and unreasonable, and despite the most logical argument, the Inner Critics find loopholes that appeal not to our objective brains, but instead to our subjective emotions.
So what does work?
I’m here to share a way that’s much more gentle and compassionate, that actually heals the wounds behind the Inner Critics instead of masking over them or barricading them away. The idea is incredibly simple: sit with these voices and hear them out. Make friends and learn to love our Inner Critics.
This may feel counterintuitive, but let me explain…
I coach using mindfulness techniques combined with principles from Dr. Richard Schwartz’s Internal Family Systems therapy model. It’s based on the idea that we all have many parts to us, and all parts of us, even the ones who seem critical, condescending or belittling, have a positive intention.
These parts, including the Inner Critics, are the voices of our inner children whose intentions are often to keep us safe. Because their life experience is limited, their tactics can be counterproductive, causing more harm than good.
When we take the time to listen to the fears of our Inner Critics, we essentially reparent ourselves, offering the wisdom we have accumulated throughout our lives to the smallest, most vulnerable parts of us. When these parts feel heard and safe, they relax, and we can then perform with a sense of ease and flow instead of being stuck in a never-ending fight with ourselves.
And let’s face it, when we fight ourselves, there is never a winner.
The Internal Family Systems method is radically simple, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. Sometimes it’s helpful to have someone who is practiced and familiar with the methodology help us through the times when we feel deeply entwined with the voices of our Inner Critics.
I advise starting small and establishing a regular practice, like the one described below. When we practice during the times when life is smooth, we lay a foundation that makes it easier to use these tools when our critics get loud.
Use this simple practice to befriend your Inner Critic:
- Take a few moments to settle into the present moment in whatever way feels right for you. You can focus on your breath, feel into your body, or just take note of your surroundings.
- Bring to mind the Inner Critic who is interfering with your ability to perform.
- See if you can feel where it shows up in your body.
- Ask this part of you some questions to get it to know it better:
- How old are you or how old do you think I am?
- Is there anything you’d like to show me?
- How are you trying to help me?
- What are you afraid would happen if you didn’t work so hard?
- Once you have taken the time to listen to your critic’s concerns, validate them. Let them know you understand why they feel the way they do.
- Then update the critic about how you have grown, learned and met life’s challenges.
- Ask your critic what he or she needs from you right now or in the future.
- Once you have established a rapport with your Inner Critic, you can draw upon past experiences and role models to encourage the critic when he or she is feeling activated.
- To listen to Koelle guide you through this technique, click here.
When we first start this practice, it can feel awkward. But over time, these techniques can help us learn so much about ourselves. We begin to recognize the physical sensations and individual voices of the Inner Critics, which allows us to respond to them more quickly and efficiently. We honor our needs by asking ourselves what those needs are.
As we become more proficient in this practice, we can also apply it to many other areas of our lives. Finding compassion and deeper understanding for our own struggles, we likewise find compassion and deeper understanding for others.
Performance improves. Anxiety decreases. Self-confidence skyrockets. Relationships flourish.
Win. Win. Win. Win. No fighting necessary.
Those who are curious about which of their Inner Critics are most prominent can take a free quiz here: Inner Critic Quiz (selftherapyjourney.com)
Koelle Williams is a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach, Mindfulness Instructor and Meditation Facilitator. She’s trained in Internal Family Systems coaching. She offers virtual coaching for groups and individuals for a myriad of personal growth goals including but not limited to Inner Critic work. Contact Koelle at email@example.com to book private or group sessions.