Dealing with self-criticism – Four strategies for handling your inner critic

January 24, 2017

How strong is your inner critic? Most of us have a critical voice in our heads at some point but for some people it’s relentless and often vicious. People who would never dream of calling someone else a completely useless idiot are often all too willing to apply the label to themselves.

I’m not suggesting that self-criticism has no function: a person who has no capacity for self-reflection can’t learn from their mistakes as they don’t think they’ve made any. Self-criticism has its place if it’s tempered with self-compassion. But if you’re a bit too good at the criticism bit but don’t manage to be kind to yourself, here are four strategies for handling your inner critic:

1. Stick to the specifics

A particularly nasty tendency of the inner critic is to generalise from one bad incident to your entire character. Let’s suppose a presentation goes badly. Instead of focusing on what went wrong, the inner critic gives it to you with both barrels until you conclude that you are stupid, sniveling idiot with no interpersonal skills who doesn’t deserve to ever be seen in polite company again.

The first thing to check is whether it really was as bad as you think. Inner critics can have very exacting standards. I still wince slightly at the memory of noticing too late that I’d written “the juries out” instead of “the jury’s out” in a widely-circulated document. In 1996. Maybe, actually, no one noticed that you skipped a slide. Or perhaps they were tolerant and understanding of your nervous hesitation. If so, give yourself a break, learn from it, move on.

But suppose it really was a disaster. Maybe you were rambling and incoherent and half the audience walked out. Then you got flustered, dried up and ran out of the room crying.puzzled-little-boy In that case, it probably was as bad you think. But that makes you a person who gave a bad presentation, not a completely useless idiot. It’s painful, but the evidence suggests that you will feel better if you focus on the specifics – what did you say, what was your tone of voice, what happened next and so on. Salvage any good bits (maybe the material was great, maybe you started well) and work out how you could have handled the situation differently when it started to go downhill.

I recognise, however, that this might not always be enough. Your self-criticism may not even be linked to a particular incident, you just have this feeling that you’re worthless, stupid, unpopular or whatever. This is where the next three strategies come in.

2. Distance yourself from it

Suppose you keep thinking to yourself “I’m so stupid”. All that is is a thought. It exists only as a thought. So progressively distance yourself from it by following a sequence such as:

  • I’m so stupid
  • I think I’m so stupid
  • I’m having the thought that I’m so stupid
  • I notice I’m having the thought that I’m so stupid

Eventually the thought loses some of its power. There is a ‘you’ observing this thought that is somehow separate from the ‘you’ that is doing the criticising or the ‘you’ that is being criticised.

3. Play with it 

If you accept that your self-criticism is a thought that has too much of a grip on you, then try playing around with it until you take it less seriously. Say it in different voices – Minnie Mouse vs Brian Blessed, for example. Morgan Falkner sang Slow it right down until you can barely make out the words. Repeat the word or phrase quickly, over and over again, until it stops meaning anything and just becomes a sound. Put it to music, preferably something upbeat. The phrase “I’m so stupid”, incidentally, fits absolutely perfectly to the tune of “I feel pretty” from West Side Story, a song so optimistic you’ll almost certainly feel better, no matter what words you sing. The aim here is to take some of the sting out of it by laughing in spite of yourself, not at yourself.

4. Question it

If you read my blog a few months ago about the surprising dangers of positive thinking, you’ll know not to waste your time trying to counteract your inner critic with positive affirmations, such as “I believe in my own intelligence” or “I am a very smart person”. They’re actually likely to make you feel worse.  Part of the reason is that they address the issue in a binary way – you’re either stupid or not stupid, unlovable or lovable, unpopular or popular and so on. This kind of sweeping generalisation isn’t helpful.

Research suggests that turning statements into questions is much more powerful and effective way of working with self-criticism. So instead of “I’m stupid”, turn it into “Am I stupid?”. Then broaden the questions out – “How am I stupid?”, “When am I not stupid?”, “What do I mean by stupid?”, “How could I feel less stupid?” and so on. Mull over the answers and see where your curiosity and creativity take you. It’s bound to be more productive than an inner tussle of “I’m stupid/no I’m not”.

If you’d like some support handling self-criticism or other issues that are holding you back at work, do get in touch:

Photo credits

Angry woman: kalavinka

Worried little boy: Lotus Carroll

Woman singing:  Penn State

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  1. RogerEllman February 5, 2017 at 8:53 pm - Reply

    A well thought out and spot-on summary article, that defines self-criticism and deals its most negative results a terminal blow. Effective and helpful.

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