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Taking Command of You: Understand the motivations of your inner critic & rein it in

Somebody is bossing you around, reminding you of the ‘rules’ you ‘should’ and ‘must’ live by, pushing you, holding you back, and is critical and judgmental of your efforts – meet, your inner critic. This is the critical inner voice that pipes up and tries to guide you and is often mistaken for your inner voice. Like your ‘pleaser self’, your inner critic is activated by certain cues and triggers. As you gain deeper awareness and knowledge of your habits of thinking, feeling, and behaviour, understanding the role that your inner critic plays in your life, particularly with regards to your feelings, is vital because you can get a greater sense of where and how you're judging you as well as how to take command of you and quieten your inner critic so that you have the space (and self-esteem) left to be and enjoy you.

I'm often asked what the difference is between your inner critic and your inner voice and it’s fair to say that your inner critic, aside from the obvious critiquing, tends to either be someone else’s voice or your voice repeating old messaging. Your inner voice represents your true self and it’s the general inner ‘conversation’ taking place. When you have a very forceful inner critic and you’re not self-aware enough to know what your own values and boundaries are, you may not realise that there’s a difference between your inner critic and your inner voice plus you’re also going to assume, based on the fact that you already make assumptions about your thoughts and feelings, that what your inner critic says is true.

If there’s been a faint voice in there trying to object to your inner critic or trying to steer you away from danger or trying to tell you what you truly want, need, expect, feel, and think and then another voice or critical voice-over takes precedence, the former is your inner voice.

Whatever you respond back to with your ‘rules’ about what you should and must do, whatever you know in your heart is right or wrong but you’re afraid to listen to for fear of pissing off your inner critic and/or being ‘wrong’ or judged, that’s your inner voice.

It's crucial that you familiarise yourself with your inner critic and get a sense of whose voice and/or messaging it’s communicating, but you also need to uncover which irrational fears that it’s projecting onto you.

Inner critics, in their quest to ‘protect’ you, ramp up the fears in order to make you more compliant. They forecast doom, they remind you of the past, they highlight your insecurities and they give you the impression that you’re safer being and doing things their way.

You know when you get a song stuck in your head and for a period of time you can’t seem to get rid of it and it may drive you batty? Well, they’re called ‘earworms’. Inner critics are a bit like this but more dangerous if allowed to run riot because they drain you emotionally and you become acclimatised to their presence and treat them like background music or even the backing vocals of your life, which allows them to have too much power and influence when you're living your life (or aspects of it) in a pattern.

As a people pleaser, your inner critic is trying to steer you out of trouble and keep you pleasing, only it’s not as if your inner critic shuts up (it is not discerning and can be extremely misleading), plus you’re not happy with how things are playing out. It's also very problematic because when your inner critic has had too much sway in your life, you mistake it for your gut and intuition when it's not.

Aside from being compliant with people who trigger you into autopilot, you also tend to treat what your inner critic says as a fact without considering the truth or origins of what they’re saying or even their relevance. In much the same way we would feel perturbed if a friend or family member kept reminding us of where we’ve erred, or what we’re afraid of, or even claiming that we can’t be or do something due to something from a very long time ago, as pleasers, we need to be very concerned about the amount of airtime and power the inner critic has.

 

When you examine what the agenda of your inner critic is, you’re likely to find one of the following motivations:

To make or keep you perfect.

Fear: If you’re not perfect, you will be rejected.

When you have a perfectionist inner critic, they drive you to operate at a high standard and nothing is ever enough. They’re afraid to say that it’s done and it will feel as if you can always do more. This inner critic projects a fear of judgement and rejection. What you will be surprised to discover if you’re affected by this type of inner critic is that the torment you put yourself through isn’t truly about your expectations. Whose are they? Parental expectations? Who truly experienced the judgement and rejection and put that experience on you?

To limit your risks.

Fear: If you try to live as you truly want or just try to have a go at life, you will be more likely to experience danger and undesirable outcomes. 

An undermining inner critic will chop at your self-confidence. Afraid that you’re going to be hurt or rejected, it thinks that you can’t represent you under judgement or scrutiny so tries to keep you below the radar. You’re kept small so that you don’t take risks but then you end up feeling small and possibly experiencing a great deal of anxiety either regarding irrational fears or regarding decision-making.

To make you compliant through guilt.

Fear: If you’re not pleasing people, you’re being selfish and wrong. Don’t make me [the inner critic] look bad. If you get things wrong, this could hang over you forever [because they keep reminding you].

A guilt tripping inner critic keeps bringing up old sh*t, holds onto stuff and basically berates you and withholds forgiveness, which keeps a lingering sense of shame around you. What you don’t realise is that this critic does what it does due to wanting to ensure that you don’t forget your mistakes and that if they’re fresh in your mind, you won’t make them again. Unfortunately it means that you end up feeling shamed and wrong all of the time and will probably find it quite easy to feel guilty about even the most innocuous and unimportant stuff. You will also see anything that doesn’t go right for you as a statement of the future and judge you very harshly over mistakes which will make it very hard to move on.

To keep you on the straight and narrow so that you ‘fit in’.

Fear: If you’re different, you won’t fit in and will be rejected. 

This inner critic is a conformist and does its best to focus on what gives you the ‘batch’ life so that you fit into standards of the family or society at large. It wants to keep you in line which also makes it easier to live your life by numbers and not invite scrutiny. The emphasis is to be liked by family and society so that you’re not rejected, shamed, or abandoned. When you have this type of inner critic, you may parrot rules to yourself that don’t even make sense. You may unconsciously follow rules that you’ve never questioned. When you examine this type of inner critic though versus what you’re being and doing whether it’s now or in the past, you can see how irrational they are. It wants you to conform because it sees anyone that’s different as a problem and a threat so if you do as you’re told, you won’t be unacceptable. It’s irrational though because everybody is different and they’re projecting their own fears of not conforming which may be based on a different time in the world or on different values that don’t reflect you. It also keeps you in child mode pleasing ‘authorities’.

To make you successful and industrious as opposed to what it perceives as ‘lazy’ which may be just being human.

Fear: If you don’t prove yourself all of the time, you will be rejected or held up to scrutiny. If you don’t work really hard, it’s more likely that people will find something wrong with you. 

The bossy boots, task master, whip cracking inner critic, wants you to work yourself to the bone so that you can be successful because it’s afraid that if you don’t, you will be judged as being a failure or below par and in turn will be rejected. It pushes you to keep going even when you’re beyond exhausted or you are more than exceeding and already succeeding. In its own way, it strives for perfection and it’s afraid that if you stop, you may be perceived as lazy or a fraud. Of course, you end up with fear of failure and/or fear of success which will result in procrastination and passive aggression. If you haven’t tamed this type of inner critic, a way of feeling more in control is to rebel. I have this inner critic and it’s based on my mother and I learned how to have some level of control through procrastination and passive aggression when I was a child. This inner critic is afraid that you’ll turn out ‘like them’ or that you’ll ‘waste’ opportunities or that the sky will fall down and you won’t be able to cope if you are less than perfect or you make a mistake. Find out who ‘like them’ is because their experience isn’t your experience and you end up affecting your education, career, and even your relationships because you’re being cast in the shadow of someone else’s irrational fears.

To make you a ‘good person’ without ‘bad’ impulses.

Fear: If you don’t do as I say, you will not be a good person who is accepted in society.

You’ll know that this inner critic is in your life if you go to do things that others take for granted or you try to even be a bit risque and you’re overcome with shame. Maybe you feel bad about sex, having money, eating, having a drink etc. Maybe you feel really cautious about certain things because your inner critic chimes in so that you don’t over-something. It may treat you like an addict if you have a bad hangover, even though it’s just a hangover, not the result of actual alcoholism. If you sleep with someone who wasn’t your partner, even if you have no interest in a relationship, this critic will shame you so that if you don’t hear from them (and you hadn’t wanted to anyway), it now becomes that you were slutty or you feel compelled to chase after them to justify what you did and feel less shamed. The job of the controlling critic is to influence and limit you with shame so that you’re a good person who is accepted in society. Ironically, while life is far from being perfect, we do live in a society that doesn’t penalise as it used to. It’s critical to familiarise yourself with actual addict behaviour and what excessive anything looks like. For instance, were your parents controlling themselves and passing their insecurity onto you?

To crush you for your own ‘safety’.

Fear: If you exist, you will be in more danger and people will see you’re not good enough. 

All inner critics can have a very toxic influence but this inner critic teaches you that it’s safest not to exist and attacks your self-worth by repeatedly shaming you into feeling that you are beyond ‘redemption’ due to your flaws. It keeps teaching you that you are not entitled to the basics – care, trust, respect, love, even survival aspects such as food and water and its presence is likely the result of severe trauma. In turn, you become practiced at making yourself invisible and trying to please so that you can feel even a little less flawed. You’re highly likely to find yourself trying to please an abuser or just trying to let their ego reign by not making waves and being compliant. Of course, when you start to examine this critics motives, you discover somebody who is deeply flawed and shamed in their thinking and behaviour that has put all of this on you. It’s not you who is flawed and this critic (the source of your trauma), had to crush you to build you up and was repeating some aspect of their past and taking out their anger, resentment and frustration on you, as well as projecting their own irrational fears on you. Of course, by critiquing you in this way and crushing your spirit, you lived in fear and did what they wanted so you think it’s safest to do things their way.

This is a good time to examine which irrational fears are being projected onto you and taken for your own when they actually belong to somebody else. Whose fears are they anyway? If you trace your steps back to when you first felt afraid or who communicated this messaging to you, it didn’t just get plucked out of your imagination – someone else in your life was using their power and influence to project imagined scenarios on you that limited what you were and did.

How do you know what an irrational fear is?

It’s not logical or reasonable. Aside from the fact that you are your own person and so what does or doesn’t work for somebody else that’s based on their fears doesn’t mean the same for you, an irrational fear is based on imagined scenarios not reality, plus it’s based on a story that you may have been telling you without question and discernment of the facts and actuality of a threat.

If it [whatever you're worried about] was happening, it wouldn’t be a fear (it would be knowledge), which hopefully you’d be responding to, so what you have to examine is, what has an inner critic been preventing you from doing? If you’re not getting to live, if you’re not getting to grow out of the insights that you stand to gain from where things don't go as expected and you’re not in the driving seat of your own life, who is getting a second run at life via you and taking over your controls?

Who is getting a second run at life via you and taking over your controls?

Your inner critic and possibly a reluctance to 'disobey' what it says, tells you a lot about where through a pattern, you are remaining loyal to someone. Who is it? By remaining loyal to this pattern and also to this certain somebody, you're keeping you small, you're keeping you in a 'child role' and you're keeping you stuck in the past.

Recognising that a lot of my inner critic is my mother/me repeating what my mother said or messaging that I taught myself in response to what she said or did, has taught me to have some compassion for both of us.

As I’ve gotten older and gradually more secure, I realise how much fear comes out of her and I’m amazed that this person had so much power over me in real life and that even worse, I parroted her stuff to myself for much of my adult life!

I’ve learned to do something both in reality but also internally that’s incredibly beneficial:

In much the same way that I’ve now learned to say thanks for your feedback (read: two cents, mouthing off etc) but I’m choosing to _________ , or not even saying what I’m going to do but going ahead anyway, I do the same thing with my inner critic. What I won’t do is automatically comply.

You cannot run your life on fear and that is exactly what happens if you spend your life complying with your inner critic.

I’ve mentioned this often over the years to readers, but around the time I started Baggage Reclaim, I caught myself in what had been a few hours of negativity rolling around my head and I was shocked! Is this what I listen to all flipping day without being aware of it?, I thought to myself in horror. It’s like leaving on a radio for background music and not being aware of what you’re listening to but suddenly you hear something and it sparks an earworm or you sing along without realising that you know the words. That’s what living with your inner critic is like so you have to be ecareful of listening unconsciously or singing along.

Be vigilant by being conscious, aware, and present. Be mindful - you cannot spend your days listening to this negativity. You must pull you out of it.

When I had my first daughter, I remember lying in the bed still coming off the drugs as I held her in those first few hours and a horrible voice came into my head. It was as if it wanted to pee on my parade and ruin the most amazing experience. I hadn’t even thought I’d be able to have children at one point and here I was holding this thing that we’d created and this horrible, spiteful voice popped up. I let it slide a couple of times but I could feel myself becoming uneasy and even guilty and finally I stood up to it. I realise now looking back that if I’d judged myself for hearing what it had said or believed the voice and treated what it said as a fact, it would have been the beginning of a downward spiral and repeating the past. I held my baby tightly and I said no.

Over the years, I’ve remembered those moments and on a gut level, and it’s hard to pinpoint how or why I know this, but I suspect that something similar happened when I was born and that I possibly heard some of it too. Stories my mother has told about those first few weeks in particular as well as the impact on her bonding with me and our overall relationship, would corroborate what I know.

When you talk back to your inner critic, it lets it (and you) know who’s in charge.

You can’t get rid of it - we all have an inner critic - but you can be more conscious of it and see it for the insecure, meddling, often sad busy-body that it is. It will stop by when you least expect it and you can give it a limited amount of airtime, thank it for coming by, and ask it to leave. What you don’t do is run around agreeing with it automatically or even consciously because you will silence your inner voice and shut down your needs, expectations, wants, feelings, and opinions.

Use your inner critic as a way of understanding the dynamics of your family or childhood so that you can see where you’ve taken on too much. Remember that inner critics don’t recognise and internalise your achievements and accomplishments hence you have to be conscious in noting the good in your life and what you do well. These become your rebuttals and your objections.

Use your inner critic to recognise where you're engaging in chopping comparison so that you can refocus your thoughts to recognising what you have been and done.

Use the presence of your inner critic kicking in as a cue to not only be more mindful but to be more self-compassionate. I find that my inner critic shows up when I have something key to learn and an opportunity to transcend past experiences of similar and ultimately break a pattern.

What would be a more loving alternative thought or action? When you start taking command, you make way for that part of you that acts as your inner parent. You, like me, are going to have to cultivate yours because as a people pleaser, you have not imposed limits in some areas of your life or known what is enough. You might have been waiting for someone else to do it but that task is yours. You will need to engage in self-discipline and know your line and your limit. You will need to parent you so that you build up that adult relationship with you and support you in discerning the line between you and others.

This is how you own your own and take responsibility. You are not alone - we all have to do this for ourselves as adults.

In much the same way that people share their opinions (and fears) on the way that we should live our lives, it’s important to remember that when they do this, it almost always isn’t about us. It’s about how they see themselves in those same circumstances and their fears about whether they could or couldn’t cope. Sometimes our parents and caregivers, in their desire to protect us or to scare us into not experiencing their lives, they go way too far to the other side and we become fearful people who treat people who activate our critic and in turn our pleaser, as if they’re infallible and that every word that comes out of their mouths is correct, when actually, it’s not. We make them our bosses and it becomes their job to let us know when we're OK, only an inner critic doesn't do that because it's version of OK is scared.

Much like your feelings, your inner critic may pipe up instinctively but you have to respond consciously so that you can moderate and regulate it. See your inner critic as separate, don’t treat it as if it’s factual and an authoritarian, and definitely don’t comply with negativity. Even if you decide not to do something that your inner critic has piped up about, make sure it’s for conscious positive reasons. Like any critic, pick out anything that’s useful or disregard it and choose your own way.

BREAKING FREE

Remember that recognising when the chit-chat starts is key. You can’t spend most of or even an entire day beating you up. Be alert for your inner critic when you’re faced with a challenge, feeling down, or even feeling confident. It wants to keep you down or shoot you down. Drifting into the negative self-talk is now what you need to associate with falling asleep behind the wheel. Pull over and wake yourself up with some self-compassion.
Differentiate between you and your inner critic. Think of other critics in your life and you may start to see your inner critic for what it is - that person who always has a counter view, who thinks it's their duty to tell you every awful thing that you can come across, that quotes you crap that they read in the newspaper or passes on annoying stories about how someone who knows someone who did the same thing and it was a disaster. They project their unhappiness and world view under the guise of helpfulness but it’s really about them, not you.
Welcome it. "Hello old friend...." or "I knew you'd say that". Right now your inner critic thinks 1) they're in charge and 2) you're scared of them. Mentally cowering and taking on a child to adult role in your own mind, will make your inner critic very powerful and have you being 'naive' in that way that we can be as children when we take everything an adult or so-called person of authority says as gospel.

 

Offer up positive, counter evidence. Offer up support for you. "Actually, I can ___________" "Yeah I've got stuff wrong but who hasn't? I'm doing _______ and ________ and ___________ to change my habits and help me to have a more successful outcome next time. I don't have to get it right or perfect each time but the more I try, the closer I get".

I trust that _________ will still ___________ if I can't/don't_____________. e.g. I trust that Annabelle [your friend] will still like me if I can’t go to the fundraiser.

 

Stick to firm and respectful. If you get medieval in your own mind, you may find that either your inner critic has a tantrum and comes at you full force if you're in an anxious situation or that you end up feeling guilty, possibly because it's how you would feel if you spoke up to that certain someone or people that have 'inspired' the voice of your inner critic.

 

"No, actually, I'm ___________" or "That's totally incorrect. The reason why that happened was ________ and ________ and ___________ not because I wasn't good enough", or "I know you're feeling scared (or whatever) but it's OK. I know ___________ or it'll be OK." "Maybe I won't be able to do it but I won't know unless I try. It would be a bigger mistake not to try."

 

Also try affirmations - there's a guide in your resources section. Repeating, "I am safe, I am secure", works wonders on both my inner critic and inner child and can cover off everything in a very short, reassuring statement.

 

Don't let your inner critic overstay its welcome. Inner critics get a lot of airtime because there is this assumption that they're entitled to it. They're treated as if they don't have to respect the house rules - your boundaries. You don't let people treat you without love, care, trust, and respect. It's not that you cannot experience criticism ever but someone hanging around to rag on you and sink your self-esteem has got to learn when to zip it. This means you can have a thought including doubt, but you don't have to chase it and add on lots of stuff.

"What if I eff it up?.........This is going to go wrong.....I can see where this is headed... I should stick to what I know...What was I thinking?....I'm going to be a laughing stock.... Ugh, remember how stupid I felt over that science project?....And the prom? And John? And that fudged promotion?.... Ugh, mum will so be all over me if I get this wrong..."

 

All of this came from the thought "What if I eff it up?" It's just a question though not a prophecy of the outcome - you can answer it, you can set it straight. The thought is transformed into so much more because 'Doubting Thomas’, ‘Sarcastic Sally’ and ‘Debbie Downer’, have popped in and you've responded to the presence of your inner critic by offering it up more reasons and evidence. Offer it some counter evidence!

 

Don't project negative perceptions of you onto people and take it as fact. When you're convinced that the other person thinks that you're "stupid", "ugly", "talking rubbish", "making a mess of things" - that's what's coming from you and you can change that with interjecting and countering the inner critic’s perception of things with reality.
When I think of some of the reasons why certain critics haven't wanted me to succeed at something, it's because they want the same thing and if I go and do it, then it changes their own position or 'makes' them look a certain way. Or they might want to keep you in a certain position that's beneficial to them - you being passive for instance may suit their own agenda. When you recognise this, you see it for what it is, you remind yourself of the truth, and refocus on the task at hand and trying to support you.

 

Distinguish between in your head and ‘out there’. Don’t remain loyal to patterns of thinking and behaviour that don’t work for you. You are not betraying a parent or whoever your inner critic is based on - they are and were responsible for their own feelings and behaviour and have/had their own life to dictate to. They do not have the right to dictate your life - take responsibility for you. Remember that the inner critic is inside you so this is about changing the conversation in your head. You will be surprised at the difference you experience in your relationships when you take command of your internal conversation. Now that I see me differently and I’m not having some internal battle with my inner critic, my mother does not have the power that I imagined she had. I as a result, act differently around me and while she hasn’t changed, she knows my line and has had to adjust her expectations of me. I, you, we, are not disloyal for going our own way. At no point have any of us signed a contract when we came out of the womb where we sell our souls. Continuing to people please, continuing to capitulate to your inner critic, is a form of self-destruction - you do not owe anyone that and it is not a demonstration of love.

 

Find the 'key' or 'code' that works. You have to learn how to talk and keep talking to you until you find the way that works. I think of my three-year old Nia and if she's having a meltdown, me talking calmly to her is more beneficial than raising my voice and I know that criticising her would certainly not help (it didn't work on me!). I've found that talking calmly to myself (if I'm on my own), writing lists that oppose my critics view (i.e. planning against my doubts and fears) and yes, sometimes jerking me back into reality with "Snap out of it!" or "Bygones" as some of my keywords or phrases for jerking me out of negative thought spiral, are very useful. Whenever I say the word "Bygones", it's my way of saying "Times up!" to the critic and I have to refocus my thoughts.

Accept that your inner critic is there in some form but just take better charge of it. I have an outer critic (my mother) who I've used most of these techniques on. I find that if I step up, assert myself, counter with rationale and logic, I certainly feel better and often she backs off or backtracks. I learned something important as well which is that not all of this criticism comes from an 'evil' place (although some might) and some of it comes from lack of knowledge, which you can offer up. With your inner critic it's easier because it's you not trying to control an external person's opinion of you - it's more making sure that the real you gets to stand up for his or herself.

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