Your Inner Critic: Why It's NOT Constructive Criticism
You may have come across the term "Inner Critic" from time to time. If you haven't, allow me to officially introduce you to the judgemental know-it-all that lives in our head rent-free, but who we rarely call out.
Why not? Because inner critics are really good at passing themselves off as tough love or constructive criticism. How is anyone supposed to tell the difference? Read on for a few tricks that'll help you see right through that ruse!
What is an Inner Critic?
Inner Critic is a common term used to describe that critical voice in your head that keeps on offering you motivational gems such as:
“You’re not good enough.”
“Everything is your fault.”
“You’ll probably just fail anyway.”
“You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“Everyone else is more successful/attractive/intelligent/talented than you.”
“You probably look stupid to everyone here right now.”
Do those sound familiar?
Suffice it to say, your inner critic is not exactly friendly. The minute it decides to weigh in on something, you can expect a barrage of insults, negativity, self-defeating interpretations, and a whole lot of self-sabotage.
Your inner critic sometimes goes by other names as well, such as the “inner judge” and “inner saboteur,” depending on what it’s trying to do. But generally, if you’re ragging on yourself without any actual solutions anywhere in sight, you can safely assume that it’s your inner critic at work.
What’s the Difference Between the Inner Critic and Constructive Feedback?
Many people mistakenly assume that their inner critic is somehow an asset to them - tough love, if you will. But the difference between your inner critic and actual self-discipline or honest feedback is whether or not the criticism is constructive or useful.
Constructive criticism isn’t personal, and it offers us insight into how we can improve. Your inner critic isn’t here to offer you constructive criticism. It isn't trying to help you better yourself. All it does is hurl verbal and emotional abuse your way.
Here is an example to help illustrate the difference. Imagine you’re a student who has just written a paper for a class, and you ask one of your friends to look over your first draft and offer you feedback.
This is what constructive feedback looks like:
“I think you’re off to a great start here. There are a few sections I think can be a little clearer and a few ideas you can elaborate on a bit, but I really like the themes you’re exploring. Here are the parts I think really sell this, and the parts that I think can be stronger…”
Now imagine that your friend comes back to you with this:
“Honestly, this is crap. You don’t know what you’re talking about, and if you submit this, everyone will think you’re a complete moron. I'm pretty sure that everyone in your class is smarter than you and that you’ve just been getting by on pure luck so far. Seriously, I am cringing so hard for you right now.”
Are you seeing anything particularly useful or constructive about our second example? Does that even remotely sound like something a friend who is interested in helping you better yourself would say?
And that's the key difference. Constructive criticism has good intentions behind it – it’s aimed at helping us up our game. Your Inner critic's takes, meanwhile, are just full-on roasts that offer zero helpful insight whatsoever.
How Can I Recognize My Inner Critic?
Before we can silence our inner critic, we first need to recognize it and distinguish it from constructive feedback. In other words, once the negativity starts, you’ll need to suss out whether your thoughts are an example of you coaching yourself or dragging yourself.
The good news is that you can simultaneously oust and shut down your inner critic with a few simple questions.
“How are these thoughts helping me?”
Imagine that you’re running late for a meeting because of traffic.
Helpful thought: “Wow, traffic’s worse than I expected. Let me text my colleagues to let them know my ETA so that they aren’t left wondering where I am.”
Inner Critic thought: “This is a total disaster. You really screwed up big time. Consider your reputation destroyed if you don’t get to this meeting on time.”
Notice that in the latter instance, there is nothing remotely helpful coming out of those thoughts. How is beating yourself up about traffic going to solve anything? It won’t change your situation in any way.
A helpful thought is one that accepts that sometimes circumstances are beyond your control and encourages you to take actions that are within your control.
“Are any of these thoughts useful?”
See if your thoughts are offering you something that you can actually use towards solving a problem or getting answers.
Useful Thought: “Maybe instead of assuming that your friend is mad at you, you can check in with them to see if everything is okay.” This is an example of a thought that is actionable and can help you to clarify a situation instead of making assumptions.
Inner Critic Thought: “Your friend is pissed because you said something dumb. You screw up every relationship. Don’t even bother reaching out - they’ll just think you’re even more annoying.”
Because, after all, what could be more useful than thoughts that make you even more anxious and actively encourage you to sabotage your relationships instead of working on them?
“What are these thoughts accomplishing?”
If the answer is, “They’re helping me anticipate challenges so that I can prepare for them,” they’re serving a valuable purpose.
If the answer is, “They’re making me feel overwhelmed, incompetent, and stupid for even trying,” they’re actively working against you.
Other "accomplishments" that are unique to your inner critic include:
Destroying your self-confidence, setting up self-fulfilling prophecies, downplaying your achievements, and keeping you feeling stuck in situations you dislike.
“Would I believe any of this if I weren’t feeling anxious right now?”
Your inner critic is a big fat liar that preys on your insecurities and fears. But here's a little-known caveat: Anything it tries to pass off as the truth is only believable if you’re susceptible to it at that moment.
Anxiety breeds fearful thoughts. Depression breeds pessimistic thoughts. Anger breeds resentful thoughts. When you're in those emotional states, you're a lot more susceptible to your inner critic's BS.
So ask yourself, “What about when I’m not feeling these emotions? Do I still think about myself, my life, and my relationships in this way?”
Here are a few examples.
“Nobody likes you.”
Try telling yourself that at a time when you’re in a good mood and feeling grateful for your friends. Does it sound ridiculous? Guess what – it’s no less ridiculous when you say it to yourself just because you happen to be feeling lonely.
“You’re a complete moron if you can’t figure this out right away.”
Tell yourself that when you're feeling more confident and actually enjoying working on a challenge rather than feeling overwhelmed or discouraged by it. Does it sound stupid when you’re feeling calm? It’s just as stupid when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
The next time you notice that your inner critic has taken the wheel, try out some of those questions to bust the illusion before it has a chance to bring you down!
For more tips on shutting down that negative chatter, I've written an article that you can check out here: No More Self-Sabotage: 3 Steps to Silence Your Inner Critic.
If you've been struggling with your own inner critic and are interested in working through it with the support of a therapist, contact me for a free consultation!