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Girl looking in mirror with her finger to her mouth, silencing herself

Criticism, at its simplest definition, is the expression of disapproval. We have all experienced criticism in our lives. Maybe it was delivered through an unforgiving teacher, overly critical parent, unhappy partner, micromanaging boss, or angry customer. When reflecting on our own experiences, we remember the feelings that arose after receiving expressions of disapproval. Common reactions might include shame, anger, embarrassment, frustration, annoyance, disconnection, or desire to withdrawal. Criticizing comments that highlight faults or mistakes are not a springboard for motivation or change. Instead, they often lead to shut-down. Although a person’s intention for criticizing might be to promote change, it rarely accomplishes the task. 

The experience of being criticized by others is not enjoyable, but what about the experience of criticizing yourself? An inner critic is the internal voice that reminds us of all of our shortcomings. An inner critic is the one who highlights faults and berates for mistakes. It might call you names or hold you to an impossibly high standard. It offers disapproval and can leave one feeling defeated. 

It is interesting that our standard of kindness towards ourselves can be lower than our standard of kindness towards others. If asked to create a list of qualities you desire to give in friendship, your list might include kindness, compassion, non-judgmental attitudes, encouraging, supportive, or forgiving. We don’t aspire to tear our friends down because we know the action will hurt them. We want our children to be encouraged and grow into strong, confident individuals. Therefore, we nurture their strengths and tend to their hearts with gentle delicacy. Can we show the same level of compassionate care to ourselves? What would it look like to be intentional with the messages we send to our own heart? 

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” – Brene Brown 

Our inner world is a busy place. We make thousands of decisions a day and our minds are constantly buzzing with thoughts about many things, but especially ourselves. We can refer to this language as “self-talk.” When we wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, we are thinking something about ourselves. If we over-slept in the morning and are running late, we have thoughts about that. If we hit a personal record at the gym, our self-talk is speaking again. We can address ourselves with positive encouraging messages or with the fiery arrows of disapproval. Either way, we respond to ourselves constantly. What does your inner dialogue sound like? Is it generally upbeat and supportive? Does it tend to be unkind? What does your self-talk say when a mistake is made? What do you notice?

When we begin to pay attention to the tone of these responses, we can identify if our self-talk tends to be critical. If so, consider these tips on confronting a critical inner voice. 

5 Tips to Confront Internal Criticism 

  1. Awareness

The first step in healing our inner critic is becoming aware of the thoughts we have about ourselves. How do you view yourself? Do you tend to think positively when it comes to your attributes, character, and behaviors? What messages are you sending yourself about yourself? Consider how you respond to yourself when a mistake is made. These are all areas to pay attention to. We want to become aware of the tone of our thoughts towards ourselves to discover areas in need of adjustment. 

2. Replace Criticism with Curiosity 

If you discover that your thoughts tend to be critical, resist the urge to meet this realization with more criticism! Shame is never productive and this is the perfect time to practice self-compassion and curiosity. Rather than attempting to silence critical thoughts, we should welcome them, sit with them, and attempt to understand them. Our thought life gives us a window into our heart and provides opportunity for deeper understanding of our internal condition. If we discover a critical thought pattern, we gain understanding of emotional places that could use further healing. Therefore, do not silence or shame your thoughts – lean into them! 

3. Lookout for Extreme Thoughts 

While taking inventory of your thought patterns, pay attention to extreme language in your thoughts. Extreme thoughts typically use “all or nothing” language such as “always” or “never.” An example might be, “I always make a fool of myself when I speak up in meetings” or “I never say the right thing.” Usually, the strong, unforgiving language we use about ourselves is not true. A more balanced statement might be “I’m not sure that I was understood in my meeting today, but I will have the opportunity to clarify later.” We should always be truthful to ourselves about a performance or behavior by eliminating the extreme, untrue language. 

4. Practice compassionate thinking

If you find that your thoughts tend to be critical, try meeting yourself with compassion. Self-criticism paralyzes us and sends us into an unproductive cycle of shame. When we see a part of ourself that we dislike and desire to change, the path to change is not through further criticism. If we chose to criticize a trait, behavior, or specific mistake, we push ourselves toward shame and further from growth. Nothing fruitful can grow in the soil of shame. Instead, if we choose to meet ourself with compassion, forgiveness, understanding and grace, we fill ourselves with hope and opportunity for growth. With gentle encouragement to ourselves, we lay the foundation for rich and lasting change to occur. 

5. Treat yourself how you would want to be treated 

The golden rule states “treat others the way you would want to be treated.” Why does it seem like we need to preach this to ourselves about ourselves? Treat yourself the way you would want to be treated by a friend. Be kind to yourself with your thoughts. Be filled with compassion, empathy, and support when addressing your shortcomings and mistakes. Be brave enough to build yourself up.

If at any point in your journey you decide you want the support of a therapist, The Refuge Center would love to assist you. We are passionate about pursuing health and wholeness with individuals, couples, teens, and children. Where ever you find yourself today, there is a place for you here. For more information call our front desk at 615-591-5262.

Written by Master’s Level Intern Gray Hernandez

Brown, B. (2008). I thought it was just me: But it isn’t: Telling the truth about perfectionism, inadequacy, and power. Gotham Books.