I’m often guided in my seasonal blog, by themes that are presenting in my work, and perhaps one of the most pervasive experiences for people seeking therapy includes living with a harsh internalised judge.  The ‘inner critic’.

Much is already know about the inner critic through research and psychology, and it clearly crosses a spectrum from a motivating, supportive voice – “you can improve here” – to outright shaming and self-loathing – “you’re so useless, I hate you!”.  Typically, the functional goals of the inner critic can be considered important for our lives. Our critic is designed to keep us safe, physically and psychologically, and help us feel motivated and reach ideals.  Sadly, it can also evolve in maladaptive, debilitating ways, where our family of origin experiences are survived through negative, digested messages.  Think about the smaller, younger version of ourselves, where perhaps our caregivers consistently reacted to some distress we had with blame, criticism, ambivalence, or dismissal.  When we are little, inherently believing that our caregivers will keep us safe, sometimes all we can manage in these moments is to believe “maybe I’m the problem” or “perhaps I am stupid and weak” and so on.  These core-sensitivities can become an entire sense-of-self in adulthood impacting our well being through conditions like depression, anxiety and eating disorders.  Of course, seems easy to shift the blame to ‘our parents’ – so to speak – but this rarely ever helps us find a kinder version of ourselves.  What this simple analogy offers is an  understanding around two important themes. Firstly, that at the heart of the critic is usually a wounded child.  Secondly, that the inner critic is motivated to survive, however tends to want to go about it by blaming and shaming our already wounded selves.  Repeating the same experience we had from childhood. 

What’s well established in health paradigms, is that the antithesis to the inner critic is self-compassion, and that compassion is a verb.   So let’s explore some doable and important tools you can use to calm your Inner Critic. 

4 -Things For Calming the Critic:

1. Awareness:  Often, the inner critic is playing out and influencing our lives unchecked and building awareness of our critic is important.  This can help us start to recognise its power, and motivate us to change.

Action:  Noticing what our inner critic is saying, when and how often is important:

  • Is it harsh?  Is it shaming?  Is it supportive or wild?  Does it show up in every life moment? or just around particular areas like work or parenting or…?  
  • When you can, even if in point form, keep a journal and note down what’s going on.   
  • If you not sure where to start, tune into all the “should’s” the critic imposes.  Start to discern which ‘should’s’ don’t serve you anymore.   

2. Re-Phrasing:  It can be invaluable to develop a practice of rephrasing.  This could be a daily practice, like a meditation, or a moment to moment practice throughout the day.

Action:  After noticing your inner critic you could:

  • Think about what you would say to your ‘wounded inner child’ or a loved one in the same situation. Now use these words to rephrase what you say to yourself. Also pay attention to the tone of voice. How would you like to talk to yourself? 
  • If a kinder, compassionate phrase emerges with consistency, consider making this phrase an affirmation or a mantra that you can quickly access to counter your critical voice.  Try writing the phrase out and placing it strategically at home, or even work, to kickstart your consciousness.
  • Try taking a “learning stance” or “observer position” with your critic.  What can I learn from this voice? How can I use the inner critic’s feedback in a more motivating and constructive way?

3. Mindfulness:   Lots of change processes in life can begin from a more mindful practice, and adopting this practice with our critic is a powerful pathway to self compassion.

Action:  A powerful practice you could adopt around your inner critic could include:

  • In any given moment when you notice your inner critic spring to life, build a practice around focusing on the immediate experience of yourself in contact with life.  
  • For instance, come back to noticing your breathing and take a few breaths.  Try catching 3-5 breaths with a deeper awareness of the action of breathing.  
  • If undertaking a task, become more aware, and even delighted with, the movement of your body, or the moment to moment action you are undertaking.  
  • If you are with somebody else, notice more about their face, eyes, tone of voice and words.  Delight in the essence of being in the presence of another human! And less focused on how you think they are thinking about you.

4.  Visualisation:  Visualisations are a great way to work with your inner critic.  They can be simple and effective.  Try out these two visualisations:

Actions:  Both these visualisations will work best when you can find a quiet space and grab a few deep breaths:

Visualisation One:  Thought Bubbles

  • In your minds eye, imagine gathering all of the words that your inner critic has used, or frequently uses towards you.  Perhaps you may rely on journal notes you have taken, if adopting this practice.  
  • Place all of the words or phrases into ‘thought bubbles or balloons’.  Then, imagine closing off the bubbles, untethering them, and watching them drift into the sky.  Becoming smaller, until vanishing.  
  • Keep breathing, and now, practice filling your consciousness with kinder, compassionate phrases that you may already have established from other practices.  
  • Finishing, pay attention to what you notice in your body? Was this practice easy or difficult?  Why?  How do you feel now?

Visualisation Two: Caring for The Small You

  • In your minds eye, imagine waking along a beautiful path in an ideal environment that you love.  It could be a beach, or a forest for example.  Your are relaxed and safe.  Do this for 5-10 breaths.
  • On the path you come across a small child who is alone and lost.  You notice this child is a younger, smaller version of you.  Use any age that feels right for you.  
  • Spend some time with this child, caring for them.  Using words, hugs (if desired), understanding and empathy to support this younger you to feel loved and supported.  If you like you can use a pillow or plush toy to have something tangible to hold.
  • When you are ready to leave, let your inner child decide wether they wish to stay or leave with you.  There’s no right answer here.  Then turn around and head back the way you came.  On the way, feeling into the compassion and kinder experience of self
  • Finishing, pay attention to what you notice in your body? Was this practice easy or difficult?  Why?  How do you feel now?

I know adopting a practice of a more compassionate self is hard.  I know, because personally it has been one of the biggest challenges I undertake on my own journey and growth.  It requires discipline and determination.  Perhaps the most important rule of any inner critic practice is to not use your engagement, or lack of engagement, with any self-compassion exercise as a way for the critic to compound negative messages.  “See I told you you wouldn’t do those exercise”,  is a double-negative and a sure way to reinforce old self belief systems.  A beginning place is to ensure you have at least one (hopefully more) re-phrasing statements, or positive affirmations.  Then regardless of how your practice unfolds, you can use this foundation to promote your kinder, compassionate self.  For me, I need not search any further than the 13th century mystical poet Rumi, who’s truths around love are always elixir for my wounded soul.

Your heart knows the way, run in that direction

You are searching the world for treasure

but the real treasure is yourself

Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world, today I am wise, so I am changing myself.

Sean Tonnet is a highly sort after relationship therapist, international educator and Clinical Director for Thrive Clinic Mullumbimby.  You can contact Sean through this website contact page or directly at connect@seantonnet.com.au or sean@thriveclinic.com.au