Often people want to make changes, but are overwhelmed by a very loud and convincing inner critic.
An inner critic is:
- a powerful, internal voice that tells us we cannot do well in life and achieve our goals
- a form of self-criticism
- a common symptom of depression
An inner critic is a voice that is built up from messages we’ve heard from others or tell ourselves and carry with us as absolute truths. These messages are painful and can get in the way of taking action to improve our lives. For example:
- You want to start a romantic relationship, but your inner critic says “I’m unlovable” and you avoid the pain of trying
- You want to begin exercising regularly, but have heard past criticism about your appearance and body image and think “What’s the point?”
- You have the thought “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t matter” so you choose to stay home instead of reach out to others to create relationships and plan events
Arguing with a strong inner critic can leave you fatigued, stressed, and even frozen when action is needed to complete goals. In fact, arguing with self-critical thoughts only makes them bigger, stronger, and more intimidating.
I like to use the metaphor of a tight rope walker to explain how we can take action toward our goals despite the presence of an inner critic that tells us we can’t do well or should give up.
Tight Rope Walker Metaphor
Bring to mind a tight rope walker at a circus. All the lights shine down on the tight rope walker and the circus tent is packed with a rowdy audience. The tight rope walker has one goal and that is to get to the other side.
In this metaphor, you are the tight rope walker and the audience is your inner critic. The audience shouts out your critical thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts can be so overwhelming that it’s hard to take even the first step to achieve the goals waiting for you at the end of the tight rope. The shouts are so powerful you think you will fall if they are not silenced.
In the audience are people from your past shouting negative messages that have stopped you from reaching your goals previously. One stands up and shouts, “You can’t do it!” Another yells, “You’re not good enough!” In the face of such critical thoughts, it is understandable why anyone might struggle to take action or take the risks required to achieve the results you want in life. Taking that first step is hard.
When critical thoughts are so overwhelming, it makes sense that we would want to reason with, hush, or try to silence the audience (our critical thoughts). Some people try to change or erase these critical thoughts through logical, reasoned debate. However, what if there is another way?
Let’s focus on what it takes for a tight rope walker to successfully make it across to the other side.
Tight rope walking requires mindful focus and attention despite being unable to control what the audience says and does. It doesn’t help to turn to the crowd and argue with the critics. Responding to, “You can’t do it” with “Yes, I can” or “You’re going to fall” with “No I am not and here are ten reasons why” just distracts you from your task. At worst, focusing on the critics could result in a fall.
Instead, success requires observing the negative voices (that is, the critical thoughts) and continuing on the path to the other side. It involves a willingness to experience the internal criticism, label it as thoughts and not truths, let it go, and continue on the path toward goals. This allows you to keep your focus on staying balanced and in control of your feet, which will help you to take the needed steps forward to achieve goals even if your inner critic is present.
To learn more:
If this sounds like a skill you’d like to develop, attending therapy can assist with addressing depressed moods and critical thoughts. We—at Portland Psychotherapy—are here to help you figure out how to let go of past experiences and messages from your inner critic.
Author: Bryce Doehne, Psy.D.
Bryce is a licensed psychologist at Portland Psychotherapy. His specialties include substance use, generalized & social anxiety, depression, dysthymia, relationships & transitions, and identity & values clarification.