Combating Your Inner Critic


In second grade, I got really into journaling. I’m not sure if it came from my obsession with Harriet the Spy or just a desire to add meaning to my comfy suburban upbringing, but I made a promise to myself. I, Allie Arends, would fill an entire journal for each year of my life. For the most part, up until senior year of high school, I did. And during a recent trip home to Chicago, I found them stacked in my bedroom closet like a chronological library of my childhood complete with N*Sync magazine clippings, overly dramatic inner monologues, and hilarious spelling errors.

That afternoon, I sat on my bedroom floor, ready to thumb through each journal and get re-acquainted with the moments of my life that weren’t sticky enough to recall without a written reminder. Instead, I came face-to-face with an ugly familiar voice. My inner critic. Apparently, that B and I go way back. I found her icky little Negative Nancy fingerprints in every single journal entry. As I moved through the Lisa Frank notebooks of my elementary years to the Moleskins of high school, I noticed that her words got meaner over time. In elementary school, I deemed myself untalented because I hadn’t won a regional title for my dance studio. In middle school, I obsessed over how many friends I had and settled on the fact that I was unlikeable. In high school, words like “fat” “lazy” “ugly” popped out on the pages like blemishes.

I’m intimately familiar with my inner critic. She and I go through adult life together, hand in hand. I guess I had just assumed she was a recent roommate, not one I’d been living with my whole life. Honestly, if it weren’t for starting therapy just a month earlier, I might have breezed past her snarky presence, brushing off my self-hatred as normal teenage angst. In fact, I probably would have thought she was the saner voice in my head, the one with a more realistic view of the world and how I fit into it.

Like a lot of people, I’ve had this assumption that my inner critic was my motivator. She pointed out my shortcomings with good intentions – to keep me aware of the things I needed to work on. To ground my expectations in order to avoid disappointment. To keep me humble. I worried that without her, I would get lazy, complacent or make mistakes. What I didn’t realize was that she was making me perpetually depressed.

To be honest, my therapist is still trying to convince me that she’s a problem. Recognizing and separating my inner critic from my healthy inner monologue has proven to be super, super difficult. I’ve sort of lost myself to her over the years. On most days, those fears about complacency or setting myself up for disappointment are still alive and well. But I’ve found a few tricks that have helped me turn the tide on the way I allow that negative voice to show up in my life.

Become An Expert 

My sister is responsible for the best piece of advice I’ve gotten so far on the issue. She recommended approaching combating my inner critic and depression like I would a passion project – go all in. Read everything you can get your hands on. Talk to other people who are experiencing similar feelings. Research. Go to therapy. Taking up her advice, I’ve realized two things; 1. That there is a legitimate explanation for the overwhelming negative thoughts (aka I’m not just being a whiney millennial) and 2. I am definitely not alone in my struggle with self-criticism and depression. Those revelations made dealing with the problem that much more manageable. They gave me a place to start.

For me, content that offers up scientific logic and/or humor helps the most. I’ve become obsessed with studies connecting self-criticism and depression to either evolutionary science or social media consumption. I’ve added NPR’s Hilarious World of Depression to my podcast rotation and I have Amy Poehler’s excerpt on inner demons bookmarked in my copy of Yes, Please next to my nightstand But If I could recommend one place to start for helpful reading material, it would be Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. It’s essentially The Happiness Project on intellectual steroids and it even has a nifty self-assessment quiz in the back of the book. 

Focus on Gratitude and Positivity Will Follow

Thanks to advice I found in Flourish, I started writing down 3 things that went well during the day on a nightly basis. I’m embarrassed to tell you how difficult it was the first few times I tried this. My mind immediately wanted to go the opposite direction. What did I fail at today? What was an important item on my to-do list that I intentionally avoided accomplishing? What devastatingly embarrassing thing did I say in an important work meeting? Because, well, that’s how I’d practiced self-reflection my entire life. I have my childhood journals as proof.

For the first week of the exercise, my three things were consistently related to my workout routine or validation from people other than myself. Basically superficial “wins” that my inner critic allows me to categorize as success. My therapist suggested that I come up with things that I might be ashamed of – softer, more emotional wins like, “I didn’t try and deal with a problem alone today.” Or “I allowed myself to take a lunch break and read on a patio for an hour.” For me, this exercise is great because it’s the easiest way for me to identify my inner critic and see, in real-time, how it distorts my perception of myself and my life.

Clap Back

Once you’ve learned how to separate your bitchy inner critic from your actual self, it’s time to clap back. For me, this is very much a work in progress. But in Yes, Please, Amy Poehler describes it perfectly.

“Hopefully as you get older, you start to learn how to live with your demon. It’s hard at first. Some people give their demon so much room that there is no space in their head or bed for love. They feed their demon and it gets really strong and then it makes them stay in abusive relationships or starve their beautiful bodies. But sometimes, you get a little older and get a little bored of the demon. Through good therapy and friends and self-love you can practice treating the demon like a hacky, annoying cousin. Maybe a day even comes when you are getting dressed for a fancy event and it whispers, “You aren’t pretty,” and you go, “I know, I know, now let me find my earrings.” Sometimes you say, “Demon, I promise you I will let you remind me of my ugliness, but right now I am having hot sex so I will check in later.” 

I would drop dead before I let someone talk to my best friends in the same way my inner critic tears me down. So then why, for all this time, have I thought this is ok to do? And why, if it’s so obviously a misstep, is it so hard of a habit to change? Through my research, I’ve learned that part of what links self-criticism to depression is a belief that every negative thought you have is a depiction of reality. For someone like me, one weird look from a co-worker suddenly becomes the fact, All my co-workers hate me. This is where humor and Amy P help me out. Now, as soon as I categorize a thought as a destructively negative one, I come up with an Amy Poehler-like response to it. It diverts my mind away from the negative thought and makes me laugh all at once.

Like I said…I’m still working on this one.

Ask For Help

If any of this resonates with you, go to therapy. I mean, that sounds aggressive and antagonistic but it’s not. It’s out of love. When time travel technology is inevitably invented, going to therapy sooner is one of the first ways in which I plan to use it. In all seriousness, even just a few sessions will open your eyes to all of the ways in which you are holding yourself back from being imperfectly happy. Especially when it comes to self-perception, an objective party is the fastest way to accepting that your inner critic isn’t necessary for growth, success or meeting your goals. All of that is only achievable with self-love and acceptance.

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Allie is a Minneapolis-based digital marketer, lucky enough to make a living by hanging out with really smart people and coming up with disruptive, technology-driven ideas at space150. Her passions include traveling, coffee, books, convincing everyone they should be a feminist, obsessing over the dog she just saw on the street corner and trying not to blush at inconvenient moments.

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  • Allie! This article is perfect — it’s exactly what I needed to get out of my own self-critic-induced funk on this dreary Monday morning. I really appreciate your candor and honesty, it means a lot. And I totally agree on the Amy P. book — comic relief is essential!

    Thank you.

    Sam

  • Thank you for writing this (I type this with tears in my eyes.) That demon is so strong and one I struggle with even when I can logically tell myself she is a liar. To be vulnerable about this is so brave and helped me with some new things to try to beat her back (and reminded me to get back into therapy.) So there is today’s good thing – helped a in Illinois beat back the voices. Thank you.

  • Tara Mohr talks about the inner critic in her book Playing Big, and gives her a counterpoint: your inner mentor. Maybe her descriptions would give you some perspective on separating the two–if you haven’t already read it! I struggle with these things as well, and her perspective helped a lot. Thank you for sharing!

  • I am an adult child of alcoholics and my brothers, aunts and children are/were alcoholics too. I know self hatred well. But I can honestly say that going to Al Anon meetings helped me get rid of those demons. I can recognize now my inner fears and banish them quickly with prayer. We have a saying ‘it’s hard being hateful when you are grateful ‘ and when I can say I’m grateful for little things in my life, the demon leaves.

    • Oh, AT, if you are still breathing, it’s not too late! See Allie’s comment above: “part of what links self-criticism to depression is a belief that every negative thought you have is a depiction of reality.” The truth is you have something special to bless our world with – and only you can do it! Hang in there and DO get some help!

    • It’s not too late! The demon is the one saying it’s too late! My self criticism cycle takes this route too. I’ll feel so bad for not doing or being all the things I want to and then I move on to feeling bad for feeling bad! “Ugh why can’t I just ignore the negative thoughts?! I’m not a strong woman” but sometimes when I’m there I can see how that is also a negative thought and I tell myself to snap out of it and stop thinking and I do something else. And some days I have to do this every few hours. Reading things like this and seeing all these comments really helps me by making me realize that I’m not a freak for dealing with depression or self criticism and that if most people deal with it people who I think are perfect it makes me see how silly that demon that is.

  • This is of much interest to me because of my own work as a Mental and Life Healer. There is a lot in here for sure. Socrates, as you maybe know, taught that “The unexamined life is not worth living” and he even accepted the judgment of the Athenian city state which put him on trial, and condemned him to a suicidal death on charges that he was ‘corrupting the minds of the young’. In fact, all Socrates was doing was counselling that no-one should believe in anything of which they had no some kind of definitive proof, and he insisted to the Athenian Assembly that out him on trial that he was not going to change his teachings. He left them very little choice, really. Socrates had friends and followers certainly – including his most famous pupil Plato – who records much of his friend and tutor’s work, including Socrates’ own defence at the trial, and this has come down to us (fortunately). Socrates even explained to his friends (some of whom wanted to get him away to a place of safety where no-one would ever bother him again) – but no, Socrates explained why he believed he, who had live all his life in Athens, and had had enjoyed all the benefits of Athenian citizenship, must now accept its justice – whether he happened to like it or not.
    “If, as men say” argued Socrates “the soul is immortal” (and I too believe that it is, actually) “Then reason there is for a man” (or, of course, a woman) “to obtain as much knowledge as possible within a lifetime”.
    This, undoubtedly would have included Self-knowledge. Socrates too, in fact, often admitted that he had what he called an ‘inner demon’ … but this did not so much tell him what to do (or what was wrong with him) as whether he had made the right decision or not. He used, we might say, his ‘inner demon’, in his case CONSTRUCTIVELY.
    What you have done is a good example; keeping journals and so on – if that worked for you. For others, different methods of their own ‘life examination’ may work. But, like Socrates, I would also counsel taking nothing at simple face value. And that includes the judgments upon you offered by others. It also includes anything and everything which you own ‘inner demon’ may seem to be telling you about yourself. Actually, you know yourself far, far better than this ‘demon’ (and yes, we all have one!) ever can. Socrates knew that. That’s why he was prepared to accept both the superior to this immortality of the human soul – and that this can best, in his view, rise about such negativity only by an unending question for knowledge and truth. Not necessarily, or only, academic knowledge – but above all SELF and LIFE knowledge. You are already doing this, and encouraging others, in their ways, to do so also. CONGRATS! I wish you well.
    JEFF WATT, Mental and Life Healer.

  • What a great article! I just came back from a course on the Inner Critic at the Enneagram Institute. The Enneagram personality system can help you to become aware of our inner critic so we then have the choice as to whether or not we want to accept what it is trying to say to us. We all have an inner critic, but the good news is that we don’t need to let it control our lives. Thanks for this awesome article.

  • Wow, this was a really good read! I’m glad this wasn’t something like most posts I read on blogs that repeat the same things and try to give steps to being happy when it’s not that simple.

  • I love that you end with ask for help. We really have to work to normalize the fact that it is okay to need help and it is even more okay to advocate for yourself when you do. No one has to flight their battle alone.