We all know this voice in our head that constantly criticizes, belittles, and judges us.
This voice has many names: inner critic, judge, saboteur, the superego.
In CBT frameworks, its activities are summed up as automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). Its relentless destructive chatter is also described as negative self-talk.
Our inner critic can be a cruel and deeply damaging force. Its strength and impact determine our overall mental wellbeing. The destructive voice in our heads is never satisfied and can soil and spoil anything we may achieve, no matter how impressive.
It magnifies the negative, spreading discontent and worse in our lives. Fortunately, there are numerous effective strategies for weakening its power.
Before you read on, we thought you might like to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you increase the compassion and kindness you show yourself and will also give you the tools to help your clients, students, or employees show more compassion to themselves.
This article contains:
- What Is the Inner Critic?
- 8 Real-Life Examples
- The Role of the Inner Critic in Anxiety
- 5 Exercises and Activities for Challenging Your Inner Critic
- Using Self-Compassion and Meditation
- Silencing Your Inner Critic: 3 Helpful Worksheets
- 2 Books on the Topic
- 3 Relevant TED Talks
- PositivePsychology.com’s Useful Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What Is the Inner Critic?
The inner critic has been given numerous different labels. Various theories, ranging from psychoanalytical to neuroscientific models, describe its origins and suggest strategies for how it can be silenced.
Most psychologists agree that the roots of our inner critics are to be found in childhood. The founding father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, explained the formation of our superegos as a process during which we internalize external views of ourselves – predominantly those of our parents (Freud, 1915/2001).
At the same time, we accept wider social expectations and ethical norms, and start to generate ego ideals – of which we then regularly tend to fall short.
Freud’s superego can be a cruel and self-flagellating force, which sadistically punishes and tyrannizes the ego. If our superego is in overdrive, we spend most of our psychological energy on inner warfare and have little to give to the outside world (Freud, 1915/2001).
We may deem ourselves unworthy and despicable, and expect the world to see us that way, too. We may be more prone to abuse substances in order to numb this relentless torturer in our heads.
The brain and the inner critic
A more scientific explanation of the origins of the inner critic locates it in particular parts of our brains. More specifically, scientists have argued that we have a primitive “survivor brain” that encompasses the brain stem, the older part of our brain that is tasked with physical survival and the fight-or-flight response to danger. This part of our brains is highly attuned to danger.
Hyper-vigilant, it is constantly on the lookout for threats. It relentlessly compares and contrasts and finds us wanting. It also involves the limbic system and the amygdala, which regulate our emotional responses, and can trigger the emission of the stress hormone cortisol (Chamine 2012, p. 211; Peters, 2012).
Originally, our inner critic had a positive function: to ensure our survival. This includes not just spotting danger in our environment but also inner work in the form of psychological sense making.
In particular, it involves the construction of narratives about ourselves and others that are bearable. For example, children who feel unloved, are constantly criticized, or the victims of abuse will tend to blame themselves rather than their parents.
As the child depends completely on their parents for survival, the conscious acknowledgment of the parents’ unfairness, cruelty, or incompetency is simply too devastating. It is much safer for the child to turn the criticism inward rather than outward and to blame the self for the suffered misfortunes.
But what might be a sensible survival mechanism in childhood can turn into a truly debilitating handicap in adulthood (Chamine, 2012).
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the inner critic is not given a particular gestalt or name but is reduced to its output: automatic negative thoughts.
ANTs, in turn, are driven by our core beliefs. We can think of our automatic negative thoughts as the situational expressions of our dysfunctional assumptions and negative core beliefs about ourselves (Beck, 1979; Beck, Freeman, & Davis, 2015; Beck, 2005; Beck, 2011).
The original function of our core beliefs is to help us make sense of our experiences, but they can become unproductive or even harmful later in life. Harmful common core beliefs usually come in the form of rigid “I am …,” “People are …,” and “The world is …” statements. It is in that sense that they are intricately tied up with our inner critics.
We may, for example, think that we are unlovable – or bad, evil, not good enough, incompetent, ugly, stupid, or existentially flawed in other ways. Our inner critics will then constantly broadcast messages that can be traced back to these problematic core beliefs. Limiting core beliefs set the rules by which we live and, most significantly, determine the tone of our self-talk.
To challenge our inner critic CBT-style, we must seek to oppose what it tells us rationally by confronting it with objective facts (Burns, 1980). This entails taking seriously what the inner critic tells us and trying to convince it logically that it is wrong. This method resembles a journalistic fact-checking exercise, designed to counter and discredit fake news.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers a very different approach. It focuses not so much on changing our negative cognitions and beliefs but recommends instead that we accept them and then try to let them go (Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 1999). An ACT approach to disempowering our inner critic accepts that we have far less control over our thoughts and feelings than we like to think.
Russ Harris (2008), for example, suggests that we simply observe and accept what our inner critic has to say and then try to let it go. He treats the inner critic like mind-chatter and seeks to shift attention away from the content (what it has to say) to the form (insignificant noise in our head).
Most importantly, we must observe and label our inner critic by recognizing when it is speaking and how it colors our cognitions and shapes our emotions. That way, we separate the voice of the inner critic from our true essence. We are not these negative thoughts.
8 Real-Life Examples
Once we start to pay attention to our self-talk and the critical voice in our heads, we may be surprised by their negativity and even cruelty.
The inner critic may say things like, “You are a big, fat loser, and you will never achieve anything in your life.” It may say, “Nobody likes you. You don’t have any friends.”
It may constantly draw attention to our perceived faults and shortcomings. It may tell us we are stupid, ugly, deeply flawed, and unlovable at our core. It may belittle our achievements, dismissing them as luck, mistakes, or accidents. It may be contemptuous, arrogant, or hateful.
It may badger us for past mistakes or paralyze us with disparaging remarks in the present. It is the reason for our regrets, anger, anxiety, guilt, and shame.
The Role of the Inner Critic in Anxiety
The inner critic also has the power to make us feel constantly anxious. Hyper-vigilant, it may incessantly spot and point out danger, both to our physical and psychological health. It may catastrophize, split, exaggerate, and magnify the bad and minimize the good in our lives. It may engage in paranoid mind reading, attributing bad motives to other people’s words and actions.
It may live in constant expectation of punishment and falling from grace, and fixate on signs of lost love and affection in our interactions with others. Hyper-sensitively attuned to danger signals and with a relentless focus on what could go wrong, it may instill in us chronic anxiety. Various studies have investigated links between anxiety and strong inner critical voices (Southcott and Simmonds, 2008).
5 Exercises and Activities for Challenging Your Inner Critic
1. The ACT approach
The most powerful way of learning to disempower our inner critic is to adopt an ACT approach.
This approach entails identifying the inner critic, labeling it, observing what it does without judgment, and then letting it go.
Whenever we recognize the voice of our inner critic, we may practice thinking “Thank you, inner critic.” When it bombards us with unhelpful thoughts, we can resolve not to take the content of these thoughts too seriously. We may say, “Here is the inner critic again, doing its dirty work.”
Even better, come up with a more specific name for it. We could call it the judge, the saboteur, the wolf, the demon, or whatever label fits with the unique ways in which it tends to wreak havoc in our heads.
When we observe it in action, we may want to remind ourselves that our thoughts are just words and that our beliefs are just that: beliefs, not facts. They are nothing more than the unhelpful noise of our endlessly chattering minds. We are not those thoughts – we can defuse ourselves from them.
There is a massive difference between thinking “I am ugly and stupid,” and thinking “My inner critic suggests I am ugly and stupid.” That way, we can create distance between the thought and us, and observe the thought more objectively.
2. The Positive Intelligence approach
In Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours, Shirzad Chamine (2012) analyzes what he calls the “judge” and its accomplice saboteurs in great detail.
The judge (another label for our inner critic), Chamine suggests, is extremely powerful. The judge propels us to constantly judge not just ourselves, but also to criticize others and our circumstances. Chamine, too, believes that labeling our inner judge and observing it in action are the first steps to disempowering it.
Whenever we notice ourselves judging, we should say something like “Ah, there goes the judge again.” That way, we discredit what it has to say.
In addition, Chamine recommends we strengthen our “sage brain,” consciously shifting our activity from our “survivor brain” (which encompasses the brain stem, limbic system, and amygdala regions) to the middle prefrontal cortex, the empathy circuitry, and our right brain (Chamine, 2012, p. 212). We can do this quickly and effectively with the help of short exercises that center our attention on one of our senses.
Exercises involve focusing for a minute or two on our breath, on near and faraway sounds, or on the sense of touch, ideally repeatedly during our busy day. These exercises work because they take us out of our heads, anchor us in our body and the present moment, allow us to empathize with ourselves and others, and reconnect us with our emotions.
Chamine’s system is highly effective for disempowering our inner critics – whatever shape they take and whatever we may wish to call them.
3. The CBT approach
Some may prefer a CBT approach to weaken the impact of their inner critics. This method is based on the idea that our inner critic is not logical and that it produces irrationally negative interpretations and assessments of ourselves and others. We can therefore use reason to disempower its message.
The three-part worksheet approach is a classic CBT strategy that lends itself very well to inner-critic work, too. Increasing Awareness of Cognitive Distortions, for example, encourages us to become more aware of our negative thoughts and unproductive beliefs, and to identify common patterns of bias in our cognitions.
Many of these are related to our inner critic. This exercise includes a helpful list of classic cognitive distortions (Burns, 1980).
4. Befriending Your Inner Critic
Another approach to working with our inner critic entails befriending the inner critic.
In the Befriending Your Inner Critic exercise, we are encouraged to think about a situation in which we were in a judging mindset, judging ourselves, others, or a particular situation very harshly.
After completing this guided process of reflection, we are invited to write a letter to our inner judge, acknowledging that it is simply trying to keep us safe. We can thank the judge for its care and appreciate its good intentions, while also deciding that it is ultimately in our power to follow the judge’s advice or not.
5. Self-Critic Job Description
Another great tool is the Self-Critic Job Description exercise. It encourages us to write a detailed job description for our inner critic, including its core responsibilities, duties, and skills.
Building on ACT principles and the idea of cognitive defusion, the purpose of this exercise is to reduce the effect of self-critical thoughts by observing them rather than fully identifying with them. The tool allows us to take an observational stance and look at our inner critic from the perspective of an outsider.
Using Self-Compassion and Meditation
Her “How would you treat a friend” approach is particularly effective for dealing with a harsh inner critic. Neff asks us to imagine how we would interact with a struggling friend. What would we say to them? What tone of voice would we use? Next, we are invited to think of how we tend to speak to ourselves, especially when we are struggling. Most of us will be truly shocked by the difference.
The aim is to speak to ourselves as caringly and kindly as we would speak to our friends.
Finally, we may also wish to use mindfulness and meditation techniques to disempower our inner critics. Mindfulness and meditation can help us learn how to silence our mind-chatter and focus our attention on being present. They encourage us to observe our thoughts in a nonjudgmental way, rather than getting lost and caught up in their specific content.
If we think of the inner critic as mere noise in our head, these approaches can be really helpful.
Silencing Your Inner Critic: 3 Helpful Worksheets
The Understanding the Inner Critic exercise is a fantastic tool for raising awareness about the inner critic’s workings and tools.
It helps us to understand, identify, and observe the voice of our inner critic and not to fuse with it.
The Compassionate Chair Work exercise uses three chairs as props. The first chair represents the voice of self-criticism, the second the emotion of feeling judged, and the third represents the perspective of a supportive and wise friend.
We are encouraged to move between the chairs, voicing the different viewpoints associated with the positions and experiencing consciously the physical and emotional sensations that come with it.
Identifying Limiting Beliefs About Strengths asks us to re-examine how we think about our strengths. This approach might seem counterintuitive, but we may not be making the most of our natural talents or may even feel ashamed or guilty about embracing them.
Our inner critic even has the ability to turn our strengths into something shameful or bad. This exercise helps us to uncover what we really believe about our strengths – what they may mean to us, how we express them, or why we might in fact hide or even suppress them.
2 Books on the Topic
1. Positive Intelligence – Shirzad Chamine
A powerful and inspiring self-help book, which also comes with an app and simple short exercises, is Shirzad Chamine’s New York Times bestseller Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours (2012).
It is dedicated to identifying and weakening our inner critics and strengthening our “sage” brain instead.
Available on Amazon.
2. Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind – Kristin Neff
Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind (2011) is another truly transformative classic.
Available on Amazon.
Here is another article with compassion resources and books, if you enjoyed the recommendations above.
3 Relevant TED Talks
Shirzad Chamine’s “Know Your Inner Saboteurs” TED talk shows you how his research on positive intelligence can help you recognize and weaken your inner judge.
Kristin Neff’s TED talk, “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion,” suggests ways in which we may change our inner self-talk so that it becomes more compassionate – and she also reminds us why we should do so. Self-compassion, she argues, always trumps self-esteem.
Melissa Ambrosini’s “How Your Inner Critic Is Holding You Back” is another very relatable TED talk, based mainly on personal anecdotes and insights.
PositivePsychology.com’s Useful Resources
We have a selection of excellent related blog articles that explore some of the theories and models mentioned here in more depth.
On ACT, you may find Courtney E. Ackerman’s How Does Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Work? and Madhuleena Roy Chowdhury’s ACT Therapy: The Theory Behind Acceptance and Commitment Therapy enlightening.
On the underlying core beliefs that determine our negative self-talk, you may find Anna Katharina Schaffner’s Identifying and Challenging Core Beliefs: 12 Helpful Worksheets useful.
On mindfulness and how we can use it to weaken our inner critics, we recommend Alicia Nortje’s How to Practice Mindfulness: 10 Practical Steps and Tips and Jeremy Sutton’s The Importance of Mindfulness: 20+ Reasons to Practice Mindfulness. Last but not least, you need to be compassionate with yourself, and what better way to get started than these mindful self-compassion exercises?
A Take-Home Message
Our inner critics – whatever we may call them – have a powerful influence over our inner lives. They determine not just our overall psychological wellbeing, but also how successful we are.
The original function of our critical inner voice was to protect us from danger, but later in life negative self-talk can become a major maladaptive habit with wide-ranging negative repercussions. But merely by noticing and labeling these critical inner voices, and practicing the psychological strategies outlined in this article that resonate most with us, we can significantly weaken their impact.
If our inner critic were a person, we would avoid them like the plague. They would no doubt fall into the category of an abuser: someone who systematically erodes our sense of self-worth; who mocks, berates, and demeans us; who constantly says the most horrific things about us and makes us feel ashamed, guilty, small, and miserable.
Would we tolerate this kind of talk if it were directed at a child, friend, or someone we love? Why, then, should we accept it as our own grim normality?
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Self-Compassion Exercises for free.
If you wish to learn more, our Science of Self-Acceptance Masterclass© is an innovative, comprehensive training template for practitioners that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients accept themselves, treat themselves with more compassion, and see themselves as worthy individuals.
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- Beck, A. T., Freeman, A., & Davis, D. (2015). Cognitive therapy of personality disorders (3rd ed.). New York: Guilford.
- Beck, J. S. (2005). Cognitive therapy for challenging problems: What to do when the basics don’t work. New York: Guilford.
- Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.
- Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York: New American Library.
- Chamine, S. (2012). Positive Intelligence: Why only 20% of teams and individuals achieve their true potential and how you can achieve yours. Austin, TX: Greenleaf.
- Freud, S. (2001). Mourning and melancholia. In J. Strachey (Ed. & Trans.) The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (New ed., Vol. XIV, pp. 237–260). London: Vintage. (Original work published 1915, 1953)
- Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K., & Wilson, K. G. (1999). Acceptance and commitment therapy: An experiential approach to behavior change. New York: Guilford.
- Harris, R. (2008). The happiness trap. Based on ACT: A revolutionary mindfulness-based programme for overcoming stress, anxiety and depression. London: Robinson.
- Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. New York: Harper Collins.
- Peters, S. (2012). The chimp paradox: The mind management programme for confidence, success and happiness. London: Vermilion.
- Southcott, J. E., & Simmonds, J. G. (2008). Performance anxiety and the inner critic: A case study. Australian Journal of Music Education, 1, 32–37.