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.
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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).
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.
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.
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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).
4 Worksheets and Activities for Challenging Your Inner Critic
Want to silence that inner critic? Then try out these approaches.
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 Dysfunctional Thought Record worksheet is a seven column worksheet where thoughts are captured and analyzed. This is especially helpful for those struggling with negative and self-criticising thoughts.
4. Catching your critic
Another approach to working with our inner critic entails monitoring critical statements directed inward.
In the Catching Your Critic exercise, all statements directed at the self are monitored. They are numbered and captured throughout the day, adding the time it happened.
At the end of the day, all these thoughts are evaluated to see if they are positive or negative, and have a good or bad impact.
Finally, the statements are evaluated for an overall trend and assessment of their impact.
Befriending your inner critic
When people become aware of their inner critic and how often this internal voice criticizes them, they often become angry at their inner critic. Ironically, responding to negativity with negativity will likely increase frustration and inner conflict and strengthen the inner critic even further.
In this way, the inner critic can create a negative vicious circle of a dip in mood, which triggers self-criticism that sparks a further drop in mood (Heimpel et al., 2002).
Dr. Marilee Adams (2004) suggests that a more effective way to react to the inner critic is to befriend it, following four steps.
The dip in negative emotions can be avoided by welcoming the inner critic;
Listening to the inner critic rather than fighting it;
By recognizing that the inner critic wants the best for the self and is there to protect the self, you can help create a more collaborative relationship rather than a state of internal conflict;
Finally, replacing the inner critic with a more friendly voice can help motivate the self more constructively.
The next time your inner critic calls for your attention, try befriending it rather than ignoring or fighting it.
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.
2 Books on the Topic
We share a quick and easy list of two recommended books that touches on silencing the inner critic.
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.
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.
The space between self-esteem and self-compassion - Kristin Neff
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.
How your inner critic is holding you back - Melissa Ambrosini
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.
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?
Adams, M. G. (2004). Change your questions, change your life. Berrett-Koehler.
Beck, A. T. (1979). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: Meridian.
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.
Heimpel, S. A., Wood, J. V., Marshall, M. A., & Brown, J. D. (2002). Do people with low self-esteem really want to feel better? Self-esteem differences in motivation to repair negative moods. Journal of personality and social psychology, 82(1), 128.
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.
About the author
Dr. Anna K. Schaffner is a coach, writer and Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent. Her latest non-fiction book explores the long history of the idea of self-improvement. It traces formulas for self-improvement in philosophical, religious, psychological and self-help texts from ancient China to the present day. She is also a qualified coach and has a deep interest in positive psychology and the art of self-improvement.
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