Anxiety & Stress

Working with the Inner Critic

Woman with her hands folded and steepled against her face, looking meditative

Learn how to work with your inner critic and build up your inner champion.

Meet the Inner Critic

Have you ever been excited about a new venture? Perhaps you have wanted to start a new business…ask someone on a date…or apply for a new job or promotion. And perhaps you then heard a “voice” in your head along the lines of: “Great idea, genius. What makes you think you can make this happen? Fat chance. You might as well give up that idea right now before you end up failing again.” 

It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to learn that most of us have an active “inner critic,” an inner voice more than willing to warn us of the many pitfalls that may arise or negative qualities we possess, just as we are excited to make a move that could bring greater joy and satisfaction into our lives. In fact, we all have a constant stream of evaluations – of ourselves and others – going on in our heads. The Inner Critic may sound as if it is talking to us (in much the same way others have spoken to us) or it may sound like our own fearful, negative thoughts. In either case, the Inner Critic is largely nothing more than internalized beliefs we have inherited from the world around us. This critic is, therefore, based on ideas. The Inner Critic often drives us to say and do things that are ultimately not in our best interests…then beats us up for doing so! It is a kind of “heads you lose, tails you lose” scenario that can drive us into a frenzy of emotionally chasing our tails, around and around until sometimes it feels as if we no longer know what we want or who we are. And at times, the Inner Critic can seem more like an inner saboteur, even an inner abuser.  

In fact, the Inner Critic often makes itself known just when we could use an Inner Champion. Why is this?

The Purpose of an Inner Critic

Given that it can be so damaging, why would such a mechanism exist in our minds at all? Some psychologists believe that the Inner Critic evolved to protect us. Humans are social animals, and we depend upon each other for survival. Therefore, any threat to our social standing or social acceptance can be interpreted by our minds and bodies as a very real threat. While the effect of such a strong critic can be harmful, its purpose may be to protect us.

The fact is, as cruel as it can sound, and as misguided its approach, our Inner Critic is in some way trying to protect us. (There are exceptions. If an inner monologue sounds exceptionally degrading or calls us unacceptable names, we may be experiencing internalized abuse. If this is our experience, we may find it helpful to consult with a mental health professional.) Often, the Inner Critic is trying to help, but it’s going about the process of protecting us in a harmful way. And unfortunately, it is a part of ourselves that we have had a lot of practice believing. It’s as if we have exercised our Inner Critic repeatedly, what compassion-focused psychologist Russell Kolts, PhD calls “sending the Inner Critic to the gym.” Being well-practiced, the Inner Critic has become big, burly, strong, and ready to spring into action quickly.

Given that the effects of the Inner Critic can be so harmful, we may think it makes sense to fight it, even beat it down. Yet if we want to break the spell of the Inner Critic and experience greater peace and self-acceptance, going to war with the Inner Critic is an approach that will ultimately backfire. We will end up in a power struggle within our own mind, and our body will respond the way it does whenever we encounter a threat. It will tense up, become flooded with stress hormones, and do all the other things a body does when preparing for battle. A more useful and compassionate approach is to learn to listen to the Inner Critic’s message while learning to understand that it reflects a learned, fearful part of ourselves. Once we have done this, we can work on cultivating an “Inner Champion” – an inner nurturer, an inner compassionate presence, an inner cheerleader. We can work on sending this part of ourselves to the gym by cultivating this Inner Champion intentionally, mindfully, and compassionately. The idea is to grow the strong, warm, compassionate part of ourselves so that it can offset the Inner Critic and become an ongoing source of strength, warmth, and wisdom.

Working with the Inner Critic and Building the Inner Champion

Exploring the Inner Critic

Once we have identified our Inner Critic, then, it is important to discover its underlying goal. Ultimately, there is a way in which it wants us to be safe, and the Inner Critic is often trying to protect us from external harm. Once we tune into the Inner Critic’s goal, we can find a more wise and compassionate way to meet it. With some curiosity and openness, we can ask ourselves: What is our Inner Critic trying to tell us? How is it trying to protect us? We might even try to think of the Inner Critic as a separate part of ourselves and imagine a dialogue between ourselves in the Inner Critic. Be creative! The more lighthearted and playful we can make this process, the easier it will be to work with the critic and our own reactions to its messages. 

Once we have a sense of what the Inner Critic is trying to accomplish, albeit unskillfully, we can begin to nurture and activate our Inner Champion and enlist its support. Below are a few exercises to help us access this wise, compassionate aspect ourselves. Once we have a well-developed Inner Champion, we can put it to work to offset the critic and guide us toward greater satisfaction and wellbeing. 

Creating Our Ideal Compassionate Mentor

A useful first step in developing an Inner Champion can be to think about the qualities of an external mentor. We might start by bringing to mind someone who has shown us compassion and support in the past, a wise character from fiction, or possibly even a spiritual leader we admire. Then keeping this person or being in mind, consider: What qualities would we like such a person to have? Would they be a specific gender? Would they be strong, wise, and caring? Would they possess a gentle strength? How would they speak to us? What words would they choose? What would be their tone of voice? 

Once we have created our Inner Champion, we can take some time to imagine ourselves in this being’s presence, then bring a struggle or a challenge to mind and imagine how this Inner Champion would respond. We might even write a letter to the Inner Champion discussing the concern, then pause to let the Inner Champion respond. Again, we can be creative and make the exercise our own.

Mindful Self-Compassion: Loving-Kindness Meditation

One potentially powerful exercise from the Mindful Self-Compassion tradition is called loving-kindness meditation. This meditation originally derives from ancient Eastern traditions and is thought to be originally used to counteract fear. In fact, once mastered, this technique can help to reduce our sense of external threat (for instance, fears of how others’ view us) as well as our sense of internal threat (our own self-critical inner monologue). 

This exercise is called Loving-kindness Meditation for a Loved Other and Ourselves and it helps us gradually edge into the idea of being kind to ourselves so that it doesn’t feel forced or unrealistic

To practice this exercise, we start by finding a safe space where we can sit comfortably for 10-15 minutes. After settling in with some slow, easy breathing, we might recall a being (a person or even a pet) that naturally brings a smile to our face and with whom we feel safe. We then begin to mentally offer this being thoughts of simple goodwill, such as: “May you be happy. May you be safe. May you live in peace.” If we choose, we can coordinate these phrases with our breathing or simply allow the words to arise at an easy, comfortable pace. With each phrase, we are offering a gift of kindness and compassion. 

After offering these phrases to our loved one for a few minutes, we bring ourselves into the meditation by imagining ourselves sitting near this being and offering the phrases to both of us: “May we be happy. May we be safe. May we live in peace.” 

Finally, we imagine ourselves alone and offer the same phrases: “May I be happy. May I be safe. May I live in peace.” As we offer ourselves these phrases, we keep in mind that we are in a sense watering the seeds of intention. We may or may not feel warm feelings toward ourselves, but we are with these phrases cultivating an attitude of warmth and acceptance. We can also play with the language in the meditation so that it feels more personal and meaningful. In this moment, what wishes would most reflect our deepest wish for ourselves? We can then use these phrases as the basis for our meditation. For example, “May I feel accepted. May I feel seen and known. May I experience ease of wellbeing. May I be strong in the face of adversity. May I accept myself completely, just as I am.”

From Foe to Friend

Once we get the hang of this process and practice it regularly, we begin to find that this attitude of self-warmth and self-acceptance begins to infuse all aspects of our life, gradually changing our self-orientation from one of judgment and mistrust to one of friendship and caring. As we learn how to work with our Inner Critic – understanding the source of its criticism, listening carefully and with curiosity to its message, and addressing its underlying concerns with warmth and care – we can turn the Inner Critic into an Inner Champion that can become a good friend rather than an adversary.