The smartest people often have the loudest inner critics.
You know, that chatty inner voice that’s constantly correcting what you do and say. It motivates us to be better, warns of danger, and corrects us when we make mistakes. But, sometimes, that incessant voice that keeps behavior and actions in check gets a little power-hungry and abusive.
“Is it causing excessive stress, depression, anxiety? Is it causing you to not do things? Are you procrastinating or avoiding? If so, then it’s not the right thought for you,” says Lake Forest, Ill. psychologist Elizabeth R. Lombardo, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.
Your inner critic is only a problem if it’s crossed that line from helping you get better to constantly berating you. If it’s causing stress, anxiety, or depression, here’s how to shut it down.
The more stressed out, fearful, upset, or anxious you are, the louder that inner voice is, Lombardo says. So, before you try to deal with it, find a way to blow off some steam. Go for a walk or run. Do some deep-breathing exercises. Use the techniques that work for you.
“I don’t care how smart you are. If your stress level is at an eight or nine or 10, you’re not thinking rationally, so one of the first things to do is to do something healthy and helpful to bring down the stress,” she says.
Too many people try to run away from or ignore their inner critic when they should be exploring that contrarian voice, says Stacey Sargent, founder of Seattle, Washington-based Connect Growth and Development, and author of Inner Critic, Inner Success: Claiming Your Critic While Taming Your Success.
She suggests looking at what it’s trying to tell you. If it’s saying you shouldn’t take on that new project because you’re not qualified, it may be trying to protect you from an embarrassing mistake. If it’s telling you you’re not deserving, it might be protecting you from disappointment. Once you get to the reason behind the criticism, you can begin to deal with that underlying fear or concern, she says.
Once you name the fear or concern, you can begin to examine what’s behind it, Sargent says. Ask yourself if the criticism is entirely true. Most of the time it’s not. When you start to find fault with the critic, you can pick apart the argument’s validity–just like it’s been known to do to you.
You probably didn’t get to where you are without a string of successes, Lombardo says. Keep a file–paper or digital–of your successes. You may keep a document of positive feedback you’ve received, as well as copies of thank-you notes, positive feedback from bosses and coworkers, awards, and other reminders of your successes. When your inner critic starts railing, pull out the file and gently remind yourself about how capable you really are.
Once you’ve calmed down and gotten to the heart of what your critic is trying to say, ask yourself if there’s another way of looking at the situation, Lombardo says. Maybe you’re beating yourself up because you botched an important presentation. But think about how you would counsel someone close to you about such a misstep.
“If you were sitting there, you’d probably have empathy for the person because we’ve all been there before and our heart goes out to them. It happens,” she says. “Talk to yourself with the same compassion you’d have for someone close to you.”
You can also use inner criticism as an opportunity to take action, Sargent says. Look objectively at what might or did go wrong. Did you botch the presentation because you didn’t give yourself enough prep time? Are you afraid that you’ll take the new job and everyone will see you’re not really qualified? Look at the systems you need to put in place or the help you need to strengthen your skills and make sure that you’re well-prepared. Nothing silences the critic like taking steps to address what it’s complaining about, Sargent adds.
Perfectionism is often at the heart of the overzealous inner critic. Lombardo tries to get people to be “better than perfect,” she says. That means acknowledging that you’re human and that mistakes will happen. But when you make a mistake–or if the fear of making a mistake or feeling negative emotions is paralyzing you–that’s not failure, she says. It’s data. If you can learn from it, add a new skill, improve the way you communicate or do things, or take away some other positive, you have strong grounds to refute your personal naysayer.