For many of us, the worst enemy is not in the external world but in our own inner jungle.
Imagine you've just had a job interview. Right after, your inner critic starts whispering internally, "That was really bad. You could barely express yourself and looked like a wilted flower. Everyone must think you're worthless. You're unfit for this job, and it was foolish of you to think you had a chance."
Now, imagine a friend had the same job interview, and you were on the interview panel. Would you ever say to him, "That was really bad! Everyone must think you're worthless? It was foolish to think you had a chance."
Of course not! You would probably remind him of his strengths and reassure him that it's normal not to be at your best during a nerve-wracking job interview. You would emphasize that every challenge is an opportunity for growth.
The point here is that the way we sometimes talk to ourselves through the inner critic is destructive, and we would never dream of speaking to a friend or loved one in such a manner. Let this realization sink in and fuel the intention to treat yourself with kindness and compassion as well.
The Inner Critic came into your life to help.
Our inner critic emerges in our early years. As children, we become aware that attention and love from our parents, grandparents, and teachers depend on what we do or say. Certain behaviors are clearly appreciated, while others are disapproved of. We desire to be found lovable and fantastic by everyone. In an attempt to preempt criticism from parents and others, we internalize their voices. We start to criticize ourselves even before they do, ensuring their approval. Very clever!
The nuances of what this entails will differ from one family to another. Maybe your parents are particularly attuned to the opinions of others, and you've wholly embraced socially desirable behavior after their numerous corrections. Your own aspirations and true self get overshadowed, and as you reach the age of thirty (or forty or fifty), you find yourself feeling hollow with no clear sense of what you truly desire in life. Another scenario could be that your parents consistently stressed the importance of accomplishments. 'If I excel in school, they'll see me as lovable,' crosses your young mind. You adopt a diligent work ethic, cultivating perfectionism and leaving little to chance. However, this relentless effort takes its toll. Moments of stillness and simply 'being' are conspicuously absent from your life. Ironically, it's these very moments that are crucial for maintaining a connection with your authentic self.
Every family is different, but the inner critic knows exactly what the criteria are. It monitors everything sharply and scrutinizes whether your development is proceeding according to plan. The Inner Critic also has a very effective tool at hand to make you work harder if things don't go well: comparing you with others. Only when you're the best or the smartest or the kindest can it rest.
A strong Inner Critic leads to low self-worth, shame and depression
Your Inner Critic becomes more and more integrated into your life over the course of time, and you may not realize that it essentially represents the beliefs of those around you. Its voice carries authority and is often confused with 'the truth.' The criticism can be internalized (Inner Critic) but can also be directed outward, criticizing others ('The Judge'). A strong judge is a clear signal that an Inner Critic is active beneath the surface. While this critical stance may have been somewhat functional in early years, the inner criticism has spiraled out of control and become dysfunctional. The Inner Critic initially emerged to protect your vulnerability (the inner child) but has now transformed into the one who abuses your inner child! It makes you unhappy, and your self-worth suffers. If we believe what the Inner Critic says, it can even lead to depression. After all, why bother trying when it's never good enough? In the worst-case scenario, the Inner Critic can take on the form of a destructive critic and push someone towards suicide. 'You're such a loser that nobody cares about you. You'd be better off ending your life; then, they won't waste any more time on you.
Time for a reassessment of your inner rules.
It's clear: nobody enjoys an inner voice that speaks destructively. The Inner Critic collaborates with three other sub-personalities ('selves') within you: the Rule-Maker, the Perfectionist, and the Pusher. The Rule-Maker dictates what we must do and be to feel safe. The Perfectionist ensures we do it the right way, while the Pusher urges us to take immediate action. If things don't go smoothly, it can lead to an attack from the Critic. More often than not, these attacks happen at night, when you lie defenseless in your bed. Preventing an onslaught from the critic is better than enduring its lashing. So, stay vigilant and take action when you feel the criticism surfacing. For many, journaling helps, but reading a book or listening to music can also provide temporary relief. If the origin of the attack lies in stress, it's crucial to trace it back to the source of stress. Is it perhaps necessary to change your course? Procrastination, for example, can drive the critic into a frenzy and ultimately cost more energy than finishing the task. In such a situation, the criticism is indeed pointing in the right direction. However, sometimes the criticism is baseless and highly destructive. Or the Inner Critic sets standards you'll never be able to meet. In that case, it's definitely time to question whether you still want to live by your inner rules. Therefore, undergo a reassessment of your inner rules (if necessary, with a coach, therapist, or a small group). Let go of the need to be the best, always kind, or extraordinary. Don't compare yourself to others, even in a positive light! As mentioned earlier, this is a favorite game of the critic, and the sooner you stop playing it, the calmer it will be inside. This helps reduce stress, leaving you with the energy to be yourself and lead a good life according to your authentic standards.
The path of transformation: from enemy to friend.
Cutting out the Inner Critic is not realistic. It would go underground and wait for its next opportunity. The key lies in transforming the Inner Critic into an ally. Consider an attack from the Inner Critic as a distress signal and learn to recognize the vulnerability behind it. In what way are you in danger? The Critic hasn't forgotten how deeply you've been hurt in the past and is trying to assist you in its own way. If you learn to recognize the underlying fear and take care of it, the Inner Critic can relax. Strengthening your personal leadership, dethroning the Inner Critic for who it truly is, will also be of great value for your inner peace.
Listen to the critical voice in your head for several days and note down the characteristic statements. What is wrong with you? What mistakes have you made that day? Analyze the criticism you've written down and distill the unwritten rules for yourself. What is it really about? And what is that criticism trying to protect you from (the underlying vulnerability)?
Behind people-pleasing often hides the rule that you must always be liked because otherwise, people won't love you. And behind working hard lies the belief that you're only worthwhile if you achieve a higher position. Write down the rules and realize what it is truly about. Are you ready to let go of certain rules? What vulnerability were they trying to protect you from? And can you care for this vulnerability in a different way? Do you know the needs of your inner child, and can you care for him or her like a good parent? Soft inwardly (self-compassion and self-love) and protective outwardly (setting boundaries) is often very helpful. What does that look like for you?
-> Seek help if this is challenging or if the Inner Critic is very strong. A dialogue with the Inner Critic (Voice Dialogue session) can provide clarity in this regard and be a crucial step in the transformation process.