Four practices that can help us be more kind to ourselves throughout the day.
The inner critic is that voice that nags you about what you could have done better, reminds you of your flaws, and runs a catalogue of your failures. While it can be a loud and clear thought process, more often it’s a quiet feeling on the edge of your consciousness, slowing whittling away at your confidence. It might admonish you in social situations, “You always talk too much,” or compare you to others, “You’re not as patient with your kids as your sister is with hers.” It might tell you you’re too lazy to accomplish what you wish to. Or it will remind you of your physical flaws, and the things you wish you could change about the way you look.
But here’s the surprising thing: if you’re like most people, you probably believe you need your inner critic. Or at least, on some level you believe that voice helps you.
We tend to believe that our inner critic drives us forward, keeps us humble, and helps us make progress toward our goals. The inner critic reminds us of everything we could do wrong, confirming these statements by recalling past failures. There’s a reason for this thought process: if we can keep these flaws in the forefront of our minds, we may be able to overcome them, or at least they won’t take us by surprise.
We may worry that if we don’t criticize ourselves, we might accept ourselves too much. We may worry we’ll become irresponsible and unmotivated, indulging ourselves and failing to meet our goals. If I stop thinking negative things about my body, why would I work out? If I stop criticizing myself during social interactions, I might really say something I regret. So we keep the inner critic around to keep us in check.
Unfortunately, while it may help us in some ways, it also beats us down. You would never want a coworker or roommate to follow you around, telling you everything you’re doing wrong. Yet, we take on that role for ourselves. The inner critic is always present, ready to remind you of all that you’ve done wrong, and what you could mess up in the future.
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Yet in reality, those that give up their inner critic still hold themselves to the same standards. In fact, they may actually make more progress toward their goals. Kristen Neff, author of Self Compassion, writes that research shows that those who give up that critical voice are no less principled or ambitious. But rather than being critical, they choose to take a supportive stance toward themselves, which is an emotional resource that helps when they face challenges.
In one study, researchers found that reducing self-critical talk seemed to help people make healthier food choices, even after they broke the rules of their diet. Participants were given a donut, and soon after were given a chance to eat as much candy as they desired. After eating the donut, one group was given guidance to reduce self-criticism and replace it will self-compassion; the other group was given no such instruction. The group that did not beat themselves up for eating the donut (despite the fact that 30 percent of the participants were on a diet) actually ate measurably less candy than the group given no instruction. Those that accepted themselves in their moment of failure were better able to work toward their goal. This is likely because support is a better motivator than criticism.
Once we’ve decided it’s worth letting go of the inner critic, there are several practices that can help us be more kind to ourselves throughout the day …
Don’t say anything to yourself you wouldn’t say to a 3-year-old
I don’t allow my 3-year-old to do whatever she wants, but that doesn’t mean I have to be harsh or critical. When I speak to her, I focus on problem-solving rather than her personal characteristics, “What would be the best way to can clean up this mess?” rather than, “You’re always making messes! You need to clean this up!” I speak statements that build her confidence rather than tear it down, “This looks pretty difficult, but I bet you can do it if you work hard!”
When we make a habit of speaking to ourselves in a similar manner, we recognize and care for the part of ourselves that needs support and affirmation. We remind ourselves that we have value that goes beyond what we can do, or whatever mistakes we might make. We replace the inner critic’s voice with that of a nurturing caregiver, which helps sustain us during challenging experiences.
What would you say to a friend?
We tend to have double standards, holding ourselves to expectations we wouldn’t have for others. Consider what you would say to a friend in a similar situation. If it’s a close friend, you may give honest feedback, while not shaming or criticizing them, such as, “Yes, because of your lack of organization, that trip didn’t go as smoothly as it could have, but there were some fun parts, too.” Or you might offer support without sugarcoating the situation: “Sounds like you didn’t take enough time to study for that test, you must feel pretty frustrated. How can I help you prepare next time?”
Being supportive doesn’t mean ignoring the facts, but it means taking a kind posture to yourself, just as you would toward a friend.
It’s okay to make mistakes
Making mistakes is a universal human experience. It’s also uncomfortable, and everyone goes through it. It’s okay to make mistakes. This does not mean you aren’t responsible for the mistakes you make, or that others aren’t negatively impacted. However, it does mean that making mistakes doesn’t mean you’re a failure or defective. In fact, by reminding ourselves that it’s okay to make mistakes, we are likely be quicker to own up to and correct them.
We often judge our past decisions by the knowledge we currently possess. I might decide to not purchase trip insurance on my flight tickets because money was tight that month, and then berate myself later when I have to cancel the trip. “You were so irresponsible!” I could chide myself, while perhaps I made the best financial decision I could at the time. In his book, In the Shelter, Poet Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “Most people do what seems reasonable to them at the time, most of the time.”
When things go wrong, that inner critic goes to work, finding some way to blame yourself. You can reject this critical voice by returning to your frame of mind when you made the decision, and remember that you probably did what made the most sense to you at the time.
Filtering out the positive
Our inner critic is finely tuned to those parts of life that are not ideal, filtering out the positive aspects and focusing solely on the negative. It will focus on the one detail that didn’t go well, while ignoring everything that was successful. We can change this habit by choosing to focus on the positive aspects of our experiences and on our own strengths. There will always be parts of ourselves we wish were different, but it’s important to give appropriate attention to both the positive and negative aspects. It can be easy to get stuck on the small things.
In the early part of the 20th century, a psychology student named Bluma Zeigarnik was fascinated by servers in a local cafe who remembered every order without writing them down. She conducted a study and determined that “unfinished” issues or tasks remain in the memory, and that resolved issues do not. The “Zeigarnik effect” means that it is easier to remember that which did not go well, or was not completed, than than our accomplishments. It takes intentionality to not filter out the positive, but to give credence to the full spectrum.
Silencing our inner critic impacts others
As we allow ourselves to be human enough to make mistakes, and speak supportively to ourselves, we will increase this posture toward others. We will own up to our mistakes quicker. We will be ready to see the strengths in ourselves, as well as in others. We will have more emotional bandwidth to respond to others in generous ways, as we are generous with ourselves. We can model a balance of taking responsibility and refusing to be harsh with ourselves to others, especially the children in our lives.
This may sound like a good idea, but turning it into habit is where the rubber hits the road. Challenge yourself to change your self-talk habits by placing reminders around your home or at your place of work. Set a reminder on your phone to take a couple of minutes to focus on the parts of life that are going well, or the things you’ve worked hard on. You might feel nervous about letting go of your inner critic, but it will bring you greater freedom.