How to Overcome the Inner Critic

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Imagine you’re walking through your day, and there’s a persistent whisper that follows you. It critiques every decision, magnifies every flaw, and reminds you relentlessly of past mistakes. This is the voice of your inner critic. It’s that part of your mind that seems to have a knack for pointing out all the ways you could be better, smarter, or more successful, often leaving you feeling deflated, discouraged, or unworthy.

Everyone has an inner critic, but for some, it can feel like a constant companion, overshadowing achievements with doubt and turning small setbacks into insurmountable obstacles. It’s exhausting, isn’t it? The good news is that you’re not destined to be at the mercy of this internal naysayer forever.

In this article, we’ll explore practical strategies to quieten that critical voice inside your head. By understanding and applying these techniques, you can begin to replace self-criticism with self-compassion, freeing yourself to live more fully and confidently. Let’s embark on this journey together, learning how to turn down the volume of your inner critic and amplify your inner supporter, leading to a more balanced and fulfilling life.

Acceptance: Embracing Quicksand

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re walking through life and suddenly find yourself stepping into quicksand. Your inner critic is like this quicksand, dragging you down with every harsh word and self-doubt. The instinctive reaction might be to struggle and fight against these negative thoughts, believing that if you push back hard enough, you’ll eventually free yourself. However, just like with quicksand, the more you struggle, the deeper you sink.

The first step toward freeing yourself from this trap is acceptance. This doesn’t mean resigning yourself to being stuck forever but rather acknowledging your current situation without judgment. Acceptance is like lying back in the quicksand and finding that, contrary to your instincts, it allows you to float.

Thanking Your Inner Critic

A powerful technique to facilitate acceptance involves a counterintuitive approach: thanking your inner critic. Popularized by Russ Harris here, this method recognizes that the inner critic, despite its harshness, is trying to protect you. It operates under the misguided belief that criticism will keep you safe from failure, embarrassment, or even deeper emotional pain.

  1. Identify the Criticism: When you hear that critical voice, pause and identify what it’s saying. Is it warning you about embarrassment? Is it trying to protect you from making a mistake?
  2. Acknowledge and Thank: Instead of fighting the voice or criticizing yourself for having it, simply say, “Thank you for trying to protect me, but I’m okay right now.”
  3. Lie Back in the Quicksand: Visualize yourself acknowledging the presence of quicksand (your inner critic) and gently lying back, floating above it. This represents your acceptance of the inner critic’s presence without letting it control or define you.
  4. Shift Your Focus: Once you’ve thanked your inner critic and acknowledged its intent, shift your focus to something constructive. Ask yourself, “What’s one small step I can take right now, in line with my values, despite the criticism?”

By thanking your inner critic, you’re not giving it more power; instead, you’re recognizing its intent and choosing not to engage in the struggle. This approach is similar to how you could effectively deal with people in your life you give you annoying unsolicited advice. It allows you to bypass the struggle so you can move forward with your values and goals, floating above the quicksand of self-criticism rather than being consumed by it.

Cognitive Defusion: Leaves on a Stream

Picture yourself standing beside a gently flowing stream in a serene forest. On the surface of this stream, leaves float by, each one carrying a different thought. Some of these leaves bear self-critical thoughts, the kind that whisper you’re not enough or that you should have done better. This stream and its leaves offer a powerful metaphor for the process of cognitive defusion, a key component in learning how to distance yourself from the inner critic’s harsh judgments.

Cognitive defusion involves stepping back from your thoughts, observing them without getting hooked, and recognizing that thoughts are merely thoughts, not absolute truths. By defusing from these thoughts, you can reduce their unhelpful impact on your feelings and actions.

The “I’m Noticing I’m Having the Thought That…” Exercise

One effective way to practice cognitive defusion is through the “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that…” exercise. This technique helps you to observe your thoughts as if they were leaves floating down a stream, without getting entangled in them.

  1. Identify a Self-Critical Thought: Think of a recent self-critical thought that has been troubling you. This thought is now a leaf on the stream.
  2. Rephrase the Thought: Instead of getting absorbed in the thought, take a step back and rephrase it by starting with “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that…”. For example, if your critical thought is “I always mess things up,” you would say, “I’m noticing I’m having the thought that I always mess things up.”
  3. Write It Down: On a small piece of paper, write down the thought. Visualize this thought as a leaf with the words written on it, floating away on the stream. This act of writing and visualization helps to solidify the process of cognitive defusion, making the thought less personal and less distressing.
  4. Reflect: After you’ve visualized the leaf floating away, take a moment to reflect on how this exercise makes you feel. Do you notice a shift in how you relate to the thought? Is it less intense or overwhelming?
  5. Repeat: Continue this process with other self-critical thoughts as they arise. Each time, imagine placing the thought on a leaf and watching it float away, reminding yourself that thoughts are transient and do not define you.

By regularly practicing this cognitive defusion technique, you can learn to observe your self-critical thoughts without being dominated by them. Like leaves on a stream, you can watch them come and go, reducing their hold over you and creating space for a more compassionate self-view.

If you prefer a guided audio version of the leaves on a stream exercise, you can find one here. There are various other versions on YouTube as well, so feel free to explore a bit to find the one that works best for you.

Self as Context: The Sky and the Weather

Imagine for a moment that you are the sky—vast, constant, and unchanging. The thoughts, feelings, and sensations you experience daily are the weather patterns that move across this expansive sky. Some days bring bright sunshine and clear skies, symbolizing moments of joy and clarity. Other times, clouds gather, storms brew, and rain falls, mirroring our struggles, including the harsh words of the inner critic. This metaphor captures the essence of “Self as Context,” a concept that helps you recognize that you are far more than the fleeting thoughts and emotions that pass through you.

The Sky and the Weather Exercise

This practical exercise uses the metaphor of the sky and the weather to help you cultivate a broader perspective on your thoughts, particularly the self-critical ones, allowing you to observe them without becoming entangled in them.

  1. Visualization: Find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Begin to visualize yourself as the vast sky. Imagine your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations as the weather patterns moving across this sky.
  2. Acknowledge the Weather: As self-critical thoughts (the weather) arise, observe them without judgment. Note the specific “weather patterns” your inner critic brings. Is it a dark cloud, a storm, or a chilly wind? Recognize that these are temporary and that they cannot harm the vastness of the sky.
  3. Separate from the Weather: Remind yourself, “I am not the weather; I am the sky.” The weather is just a part of your experience at this moment, not the entirety of who you are. The sky remains unchanged, no matter how severe the weather gets.
  4. Write It Down: On a piece of paper, draw a simple representation of the sky and the current weather patterns (your self-critical thoughts). Label the weather patterns with the thoughts or feelings they represent. This act of externalization helps reinforce the distinction between your self (the sky) and your experiences (the weather).
  5. Reflect and Shift Focus: After completing the visualization and writing exercise, reflect on the experience. How does recognizing yourself as the sky, separate from the weather, change your relationship with your inner critic? Consider how this perspective might influence your response to self-criticism in the future.

By regularly engaging in this exercise, you can develop a more compassionate and accepting relationship with yourself, one that acknowledges the presence of the inner critic without allowing it to dominate your self-perception. Over time, this practice of seeing yourself as the sky—unchanged by the passing weather—can provide a profound sense of stability and peace amidst the inevitable storms of life.

Present Moment Awareness: The Passenger on the Bus

Imagine you’re the driver of a bus on a journey through life. Your inner critic is just one of many passengers on this bus, offering unsolicited advice and commentary, often focusing on regrets from the past or worries about the future. The rearview mirror represents your past, constantly tempting you to look back, while the GPS symbolizes concerns about the future, forecasting routes and potential obstacles. This metaphor serves as a foundation for understanding present moment awareness, a technique that teaches you to focus on the road ahead, rather than the constant distractions from your passengers, the rearview mirror, or the GPS.

Embracing the Present Moment

The essence of present moment awareness lies in acknowledging that while the inner critic (the passenger) may voice opinions, you, as the driver, have the choice to listen without being compelled to act on those words. Just as you cannot drive safely while constantly looking in the rearview mirror or fixating on the GPS, you cannot live fully in the present if you’re absorbed by past regrets or future anxieties.

  1. Acknowledge the Passenger: Recognize when your inner critic starts speaking. Acknowledge its presence without engaging in a conversation. You might say to yourself, “I hear you, but right now, I’m focusing on driving.”
  2. Shift Focus to the Road: Bring your attention to the present moment, focusing on the physical sensations such as the feeling of your feet on the floor or the rise and fall of your breath. Each of these elements brings you back to the now, away from the unhelpful distractions of the passenger and fixation on the rearview mirror or the GPS.
  3. Use Breathing as an Anchor: Whenever you find your attention wandering to the inner critic’s commentary, gently guide it back to your breath. Deep, slow breaths can serve as an anchor, keeping you rooted in the present moment. Some people prefer to use the sensation of their feet on the floor, as mentioned previously, if focusing on breathing is unhelpful.
  4. Regular Check-ins: Periodically, throughout your day, check in with yourself. Ask, “Am I focused on driving, or am I fixated the passenger, the rearview mirror, or the GPS?” This practice helps you become more aware of where your attention is and gently guides it back to the present. You can set regular reminders in your calendar to check in with yourself throughout the day, or use breaks between tasks to check in on where your attention has been focused.

By practicing present moment awareness, you learn to navigate life’s journey with a greater sense of peace and control. The inner critic may continue to speak, but you no longer need to let it steer your life. Instead, you can appreciate the beauty of the journey, one moment at a time, with your hands firmly on the wheel, eyes on the road, and a heart open to the unfolding landscape of the present.

Values: Navigating with Your Inner Compass

Imagine your life’s journey as an expedition through diverse and sometimes challenging landscapes. In this journey, your values act as your inner compass, guiding you in the direction that’s most meaningful and fulfilling to you. The inner critic, with its doubts and negative judgments, can be likened to a thick fog that sometimes obscures your path and makes it hard to see which way to go. Relying on your values—your inner compass—helps you navigate through this fog, ensuring you stay true to your course even when visibility is low.

Understanding Your Values

Values are deeply held beliefs about what is important to you in life. They are not goals with an endpoint, but rather directions we keep moving in. For example, values might include things like compassion, integrity, family, or creativity. Unlike goals, you never “achieve” a value. Instead, you continuously live in ways that align with it, much like how you use a compass to keep heading north.

  1. Identify Your Core Values: Spend some time reflecting on what is truly important to you. What qualities do you want to embody? What kind of person do you wish to be in your interactions with others? These reflections will help you identify your core values.
  2. Visualize Your Compass: Create a visual representation of your compass. This can be a simple drawing with your values listed in the direction you want to head. Place it somewhere you can see daily as a reminder of the direction you choose to go in life.
  3. Consult Your Compass During Decisions: Whenever you’re faced with decisions, big or small, consult your inner compass. Ask yourself which option aligns more closely with your values. This practice helps you make choices that are congruent with your deepest beliefs, rather than being swayed by the inner critic’s negative chatter.
  4. Navigating Through the Fog: When self-doubt or criticism clouds your judgment, pause and remind yourself of your values. Acknowledge the fog but know that your compass can guide you even when the path isn’t clear. Ask yourself, “What action, aligned with my values, can I take right now?”
  5. Values-Based Actions: Make a habit of choosing one small action each day that reflects your values. It could be as simple as showing kindness to a stranger (compassion), speaking your truth even when it’s hard (integrity), spending quality time with your family (family), or dedicating time to your creative projects (creativity). These actions are steps in the direction your compass points to, moving you through and beyond the fog of self-criticism.

Using your values as your inner compass allows you to navigate life with a sense of purpose and integrity. It doesn’t make the fog of self-criticism disappear, but it gives you the means to move forward with confidence, knowing that you’re heading in a direction that truly matters to you. With each step taken in alignment with your values, you reinforce the path through the fog, gradually clearing the way for a journey that is meaningful and fulfilling, regardless of the inner critic’s attempts to lead you astray.

Committed Action: Building the Bridge

Imagine your journey toward a life aligned with your values as crossing a vast, beautiful landscape divided by a river. This river represents the challenges and obstacles you face, including the harsh currents of self-doubt and the inner critic’s persistent whispers. Committed action is like building a bridge across this river. It’s not about silencing the inner critic or waiting for the water to dry up; it’s about taking deliberate steps, plank by plank, to construct a pathway that supports your journey toward your values, regardless of the noise below.

Taking Committed Actions

Committed action involves making a plan and taking action that is guided by your values, even in the face of difficult or unwanted experiences like fear, self-doubt, and criticism from your inner critic. It’s about choosing actions that move you closer to the kind of life you want to live, building that bridge, one plank at a time, with each action you take.

  1. Set Small, Actionable Goals: Start with small, achievable goals that are in line with your values. Each goal is a plank in your bridge. For instance, if one of your values is health, a small goal might be to take a ten-minute walk each day.
  2. Acknowledge the River: Recognize that the river of self-doubt and criticism will always be there. The goal is not to stop the flow but to acknowledge its presence and continue building your bridge regardless.
  3. Lay One Plank at a Time: Focus on laying one plank at a time. Each committed action you take is progress, no matter how small it may seem. Celebrate these actions, as each one is a step closer to the life you value.
  4. Use the Inner Critic as a Signpost: When the inner critic speaks up, use it as a signpost that you’re moving in a direction that matters to you. It often speaks loudest when we’re about to take meaningful steps. Thank it for its input, and then lay another plank on your bridge by taking another committed action.
  5. Adjust Your Plans as Needed: Sometimes, you’ll lay a plank and realize you need to adjust your approach. This doesn’t mean your bridge is failing; it means you’re learning and growing. Be flexible and willing to change your plans as you gain insight into what works best for you.
  6. Connect with a Community: Building a bridge can be a solo task, but it doesn’t have to be. Connect with others who are also building their bridges. Share resources, support, and encouragement to make the construction process a shared journey.
  7. Reflect on Your Progress: Regularly take time to reflect on the bridge you’re building. Look back at the planks you’ve laid, the challenges you’ve overcome, and the progress you’ve made towards living a life aligned with your values.

By committing to action, plank by plank, you’ll find yourself not only crossing the river of self-doubt and criticism but also creating a sturdy, reliable path that guides you toward a fulfilling and value-driven life. The bridge you build becomes a testament to your resilience, a structure that supports your journey despite the waters that swirl below.

Conclusion

As we navigate the intricate landscapes of our inner lives, we encounter a variety of terrains, each presenting its own set of challenges and opportunities for growth. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) offers us a map and a set of tools to journey through this landscape more skillfully, helping us to overcome the inner critic that so often seeks to derail our progress.

Imagine starting your journey trapped in quicksand, with the inner critic urging you to struggle against the very thoughts and feelings that ensnare you further. Here, the principle of acceptance teaches us to stop fighting, acknowledging that the more we struggle, the deeper we sink. Instead, we learn to increase contact with the quicksand, floating upward, then rolling onto solid ground.

Next, we encounter a river of self-doubt, its waters murky with our fears and criticisms. Our values serve as the compass that guides us, pointing us in the direction of meaningful action. We begin to lay planks across this river, each one a committed action aligned with our deepest values, building a bridge that carries us over the tumultuous waters.

Along the way, we come across a gentle stream, its surface cluttered with leaves that represent our fleeting thoughts and feelings. Here, cognitive defusion teaches us not to grasp at these leaves, but to observe them as they float by, recognizing that we are the stream itself—constant and untroubled by the passing debris.

As we travel, we occasionally find our gaze drawn to the rearview mirror, our inner critic fixating on the past or projecting fears onto the road ahead. Through present moment awareness, we learn to focus on the journey itself, driving the bus of our life with intention, guided by the road that unfolds before us, not overly fixated on the distractions from behind or the anticipations of what lies ahead.

And as we journey, we come to understand that we are not the weather that changes above us but the sky itself—vast, open, and unchanging. This perspective allows us to watch our thoughts, feelings, and the inner critic itself as passing weather, knowing that they do not define us.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy doesn’t just help us to silence the inner critic; it teaches us to build a rich, fulfilling life in spite of it. Each metaphorical tool and exercise weaves into a broader strategy for living that empowers us to embrace our experiences, choose our direction with purpose, and move forward with confidence and compassion for ourselves. It is cohesive approach to overcoming the inner critic, ensuring that we not only endure the journey but thrive throughout it, creating a life of meaning, connection, and fulfillment.

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Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.


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