Managing your self-critic
Does it often feel like you’re your own worst enemy? Like your self-esteem and confidence is held back by a small voice at the back of your mind, magnifying your failures and discounting your successes? In such a way that, even if something goes well (say, an exam or a social event), it doesn’t reduce your fear of messing up next time? In that case, your inner critic might be too powerful.
We all have an inner critic. It ensures that we do our duty to our community (show up for school or work, complete homework, do our share of the housework), don’t cross other people’s boundaries (annoy or hurt them), or break important social rules. And it checks that we keep up with our peers by comparing our performance to theirs. In these cases, the self-critic provides us with useful feedback to ensure that we’re keeping up with our commitments. Humans are social creatures, and the need to be included and accepted by our social group is deeply embedded in our DNA. So checking whether we’re likeable to others, and whether our performance lives up to expectations is generally helpful.
The problem arises when your self-criticism becomes too frequent or too intense. When it monitors and comments negatively on everything you do, making you doubt and second-guess yourself at every turn. Often, when that happens, you might begin to avoid some things altogether out of fear of failure. Like staying away from social events to avoid the risk of seeming awkward or uncool, or not submitting assignments because they never feel finished. When it comes this far, your inner critic is holding you back, rather than helping you. You’re losing out on potentially good experiences and chances to learn by listening to it, rather than protecting yourself.
That’s the point at which you need to take a step back, and watch what’s happening inside. See what triggers the critic, and really listen to what it’s saying. If it’s providing something useful, or simply scaring or upsetting you. Notice when and what it’s holding you back from, and observe how this impacts your life and your happiness. How do you feel about that? Try to nourish the sense of frustration or anger about being sabotaged and held down. And use it to connect with your inner sense of what you need in life: To be allowed to try new things, even if they don’t work out. To connect with other people, even if they might reject you. To experiment and learn, even if you’re not going to be the best. To trust that you can cope, even if things go wrong. To be allowed to mess up without hating yourself after. Try to muster enough motivation to tell the critic to back off and give you space to live your life. And take small steps towards doing those things that scare you, keeping an eye on the critic as you go along.
If you’re practicing this, but not getting anywhere, or the critic feels too powerful to overcome, working with a counsellor or psychologist can help you. They can help you work through past experiences that may have contributed to the creation of your inner critic, or figure out what other factors may be in the way of you making progress.