The Inner Critic and Your Happiness
We are all striving to be happy in life. Are you aware we all have an inner voice, a kind of internal guide that helps us to make the right choices? Sometimes that inner voice works against us and actually blocks our happiness by affecting our self-confidence. When the inner voice is critical, harsh, and judgemental, we end up feeling depressed and ashamed. We become anxious and doubt ourselves, focusing on our deficiencies. Regardless of what we have achieved, our critical inner voice (CIV) may drown out positive feelings and rob us of much joy.
So how does your inner voice talk to your unique self? Do you speak to yourself using an encouraging, soothing, and comforting voice? Or is it negative, tough, harsh, and judgemental? Take a moment right now to find out. Check in with yourself and reflect to the different areas of your life. There may be one area where you are especially critical of yourself. What does your CIV say to you?
We all have a CIV that varies in intensity. It gives us continual feedback about whether our behaviour is congruent with our values and deeply held beliefs. Often, you may not be even aware of how much your CIV is present in your daily thoughts. It can zap you before you are fully aware of the impact. This critical voice may be disguised as a voice of motivation, when in truth it is harsh, critical, and negative, leading you to feel bad about yourself. In short, it is a voice that puts you down. Your CIV tells you that you are a bad person who is inferior, incompetent, unlovable, or unwanted. Or your CIV may deliver messages about bad things that will surely happen to you, making you feel vulnerable and anxious.
What does your critical inner voice tell you?
Here are some of the general messages that our CIV tends to tell us:
• “You’re an idiot,” or “You are stupid.”
• “You’re a loser/failure”.
• “You’re ugly,” or “No one will want you.”
• “You’re not like other people.”
• “You’re not good enough.”
• “There is something wrong with you.”
Our CIV is also frequently activated at work, giving us messages such as:
• “You’ll never get ahead or be successful”.
• “Don’t try. You’ll fail”.
• “No one values how hard you work.”
• “You can’t handle this stress.”
• “You’re lazy”.
At home, our CIV can threaten our sense of safety, security, and happiness in our significant relationships:
• “He doesn’t really care about you.”
• “You are weak”.
• “You are needy”.
• “You’re a failure”.
• “You’re unlovable.”
• “You’re a bad parent”.
• “You’re better off on your own.”
• “Don’t let your guard down, you’ll just get hurt.”
Robert, an accomplished and much-loved Christian minister of a thriving church, was drilling a screw into a wall when the drill accidentally slipped and made a big hole. Robert cursed himself: “Rob, you are not a man!”
Helen is a petroleum engineer, a mother of two children, recently separated from a ten-year abusive marriage. In my office, she broke down and cried, “I never wanted children because I knew I would suck at it. Nothing I ever do for the kids is good enough. I’m a bad mother. I failed at my marriage, and now I am failing as a mother.”
Stephen, a top-level executive who was sent by his wife to see me, was unhappy and frequently angry. He told me, “Kim, I think I’m an evil person. I manipulate people, make false promises, and sell services that we cannot deliver, and I make a lot of money from it.”
Nick, a multi-millionaire business owner, came to me after his wife pushed away his sexual advances following several of Nick’s anger outbursts. He held his face in his hands and cried painfully as he said to me, “I’m worthless and repulsive.”
One common theme exists for all the clients mentioned above. Their parents or primary caregivers (and other influential people in their lives) had been harsh, critical, withholding of affection, or absent.
The CIV can sometimes become so harsh and overpowering that it leads to symptoms of anxiety or depression. If the voice tells us that everything always goes wrong in the end, or that we won’t be able to live up to other’s expectations for us, we may end up feeling anxiety symptoms. Or if the voice says that life will always be bleak because we are not good enough, then depression can set in.
Origins of the CIV
The critical inner voice usually stems from early life experiences. Young children utilise primitive thinking to make sense of the people and world around them. Because they are still learning words and concepts, they think in black and white terms. For example, when they do not feel loving, they say that they ‘hate’ others because they are unable to conceptualise a reality other than the opposites of love and hate. During this formative time, children’s sense of self and personal values are influenced by the statements and behaviours of their parents or early caregivers.
Isolated events of extreme stress, trauma, or grief where parents ‘lose it’ can have a detrimental effect on children. We learn how to react to stressful situations by seeing what our caregivers model for us. Likewise, our CIV develops based on our parents’ attitudes toward themselves. When our parents make a mistake, hearing them call themselves ‘an idiot’, ‘a failure’, ‘not good enough’, or ‘stupid’ is damaging because the child strongly identifies with the verbal attack. Later on in life, that adult child will self-identify in the same way. A parent’s positive traits influence a child’s self-esteem; in the same way, their negative thinking patterns affect the way their children develop a self-attacking critical voice.
Sometimes, when our CIV has grown particularly vicious, we feel so shaming and critical toward ourselves that we can project those feelings on our children or partner. I remember Bill, a verbose and successful entrepreneur, a father of two sons. He came to me along with his timid and soft-spoken wife, Jessica, as the two sought marriage counselling. Jessica spoke in a resigned way about how Bill had called one of their sons a ‘bastard’. As we explored deeper, Bill revealed that he had never met his biological father. He had been conceived out of wedlock, which in those days would have led him to be called ‘bastard’.
Our CIV does not only develop from early childhood experiences when our parents or caregiver is critical or harsh. It also develops from consistently absent, distant or disengaged parents and caregivers. When this occurs, the child automatically perceives there is something wrong with them because as previously mentioned, children think in black and white terms (Mum loves me or Mum hates me). Additionally, and sadly so, the idea that they (the child) is somehow unlovable (which threatens their survival) is intolerable to the child, hence it is somewhat more tolerable to believe there is something wrong with them or they are somehow unlovable rather to believe the parent is absent, distant, disengaged or unavailable.
Over time, these judgements, attitudes and feelings become internalised as inner voices. Our critical inner voice does not suddenly emerge in adulthood. It is developed from our early childhood experiences and reinforced throughout teenage years (bullying, intense peer pressure) right into adulthood. While the critical inner voice is more prominent in children who experienced neglect, abuse or trauma, it does not escape children who go through the everyday trauma of growing up.
A client, Fiona, was a world-renowned classical pianist and the mother of two young boys. Her first four appointments featured Fiona sobbing and sobbing as she struggled with feelings of guilt about her boys having behavioural problems at school. She told me, “I’m a bad mother. I failed to protect my children from being bullied, and now I’m married to a man like my first husband—I’ve made a bad choice again. How can I be so stupid, Kim? What is wrong with me?”
I helped guide her to identify the source of her CIV, saying, “Fiona, this voice you use to speak to yourself, it feels like an ‘old’ voice from someone in your past.” She responded, “Yes, my childhood music teacher. He was a tyrant. He used to humiliate me in front of the whole class. It was horrible. I tried to ask my parents to change teachers, but they refused. Mum said I had to toughen up, and Dad was too busy with his own music career to intervene. I just couldn’t toughen up, Kim, I just couldn’t…”
How to Overcome Your CIV
Even though your CIV may seem harsh and sometimes unrelenting, at its core it is an attempt to help you have your needs met—like everything we say or do, including everything we say to ourselves. Approaching our CIV in this way, and seeing even our self-critical thoughts as an attempt to take care of our needs, demonstrates the beginnings of self-compassion. Try the following three-step approach to transform your CIV into a new, compassionate view of yourself that is truly supportive.
As you practice these three steps, be gentle with yourself.
1. Create a ritual of checking in with yourself three times a day, perhaps at every meal time. The goal is to pay close attention and notice what the CIV is saying to you about yourself.
2. Examine the messages of your CIV by externalising it. Say the message out loud or write it down. Then, change “I” to “you.” For example, if the internal voice is saying, “I am terrible at relationships,” then say or write down the sentence “You are terrible at relationships.” This allows for a sense of distance so that you can truly see what the CIV is saying and see that is not an accurate statement about you. Instead, it is an echo of a voice from your past experience. Does the voice sound familiar? And how accurate are the judgements?
3. Transform the critical voice into a voice of compassion by responding to the statement with a more accurate and compassionate statement. For each critical or judgemental statement made by your CIV, say or write down a more realistic and kind assessment of the situation and about you. In the example above, the compassionate response about yourself might be, “I am worthy of positive relationships and I frequently reach out to connect with others.” When making this response, think of how you would respond encouragingly to a friend.
Overcoming the CIV — A Tricky Process
Identifying and overcoming our CIV can be harder than it seems as the CIV can confuse. It can take the form of a soothing and comforting voice that reassures us at times, only to attack us at other times. For example, your CIV may urge you, ‘Oh, go on, buy that new dress. You deserve to treat yourself after this hard day.’ But later on the very same voice will have a different message: ‘You’re an idiot. Now you have totally maxed out your credit card, and all because of a total lack of self-esteem and self-control!’
Long-term thought habits are hard to break. Any major change can cause anxiety and the process of transforming our critical voice into self-compassion is no different. Attempts to change can intensify those internal attacks. For some people, there can be sadness and loss associated with giving up the old messages of the CIV. We have grown accustomed to our critical voice and have become very comfortable with them. They may not be pleasant, but they are familiar! A client even said that she felt her CIV was keeping her company, and when she stopped hearing that critical voice as often, she felt lonely and scared without the CIV to provide constant messages for her. Others may feel fearful that without a critical inner voice to motivate good behaviour, they will not act appropriately. The truth is, however, that freeing ourselves from our CIV allows us to broaden our idea of who we are and realise our full potential.
Because our CIV usually arises from so-called ‘teachings’ that we received from important role models in our lives, we may worry that giving up that critical voice will take away our core values or leave us with no guidance at all. Or, like my multi-millionaire client Nick who I described above, we may wonder how we can continue to be successful without the ‘motivation’ of that critical voice. In short, we can. There are many successful happy people who continue to achieve great things without feeling the punishment of the CIV.
It takes work and courage to look at the way we relate to ourselves, question our internal voices and re-evaluate who we really are—and who we are capable of becoming. But it is a worthwhile journey to take. Your journey can be made speedier and easier with the help of a skill and trained Counsellor or Psychologist. Ring or drop us a line if you would like us to help.
To understand more about how the CIV can limit your happiness, it may be helpful to watch this animated video.
(note: personal details have been changed to protect client confidentiality)