Do you know the secret plans of your inner critic?

Who I am
Robert Maurer

Author and references

We all have an inner voice that can take on a comforting tone to make us feel better when we're down, or tell us we're safe and that everything will be fine. But other times that rumor can be very harsh. It can strike us mercilessly by reminding us of everything we did wrong.

That voice represents one of the different "I's" that we have inside. According to the “Theory of I”, in fact, our personality is made up of different “I's” that take control if necessary, to protect us from dangers, guarantee our survival and make us less vulnerable.

One of those "I's" takes on the role of critic and can tell us things like "you didn't try or try hard enough", "pay more attention" or "you never do anything right." Although many times the recriminations of that "critical self" are not pleasant, we must pay attention to them because it follows a hidden program that usually has a strong impact on our mental balance.

The 3 reasons that guide our inner critic

1. Try to motivate us. Our critical voice can tell us that “we are hopelessly lazy not to go to the gym” or that “we are bankrupt for having lost an excellent job opportunity” trying to motivate us, even if it may seem paradoxical.

When our inner voice takes on this tone, it generally repeats a pattern we learned in childhood, perhaps because our parents or teachers used those words with us. In practice, our inner critic believes that blaming ourselves for being wrong pushes us to try harder.

Therefore this critical inner voice reprimands us heavily by awakening memories of past mistakes. It constantly reminds us that we have not been up to the task to encourage us to grow and punishes us for generating negative feelings that we want to free ourselves from by improving our performance.

Unfortunately, a study conducted at Brandeis University revealed that being overly hard on ourselves and punishing ourselves with negative thoughts brings the expected results. Indeed, it can make us feel more incompetent, imperfect, or deficient. Conversely, taking a more compassionate attitude and accepting failure motivates us more to improve.

2. Try to give us control back. As the level of uncertainty increases, it can be particularly difficult to cope with the feeling of loss of control. In these cases, our inner critic may step in to tell us things like "if we tried harder we would be successful" or "if we paid more attention we wouldn't fail."

These phrases are actually a fight against the feeling of helplessness and lack of control. While they may seem like recriminations, their ultimate goal is to strengthen the internal locus of control. In other words, remember that we can do better if we try harder. This strategy can have a side effect: expecting too much of ourselves.

What should have an empowering effect can turn against us, causing us to become victims and perpetrators of ourselves. "This self-referentiality generates a paradoxical freedom, which, due to the structures of obligation inherent in it, turns into violence, so that everyone ends up taking their forced labor camp with them", warns the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han.

In fact, we need to be aware that some things are under our control, but others are not. We must not make the mistake of blaming ourselves and trying harder than we can, just because we are afraid to admit that we cannot control everything.

3. Try to protect us. This "protective self" is one of the first aspects of the personality that develops to keep us safe. He is a kind of bodyguard who is constantly vigilant to detect lurking dangers and determine how to protect us.

That critical voice will tell us things like "don't be ridiculous" or "don't sweat, don't blush, don't move your hands so much or they'll realize you're nervous." He will constantly examine the environment to determine which behaviors are most likely to be socially accepted.

It assures us that we follow a set of rules because they guarantee our safety and social approval. The critical voice that is activated in our head ensures that we do not act inappropriately or ridiculously. It helps us avoid mistakes, allows us to follow benchmarks to act effectively, avoid being careless or rude.

One of the main problems with this type of criticism is that we lose spontaneity. We become less authentic because our controlling or protective selves are controlling us and telling us what to do to please others.

If this self-criticism becomes excessive, very soon we will feel overwhelmed and a self-observation mechanism will be triggered that will generate just the opposite effect: it will make us more nervous and we will be less effective in our social interactions. A study conducted at Harvard University revealed that nothing sticks as intensely as what we want to ignore, is what is known as the Rebound Effect.

How to use inner criticism to grow

In fact, that critical inner voice is needed. There is nothing wrong with being self-critical. But we must make sure that the inner voice does not take control and, above all, we must be attentive to its messages because the way we speak to ourselves, the discourse we weave around our failures, weaknesses and mistakes is very important.

A study conducted at Kingsway Hospital in the UK revealed that our critical inner voice is not a unitary process, but acquires different functions, follows different goals and feeds on different emotions. These psychologists concluded that "self-critical people have a higher risk of suffering from some psychopathology than those who calm down." Another study conducted at Georgia State University linked high levels of self-criticism with more severe depressive symptoms.

The goal is not to eliminate that "critical self", but to learn to deal with it. Fighting against these claims or trying to ignore them is usually not very effective. Self-criticism often seems to reflect the truth, which makes it very convincing.

Instead, we can practice defusion. It is a technique that will help us recognize that our criticisms are just ideas, not facts. In this way we can differentiate our thoughts from reality and reduce the negative impact of criticism, weakening its control over our mood and behavior.

One of the techniques of defusion consists precisely in grasping the hidden objective behind the criticisms we make ourselves. So we need to treat our inner critic in a more compassionate way. We can tell him: "I understand what you are doing and I appreciate it, but there are other ways to deal with this situation."

Ultimately, our inner critic is just trying to protect or motivate us. It's just that sometimes he can't find the best way to do it and we have to consciously give him some extra help.

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