The enemy of creativity, success, and wellbeing is the unkind (and often untrue) voice of self-criticism. You know that voice that chimes in any time you take a bold step toward something you really want to do? The one that always fills your mind with doubts about whether or not you are worthy or capable, always skeptically inquiring if you really fit in, if you made a horrible mistake… if you’re doing it all wrong?
Sharon Salzberg, teacher and expert on the practice of Loving Kindness Meditation, suggests that you recognize the voice of that inner critic and, instead of identifying with it, create a little distance from it. You can even give it a name. Sharon calls her inner critic “Lucy” after the character from Peanuts who once told Charlie Brown “The problem with you, Charlie Brown, is that you’re you.” This can be the way of the inner critic: excessively rude, hurtful, and unhelpful. If you have a loud and annoying inner critic, it’s important to recognize that this voice is one of self-preservation and protection, a reflex to buffer against disappointment or rejection. However, that defensive instinct can quickly become destructive when it goes unchecked.
Studies find that unconscious negative self-beliefs are associated with self-handicapping and more noticeable displays of anxiety when asked to perform (1). In other words, the inner critic gets in the way of you showing up as your truest and best self. The inner critic can seize your dreams and keep you paralyzed in doubt.
Our personal narratives, the stories we use to make sense of our lives and the thoughts that go on playing in the background of our conscious awareness, help to shape our sense of identity. Though it may be hard to silence the inner critic at times, it’s imperative that we don’t let Lucy write the entire story. Research finds that people who are able to find themes of redemption and healing in times of struggle, report higher levels of mental health and wellbeing (2). Even in the midst of an attack from the inner critic, people can learn to self-soothe and confront this critical voice head-on with practice and training (3). Other modalities such as Compassionate Mind Training can be used to learn how to cultivate a more warm and accepting approach to the self (4).
Interestingly, the neuroscience literature finds that these self-assuring actions activate the same regions of the brain that are used to express compassion and empathy towards others (5). Essentially, you are just offering yourself the same kindness you would offer your best friend when they are struggling. Even simply being exposed to language where the word I is paired with words that describe positive traits (e.g., beautiful, honest, nice) can improve implicit self-esteem and make people less sensitive to negative feedback (6).
So, next time Lucy is trying to steal your spotlight, take a good look at her. Notice where this voice comes from; what does she want? Sometimes she’s trying to offer a helpful perspective, but just going about it in the wrong way. Notice the context that usually sets Lucy off. Often, the inner critic comes out in moments when we’re intimidated, like walking in to the gym for the first time in a long time, or preparing for a job interview, or in other places where you feel you are being evaluated and it’s easy to compare yourself to others. Interestingly, that self-critical narrative is often an indication that you are getting very close to something that you really want. It’s ok to have some fear around it, just don’t let Lucy scare you away from what you love and want most.
Why not give someone else the mic? Develop a voice, a script, a side of your personality that is loving and compassionate. Make this the voice of your biggest cheerleader. The more you use that voice, the more familiar it will be. Invite this perspective into your life on a more regular basis by practicing encouraging mantras: I am braver than my fear; I possess unconditional goodness; I deserve the chance to go after my dreams. You can also shift your focus towards positive self-thoughts by keeping gratitude lists, and letting yourself celebrate the successes of your day.
You can interpret the story of your life through a multiple lenses and narrators. With practice, you might start to find that the voices of kindness and courage becomes a little easier to access. Next time you hear the voice of Lucy, let yourself acknowledge her right away. Give her a wise "hello" and then kindly make space for an alternative point of view.
1. Spalding, L. R., & Hardin, C. D. (1999). Unconscious unease and self-handicapping: Behavioral consequences of individual differences in implicit and explicit self-esteem. Psychological Science, 10, 535-539.
2. McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22, 233-238.
3. Kelly, A. C., Zuroff, D. C., & Shapira, L. B. (2009). Soothing oneself and resisting self-attacks: The treatment of two intrapersonal deficits in depression vulnerability. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 33, 301.
4. Gilbert, P., & Procter, S. (2006). Compassionate mind training for people with high shame and self‐criticism: Overview and pilot study of a group therapy approach. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 13, 353-379.
5. Longe, O., Maratos, F. A., Gilbert, P., Evans, G., Volker, F., Rockliff, H., & Rippon, G. (2010). Having a word with yourself: Neural correlates of self-criticism and self-reassurance. NeuroImage, 49, 1849-1856.
6. Dijksterhuis, A. (2004). I like myself but I don't know why: enhancing implicit self-esteem by subliminal evaluative conditioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 345.