The voice in your head that criticizes you for perceived failures or shortcomings is known as your inner critic. It’s the voice of internal self-judgment. Unfortunately, this kind of self-judgment can be extremely painful, because it strikes in the places where you already feel weak or insecure.
The inner critic can present as nagging thoughts that you aren’t good enough, negative internal commentary on your daily life, or negative self-talk, berating yourself for past mistakes. These negative thought processes often occur after a challenging experience — which can compound the pain and frustration you might already be feeling.
Understanding the inner critic
So where does the inner critic comes from? After all, it doesn’t exactly feel great to beat ourselves up all the time. If you’re wondering how it presents and how to manage it, keep reading to learn more.
What causes the inner critic?
Oftentimes, our inner critics can be traced back to painful early life experiences. The inner critic may send messages that sound like the voice of caregivers or authority figures who criticized you harshly as a child. Thus the thought patterns of a harsh inner critic can form around perceived faults or hurtful attitudes we have internalized and now believe to be true about ourselves.
For example, we might berate ourselves over a small mistake, mentally calling ourselves “stupid” or “irresponsible.” But not only is that untrue and unfair, but it’s also not what we really think. It’s a voice from our past — that caregiver, authority figure, or other person.
It is important to note that the inner critic influences each person in unique ways and has different roots depending on the individual’s life circumstances.
What does one’s inner critic do to a person?
An unhealthy inner critic causes us to focus on self-judgment, triggering feelings of self-doubt, shame, and inadequacy. It can create writer’s block, or even lead to imposter syndrome. You may feel that you are not worthy of calling yourself a writer, or that your writing isn’t good enough. This critical voice convinces you to buy into its lies, making it hard for you to accomplish your goals.
The goal of the inner critic, though, isn’t to limit you — it’s to keep you safe. That voice is — paradoxically — trying to keep you from the shame and pain of being rejected. Once you know that, you can accept that it’s not a real assessment of you, your work, or your value. And you can harness the information from that inner critic to become even better — at writing, or anything else that matters to you.
Discerning between a healthy and unhealthy inner critic
There are many different ways that people judge themselves, and no two people will experience negative self-talk in the same way. That being said, below are a few examples that may help you to recognize an unhealthy inner critic at work.
1. You view the voice in your head as a separate entity
A healthy inner critic can feel like a part of yourself that offers constructive criticism and makes room for self-improvement. However, if you think of the “voice in your head” as separate from you by projecting it onto others such as hard-to-please editors, critical readers, or a generally disapproving audience who might not like your work, this might be an unhealthy inner critic.
2. Simplistic views of “good” or “bad” writing
Recognizing that the writing process has plenty of opportunities for growth and improvement is one sign of a healthy inner critic. An unhealthy inner voice, on the other hand, typically casts shallow judgments that lack any actionable steps to make progress. These negative thoughts might say things like “My writing is terrible,” “I should just give up on this,” or worse yet, cause you to feel shame for where you are in your process.
A healthy inner critic, on the other hand, would offer productive solutions and advice to improve. With a healthy internal dialogue, you may even think of specific steps you can take to improve your writing.
3. Nagging put-downs and judgment
One clear sign of an unhealthy inner critic is that it has little to offer other than strongly worded and deeply hurtful judgments. It can cause you to feel ashamed, doubt your abilities, and even question your self-worth.
4. The voice hinders your writing process
A healthy inner critic supports your ability to improve your writing by offering constructive feedback and actionable steps that can make it better. When your inner critic is unhealthy, it makes it harder for you to get started or make progress with the writing process because it burdens you with self-doubt and inhibits your ability to think creatively and freely.
5. Focuses on the opinions of others instead of your own
When you have an unhealthy inner critic, you may find yourself more concerned with what other people may think of you and your writing rather than what you think. Instead of projecting onto an imaginary audience that your writing is terrible, a healthy inner critic might recognize that you actually do have some room for improvement and help you get on with that important work.
If you don’t know how you feel about your own writing, get reacquainted with your feelings by working to develop an increased self-awareness. This process may take some time but will help you develop an invaluable skill set.
Healing from an unhealthy inner critic
There are different approaches to healing the inner critic. Here are some approaches to healing a harsh inner critic.
1. Become familiar with the voice in your head
Take time to observe and identify the voice of your inner critic without trying to change it. Notice the quality of the language. Reflect on if it makes you feel bad about yourself. Do you feel negative emotions that are more extreme than the situation warrants? Deepening your awareness of your inner dialogue will empower you to recognize if you are engaging with an unhealthy thought process. This self-knowledge is key to disrupting the harmful dynamic.
2. Practice reframing
When your critical inner voice attacks ask yourself, “Is there another way that I could view this situation?” Recognizing its distortions as untrue, and pushing back against the inner critic not only empowers you to discredit the validity of its judgments. It also gives you the opportunity to explore healthier and more accurate ways of thinking.
3. Problem solve
Another strategy for healing is to respond to this voice that attacks you from within. Problem-solve the worst-case scenario that this inner enemy frightens you with. Ask yourself how likely that outcome is and what you could do about it if it were to happen. This can empower you to realize that this fear is not likely to come to pass. Even if this frightening scenario did come to pass, you quite likely have the power, agency, and skills to navigate the situation or, the resources and support to get help if you need to.
4. Respond with compassion
Counter the stories of your critical inner voice with true statements that come from a place of self-love and self-compassion. This can help you to develop a nurturing voice that can soothe the pain caused by negative feelings. Nurturing an inner life that holds space for your growth areas with kindness can be a powerful antidote to the shame caused by negative thoughts and feelings.
5. Try cognitive behavioral therapy
Consider trying cognitive behavioral therapy. This is a therapy modality that can help you to change the thought patterns of the inner critic. You’ll get to work alongside a professional who is trained to help you improve the way you think and behave, thus enhancing your quality of life.
Silencing the inner critic while writing
You can work to heal your relationship with your inner critic in daily life. The following strategies are designed to help you silence the inner critic while you write.
6. Take the pressure off of your first drafts
If you are able to lower your expectations at the beginning of your writing process, this will make it easier for you to get started while reducing the likelihood that you will judge yourself. Recognize that a first draft is probably not going to be your best writing. Accept that fact and understand that you’ll have the opportunity to improve the quality of your writing during the editing and proofreading stages. This shift will free you to get your thoughts out and onto the page without being blocked by an unhealthy inner critic.
7. Discern the difference between judgment and constructive criticism
The first step in addressing an issue is awareness. Learn to identify and recognize when your inner critic is being judgmental rather than offering constructive criticism. Also work on being able to receive constructive feedback without fear. When your inner critic is healthy, it will become a great asset in supporting your ability to self-edit your work — if you are able to act on the valid feedback without feeling upset by it.
8. Become solution-oriented
Rather than beating yourself up if you sense that there’s room to improve your writing, ask questions. What is bothering me about this piece of writing? In what ways could I improve this section? How could this work be better? Ask yourself questions about how to improve instead of agonizing over feelings that your work is not good enough. This shift in thinking can provide a sense of direction for the work ahead of you.
9. Gather real world feedback from friends and family
After self-editing your work, get feedback on your writing from someone you trust. One of two things could happen. The feedback of this second person might contradict the attacks of your inner critic, laying your fears to rest. Alternatively, you might find that there are some similarities between the feedback you received and the voice of your inner critic. If this is the case, ask your loved ones to pair any critiques with concrete suggestions for how to improve. This way you’ll have a path forward to make your writing better.
Many people struggle with the challenges of a harsh internal dialogue. Learn about your inner critic by reading about it and increasing your self-awareness. Begin the journey towards befriending the voice in your head, turning it into a powerful ally that can help you be your best self, and produce writing that you can be proud of.