Imagine you’ve been dating someone for a while. Things are going well. You progress from casual dates to some sleep overs. While spending more time with this person, you discover that they have a teensy-weensy tendency to find fault with everything you do.
You wake up each morning and this person immediately starts questioning and criticizing you. “Are you sure you want to wear that? It makes you look fat.” “Why did you say that in the meeting? What were you thinking?” “I don’t think you should try for that promotion; there are others more qualified and you probably won’t get it.”
Would you stay with this person? I hope your answer is, hell no.
But what if the relentless criticism you face isn’t coming from someone else? What if it’s coming from inside your own head?
We all evaluate our actions and thoughts, and to a certain extent this is helpful. We all need a cautionary voice that prompts us to think twice before doing or saying something we’ll regret and encourages us to be vigilant in important areas. (Check out this article for more on why you shouldn't completely silence your inner critic.)
But for many of us, the voice in our heads is simply mean, putting in lots of overtime offering a constant stream of unconstructive commentary.
Since the relationship we have with ourselves is permanent, we might as well make it a positive one. Becoming your strongest cheerleader rather than your toughest critic is one of the best ways to energize and motivate yourself and feel happier at the same time.
“If we start to think of ourselves as our most important ally, friend and, ultimately, cheerleader, we can alter our own internal relationship and begin to count on ourselves in new, inspiring and important ways,” says author and self-empowerment expert Mike Robbins.
Deliberately engaging in positive self-talk also has the advantage of taking the place of detrimental thoughts which is “not only...stressful, but can really stunt your success” says wellness coach Elizabeth Scott.
We all want to engage in meaningful work and accomplish important things. It’s difficult to motivate yourself and stay on course through inevitable challenges when you’re facing a barrage of negative thoughts. It’s counterproductive to set our sights on meaningful things and then sabotage ourselves as we try to achieve them.
On the other hand, boosting yourself with positive self-talk can help you overcome inevitable difficulties and establish forward momentum. “When your self-talk is productive, it can motivate you to stay on track and work through challenges.”
So how do we turn the critic in our mind from foe into friend?
One useful (and frankly, kind of fun) strategy is to give your inner naysayer a name. “Giving something a name makes it real, as well as something that can be communicated about,” says psychiatrist Susan Rako MD.
Naming things has great power – for better or worse. From a sociological standpoint, oversimplification that comes with naming can sometimes cause problems.
But when dealing with the overcritical voice in your head? I say use the power of naming to your advantage. Give a harmful voice a name that reflects its true nature to help keep it in check.
You could pick any old name, of course. But why not have fun? Maybe name your nasty voice “Horrid Harold” or “Negative Nellie”. Or you could go full-on Harry Potter with something like “My Very Own Delores Umbridge”. A silly name like this can knock your inner critic down several pegs and help you distance yourself from its nasty contents. When your inner critic starts up, you can say, “Oh that’s just Horrible Harold. Nobody pays attention to him” and get on with it.
Yes, this whole technique is a bit silly, but no one must know about it but you. And if it helps achieve some distance from a voice that is consistently tearing you down, why not?
A second strategy for tempering your inner critic is to exchange a negative thought for a compassionate one. In a society highly focused on competence and productivity, self-compassion can be difficult to practice; it can feel self-indulgent and “soft”.
But there’s evidence that practicing self-compassion more often can be helpful. Self-compassion researcher Kristin Neff says there is “data supporting the fact that self-compassion has the same mental health benefits as self-esteem: less depression, more optimism, greater happiness, more life satisfaction.”
Wanting these things isn’t selfish – this is what allows you to be your best self, and in turn be the best parent, spouse, sibling, and friend to those you love.
Starting a self-compassion practice can be as simple as gathering a few kind phrases that you say to yourself when you’re feeling stuck. When you make mistakes, phrases such as such as “everyone stumbles” and “we all make mistakes” can keep your slip-up in perspective.
When you’re focused on the negative, resist this dialogue with facts that prove otherwise. “I’m not a bad parent; I’m simply overtired/overworked/stressed and lost my temper. I’ve made great parenting decisions many other times, as evidenced by (insert your most recent parenting 'win').”
As Mike Robbins says, “Cheering for ourselves with passion, and with a true sense of love and appreciation is not arrogant, it's actually required if we're going to live a life of fulfillment, gratitude, and meaning.”
Taming our inner critic can be an important first step in becoming an effective cheerleader for ourselves. This, in turn, can help us stay energized, motivated and just plain happier while we’re putting in that good day’s work and showing up for the people we love.