You’ve heard your inner critic before. That familiar voice. The running commentary, yapping away, and no matter how hard you try, or what you do – it just won’t be quiet! We’re our own worst critics. We know this. Yet it keeps so many of us stuck. In both physical and emotional health, it’s important to identify the why, so I’m constantly challenging myself and my clients to dig deeper. Because when you understand the “why,” you’re so much more inclined to make a change.
So, what if you stopped focusing on what the voice says but how you react to it?
What would it look like if you changed the dialogue of your inner critic and spoke to yourself exactly as if you spoke to your dog? (Or your cat, a snuggly baby, whatever makes your heart swoon with its mere existence.) I know. It’s a wild thought. But hear me out…
“Josepher (real name Joe), you’re the most handsome and best boy I’ve ever seen. Yes, you are. I love you so much. You need a little back scratch, come over here and let me scratch your tail. I know, that’s the spot. Look at you. Your ears are the velvetiest. You need a little bully rub, too; let me rub that belly. Because you’re a good boy. Want a treat? Sit down. You’re the smartest puppy. I love you so much. You’re my favorite. Yes, you are. Don’t lick the plates in the dishwasher – get out of there! Go lay down. Look how cute you look on the floor.” – Me. Every day. (IYKYK!)
Here’s the thing with dogs: they can also be a real pain in the ___. They’ll eat your shoes, planner, checkbook, and pudding pie on Thanksgiving. Then they’ll rest their warm furry soul on you, let out a sigh, and give you all the love you ever needed.
You can’t argue with your dog (I try.) They don’t talk back.
They’ll bark to alert you. Sometimes for real danger, other times for a leaf.
But you’re teaching and guiding them. You’re always moving on from their transgressions. Because they aren’t perfect.
But over and over again, you forgive and love them.
So, what if we did that for ourselves?
What if we talked to ourselves and treated ourselves like we spoke to our dogs?
I don’t mean the excessive praise we give our dogs for their mere existence. But the consistent practice of guidance, figuring out if the bark is for real danger or just the wind, and genuine forgiveness.
Your inner critic is a version of negative self-talk.
It’s not the voice we’re born with but the one that develops over time.
They’re the thoughts that repeatedly tell us who we’re not. How wrong we are. What we should be doing more of. Or less of. What we can’t accomplish and the reasons why. It’s the constant hesitation and questioning. And it can become a long story.
Sometimes we hear specific phrases from our past: a parent, teacher, or someone in authority. The words were painful.
But sometimes, the words were constructive, and they were met with a vulnerable time or circumstance that caused us to hang onto them as harsh criticism.
The voice can be the perfect version of yourself that you wish you were.
And many times, the voice is our protection from failure or what we perceive to be dangerous.
Your inner critic is also the most significant barrier to your health goals.
Whether you’re beginning your health journey and trying to make small changes to your diet or have athletic goals of completing a marathon – it’s not only the stories you tell yourself but how you respond to those stories that allow you to succeed.
Quieting your inner critic can be incredibly difficult, especially if you’ve experienced past trauma or prolonged stress.
One of the biggest myths about quieting your mind is that you should never have negative thoughts. You can somehow work through every part of your stress or trauma in therapy and train your brain to forget the moments that led to repetitive, harsh, black-and-white thoughts.
As someone who’s spent years in therapy and waited for that moment to happen – when I would suddenly be a positive thinker and could magically self-motivate and un-hear all the words I needed to succeed – it’s frustrating. Because it doesn’t work.
The goal is never about silencing your inner critic. The goal is to stop arguing with it (1.)
When you give your mind permission and a little grace, you shift into realistic thinking and possibility—a place to explore options and seek solutions to what’s keeping you stuck. You can be freely curious about things that might feel good to you. Although that voice might still be there, it doesn’t have the same impact.
Here are Five Steps to Calm Your Inner Critic
- Name it. Who’s voice is it? What does it look like? Sound like?
- Notice it. What is it trying to tell you? Why does it not want you to do this? What fear do you have that it’s alerting you to?
- Is it helping? Is it true? What if it isn’t true? Would someone else disagree with you if you spoke the voice out loud?
- Allow it to be present. The goal isn’t to have a silent inner voice. This is a protective part of you. It’s natural. Your body’s job is to protect and serve. Go through Steps 1-3, and then say ok. I hear you.
- Don’t let it run the show. Your inner critic is there, but it’s the passenger, not the driver. Simply acknowledging it, noticing it, and allowing it to be present will help you be in charge of your next step. Permission can be freeing by allowing the headspace for all the other emotions you’re capable of outside of worry.
How can you apply the Five Steps? An example.
You know exercise will benefit your mood and lower your blood pressure, so your goal is increasing cardio. You have this wild idea to train for a 5K, so with the enthusiasm of someone who’s set out to be the fitness queen you know you can be (and to hold yourself accountable), you sign up for the 5K.
Immediately, you regret it.
You’re not a runner. You hate running! You hate how your lungs feel, all cold and burny. You hate the feeling of being out of breath. You can’t run 3 miles. What were you thinking? Why did you sign up for this? This was a stupid idea. Everyone will see you running and think how ridiculous you look.
You’ve got a goal, and your inner critic always puts you back in your place and keeps you there. Right?
Instead of reacting to the voice:
- Name it. Is this a voice from your past? Did someone comment on your athleticism at one point? Or is this your voice that has emotional or physical fear?
- Notice it. What is this voice afraid of that it’s trying to warn you about? What area of the body do you feel it in? Maybe it’s a past injury. Or is it a fear of failure or criticism? Or the out-of-control feeling you feel when your heart beats faster and you’re out of breath, similar to anxiety in your chest and neck area. If you’ve had past trauma, does your environment (people, animals, cars, noises, etc.) feel threatening?
- Is it helping? Is there actual danger? This is the time for radical honesty. Sometimes feeling breathless is safe and regular as you start a new exercise. Or your injury was severe, and you need to be mindful not to push too hard. Is there a real consequence to running slowly? What are the threats in your environment – is there a place you feel safe (running indoors, in a safe neighborhood, on an enclosed track.) Is there a threat to your health, and have you checked in with your physician to review things to look out for?
- Allow it to be present. You’ve acknowledged the voice, named your fears, and got the tools to monitor yourself and a plan to feel secure.
- Don’t let it run the show. You have permission to feel that running may be emotionally and/or physically uncomfortable. Accepting this more realistic inner voice gives you the headspace to be curious about your mind and body’s potential! It might actually feel good to move your body! You might feel intensely proud of yourself when you finish the race. Or you might really end up not loving running, but you decide to try a class at the gym instead.
We’re all looking for that moment where we burst through the doors into the light and announce, “I’ve finally arrived as an emotionally and physically healthy human being!”
But healthy is not one moment in time.
It’s something you practice over and over again.
So the next time your dog eats your favorite pair of slippers, and you tell him how naughty he is – and then he climbs up onto your lap after the terrible day you just had, wanting his ears scratched – remember all that praise, that talk of how handsome he is and how much you love him – that’s his inner voice and what keeps him coming back to you no matter what. When you’re trying to quiet him down from barking and telling him thank you, but there’s no real danger – that’s the voice of reason you need.
It’s the voice that will keep you repeatedly returning to that new healthy habit and allow you to be curious about other practices that strengthen your well-being.
For more info on how to live an authentically healthy lifestyle, visit me here.
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