Managing my inner critic
Te whakatau i roto

“I used to think that I couldn’t get my highest performance without being critical of my performance - I thought that’s what being a good performer was about. I talked this over with my mentor and we explored what it would be like to be less critical, and more kind to myself. We found that I could be just as good without being critical, which allowed me to look to my next performance. rather than focusing on past mistakes.”

What is "my inner critic"?

Most of us have an “inner critic.” This is the internal voice that we repress, it tells us to do better, suggests we haven’t done well enough, or that we’ve failed somehow. Most often, we can choose not to take these thoughts seriously, or they are balanced by telling ourselves we’ve done a good job, it’s okay to make mistakes, and that these things happen. The problem happens when the inner critic takes the driving seat. 

The space between Self-Esteem and Self Compassion

Why do I feel overly critical?

It’s natural for us to notice how we’ve performed, and to give ourselves feedback based on our performance. When we’re under stress, however, we can go into ‘threat mode’ where we notice more of the negative things, than the positive, or the negative voice can feel very loud. Sometimes we believe that this mode is useful and so we overuse it and forget to balance this with kindness to ourselves. We can focus excessively on achieving our goals, and this leads us to feel like failures. If we are too focused on achievement for too long, we can forget how to relax and recover.

It’s hardly surprising then that higher levels of self-criticism is related to higher levels of depression, anxiety, and a range of other mental health difficulties. When a person is feeling down and depressed, another factor can then come in: we become quite literally blind to the good things in ourselves, (in other people and the world around us). That means all we notice are the problems. It becomes even easier to be self-critical when it feels like we’re taking a fair look and all we’re able to see in our self is negatives.

So while we might feel like being harsh on ourselves is useful as a form of self-motivation, when we overuse self-criticism and tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough, by not focusing on our good behaviours/performance, we can create a handbrake preventing performance.

How common is self-criticism?

Problematic self-criticism is more common than we might realise. In a study of high performing athletes around 10% experienced it, and nearly 20% (1 in 5) in a study of high school students. Given the relationship between low self-criticism and other mental health outcomes such as anxiety and depression, this gives us a good place to start to understand how we might be able to tackle some of these major mental health challenges through improving our self-esteem.

Inner critic self-check

If we tend to talk to ourselves harshly e.g. “Come on! We should do better than this!”, more often than not, our inner critic may have too much influence over how we see ourselves. We may also constantly seek reassuring feedback or confirmation of negative perceptions we have of our performance. We may also worry a lot about our performance, whether we’ve failed or not and engage in unhelpful thinking, telling ourselves “I should have done…” or “I always suck at…”.

Often what’s going on around us may influence our thinking style. For example, when we’re feeling stressed or don’t have contact with others like we normally would, blaming ourselves for little things or not giving ourselves a break might come up more often.

Take this survey to find out how you're doing managing your inner critic.

Other things to be aware of

  • Blaming ourselves for every negative situation
  • Being down on ourselves as a whole person, as opposed to specific mistakes we may make
  • Often avoiding taking risks
  • Often avoid expressing our opinion
  • Comparing ourselves to other people and feeling like we come up short
  • Never being satisfied with achievements
  • Having impossibly high standards (or people tell you that you do)
  • Worry and 'what if' scenarios
  • Body image issues.
  • Never asking for help.
  • Not asserting our needs and desires
  • Persistently analysing and ruminating on mistakes
  • Don't forgive easily
  • Don't give ourselves compliments
  • Get defensive in the face of feedback 
  • Can't accept compliments
  • Think in black and white terms
  • Achievements in life have chronically fallen beneath our capabilities

What can I do to stop feeling overly critical?

The first step is to intentionally notice what we are saying to ourselves when we don’t reach our goals. We can do this by trying mindfulness (e.g. Smiling Mind and Headspace apps) or deliberately noticing when our mind wonders to worries or anxiety by bringing it back to little things during our routine or daily tasks (e.g. brushing our teeth, doing dishes). This gives us the space to recognise what kinds of things we’re telling ourselves, and whether we’re more likely to be kind or critical of ourselves. Follow this by acknowledging that self-criticism isn’t necessary in order for us to perform at our best — we don’t need our inner critic to takeover to do well. Try asking yourself, “Would I talk to a young child or my mate in the same way?”

You could even do small experiments to see what it’s like to be self-critical for one day, and then be more self-compassionate another, and notice the impact it has on your mood, thoughts, and how you treat others. Another way is to think about someone that we think is a high performer, but also kind or compassionate, do they need to be overly critical to do well?

Once we understand that self-criticism isn’t an essential element for performance, we can develop our self-compassion. Just like we develop a muscle, this takes training and practice. We’d get bored with doing interval training all the time, so try mix it up by trying different self-compassion exercises.

Self-compassion exercises

Helping someone else

Often those with a loud inner critic will seek reassurance they have done okay, or seek feedback to confirm their own negative thoughts about their performance. Understanding that they come with their own experiences which shape their perspectives, and that they might need a little kindness is important. Using active listening and empathy will help them know we’re on their side. Providing accurate and tactful feedback which focuses on improving, rather than continually thinking about or focusing on past performance is helpful too.

Additional Resources 

To learn more on self-compassion see: