If you’ve ever been a boss, a coach, a parent, a teacher, or in any position where you are trying to get someone else to do something, you’ve likely given some thought to motivation. How did you encourage your employees (or students or kids) to try their hardest, do their best work, push them to grow? Did you praise moments of achievement, give advice when stuck, give pep talk when discouraged? Or did you criticize and berate every little mistake, question whether the person was worth anything at all as a human being, predict catastrophe if they didn’t get it together and succeed?
Most likely you were not cruel with your student/employee/player. But I bet those techniques sound familiar….because those are the techniques you use on yourself. Your inner critic is vigilant for the littlest mistakes, constantly scanning your experience looking for any small flaw. The critic pronounces harsh judgment, not just on the mistake, but on you as a person. Your critic’s voice bounces around your head, calling you worthless, stupid, out of shape, whatever. The critic tells you these mistakes or flaws will lead to disaster…the error on the report will lead to getting fired, then losing your home, then starving and dying alone.
If someone spoke to your best friend that way you’d intervene and defend. You’d probably feel protective and furious, and rightly so. Yet for those of us who suffer with harsh inner critics, we can’t seem to muster the same righteous anger to stand up for ourselves. We collapse under its criticisms, or we try to argue with it to no avail. Why is it so hard to fight back against this cruel inner voice?
There are many ways to interact with this inner judge that are more effective, that give back your power and strength instead of sapping it. Working with a therapist can help you figure out what are the most effective means for you to counter your inner critic. But a good place to start is by practicing mindfulness. The most important thing is to catch the critic in the act, to notice when that voice is speaking (or shouting). This may sound simple, and it is – but simple does not mean easy. What mindfulness does is in this situation is allow you to get a bit of distance from that critic voice. If you can notice when the critic is blasting you, then you can see that there is a “you” separate from that critic voice. You can create some distance between you and the critic. You can start to strengthen that sense of “you” that is separate from the critic, and start to experiment with ways to respond that are more helpful than believing the voice, or ignoring it, or arguing with it (this is where talking to a therapist can provide invaluable individual guidance).
For most of us, the inner critic voice has been around for a looong time…and what took years to develop is going to take some time to dismantle too. Developing mindful awareness of the inner judge is the critical first step of the process. It’s a lot of work, but the payoff is worth it. Not only do you get the peace of mind of being kind to yourself instead of downright mean, you also are likely to be more motivated, productive, and successful when you are using positive reinforcement with yourself instead of harsh punishment.