The inner critic feels like an enemy. What else do you call someone who says cruel, maybe even vicious, things and sounds exactly like a bully? But while the inner critic might feel like an adversary, they’re really a protector. Our inner critics try to protect us from potential rejection, sadness and failure. They try to stop us from looking “stupid,” from being humiliated, from being yelled at and laughed at, from being reprimanded, from being told something even worse than we’ve told ourselves, from whatever we’ve experienced some or many years ago. Because we know it’s painful and hard. We’ve learned it’s something to avoid.

Our inner critic comes out when we’re trying to write something, when we’re trying to create anything. Who do you think you are to write about that? You’re going to tackle a novel? That’s laughable. Don’t you know they’ll see you as an amateur, a joke? Why draw if you clearly suck at it? 

It comes out when we yearn to say no to a request. They’ll hate you! They’ll never ask you to do anything, again. Wait, you think you’re too good, or something? 

It comes out when we yearn to relax (instead of work on our to-do list). Use your time wisely! The baby will wake up soon. Stop being lazy! Everyone else gets their stuff done. Why can’t you? 

It comes out when we make a mistake at work, when we want to try something outside our comfort zone. You can’t do that! You’re too anxious, too shy, a terrible speaker and not that smart.

It comes out when we want to ask for help. Only weirdos see therapists. Only weak people can’t take care of their own stuff. 

And maybe we listen. And follow suit. We don’t say no. We don’t create. We don’t relax. We don’t try the new thing. We don’t seek support that might save us. We stay tired. We stay sad. We stay numb.

In this piece, therapist Doreen Meister shared a powerful exercise for coping with our inner critic: talking to it, essentially seeing the inner critic as a separate being who can answer questions, such as: What are you afraid of? What do you need me to know?

In other words, the key to coping with our inner critics is to practice compassion. Because not only is our inner critic trying to protect us (using highly ineffective methods), it’s also a part of us that is hurt and terrified. And when people are hurt and terrified, they’ll often say or do anything, shouting louder and louder, being more and more critical.

Instead of shutting down or getting angry, we can get curious. We can have a compassionate, calm conversation. Why are you so afraid of rejection? Why are you so afraid of humiliation? Of someone saying they dislike you? Of asking for help that can make a difference? What has happened to you to make you feel this way? 

Write down your conversation. Regularly check in with this negative part of you. Connect to it by listening to the same song, or, as Meister suggested, by creating an image of your inner critic—and looking at it any time you need to talk. Explore the reasons behind your inner critic’s words and tactics. And then check in with your heart—the part of you that knows what’s in your best interest, the part of you that is supportive, and do the thing you need or yearn to do. Because being compassionate does not mean agreeing. It does not mean letting our inner critics rule our lives. We listen. We acknowledge. And we take the action we need or yearn to take.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters.