Each of us has an inner critic. In fact, we’re hardwired for one, according to Tara Mohr in her fantastic book Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message.
She describes the inner critic as an expression of our safety instinct. It’s the part of us that yearns to stay safe from dangers like hurt, failure, disappointment and rejection.
And it’s a part that we often confuse with our core selves. We assume that the cruel comments are just us. It’s how we are. And they must be true.
We accept the inner critic’s messages wholeheartedly.
So we don’t take care of ourselves. We don’t pursue our dreams. We don’t support ourselves. We don’t create or keep solid boundaries. We stay in situations that aren’t right for us.
But the inner critic is not us. Because sometimes it’s just too tough to tell (especially if your inner critic has been especially loud lately or for years), here are the real qualities of the inner critic, which Tara includes in her book:
- It’s harsh and mean. If you’d never say these things to someone you love, it’s your inner critic.
- It’s black and white. You are either beautiful or ugly. Your dreams are either possible or impossible.
- It’s the voice of reason. It mentions things that are supposedly in your best interest, such as “If you go forward with the book, you’ll ruin your reputation. Your work isn’t ready for that level of scrutiny. Better hold off for a while.” I’ve realized that, today, my inner critic is largely made up of this voice. It’s the voice that says, Are you sure you should be the one writing this book? Can’t you think of 50 other writers who should be writing this book instead of you? You’re not very good at public speaking. Let’s never do that, OK?
- It says, “you aren’t ready yet.” “You need more time to prepare,” or “You need more experience.”
- It spews self-critical thoughts about aging or your weight, shape or size. It says that you look too big or too old. It says you need to lose weight or shouldn’t be wearing this or that.
- It rehashes negative core narratives.
- It attacks you with critical thoughts, and then shames you for having those thoughts.
- It sounds like your parents, siblings or your boss or anyone else who’s been critical.
- It sounds like your company or culture.
Years ago whenever my friends would say that I talked too harshly about myself, I used to say that No, I wasn’t being harsh. I’m just being realistic. I sometimes think the same thing about my inner critic. When I say that I can’t do something, I’m simply being honest, realistic and responsible.
Tara tackles this question in Playing Big, and I think it’s an important one: What is the difference between an inner critic and realistic thinking?
According to Tara, the inner critic ruminates on risks and worst-case scenarios. It speaks in an anxious tone. It makes definitive declarations about situations, and fixates on problems. It speaks from a place of self-criticism.
However, realistic thinking is “inquisitive, exploratory, and highly creative.” It’s grounded, clear and calm. It seeks solutions.
Realistic thinking asks curious questions about situations. It wonders “How might it be possible? What part of this looks possible?” instead of asking yes/no questions, such as “Is it possible? Am I qualified?” (as the inner critic does). It speaks from a place of self-support.
Remember that your inner critic isn’t you. It is not your core self. The voice that says you’re not good enough or that you need to lose weight in order to be worthy isn’t right.
It might be replaying the ridiculous messages of our culture or the bully from school. Either way, that cruel voice is mistaken.
Your real voice — your core you — is supportive, solution-focused, grounded, curious, and compassionate. It’s the voice that really does have your best interests at heart.
Stayed tuned this week for a piece on navigating our inner critics, which will also feature more of Tara’s illuminating insights.
Update: Here’s that post on how to approach our inner critic.