Silencing the Inner Critic for a Happier Recovery
Your inner critic can be a tool for good or bad, depending how you use it and listen to it.
It can be helpful, sometimes, to be firm with yourself. It can give you strength and can bring you back from the brink when things are going off course. If you’re going through addiction recovery, you’ll know this better than most.
However, there are limits to the good it can do. More specifically, there are limits to how often you should be tough on yourself, and how tough you should be. If you can’t switch off your inner critic, you’ll never know peace; you’ll struggle to be happy and relaxed; your ability to thrive will be impaired.
You’re never good enough for your inner critic
Do you insult yourself? This can be regular or occasional. It can be explicit: you can look in the mirror and denigrate yourself, put yourself down. Or, it can be subtle: you can simply dislike who you are, or elements about yourself, and you might use your inner voice to justify these beliefs.
What the inner critic does to you
For starters, it means a whole lot of stress. Life is stressful enough. It is even more stressful if you’re treading the path of recovery. You don’t need to add to it. That inner critic will often be a burden without which you will be better off.
Secondly, it is highly likely that your inner critic is not objective. You are an object of hate in your inner critic’s eyes. This might be putting it strongly, but either way scorn for oneself is real and damaging. Think of something else you hate. Do you view it objectively? Do you notice when it does something right, when whatever it is about works? Of course not.
You keep on pouring scorn on it.
Your inner critic works in this kind of way.
It is no way to live.
The paradox of your inner critic
Our inner critics are often paradoxical beasts – or at least they appear so. They undermine us. They attack us, scolding us, telling us that we’re not good enough.
This is all often to keep us from failing, and from having to experience the shame and discomfort of that failure. We all fear disapproval and rejection from caregivers when we are young – our parents, guardians, teachers, and so on. Our inner critics are often framed in the form of a judgemental parent; indeed, they may be attacking the very things that our formative caregivers attacked. If your dad told you that you were too fat, you will tell yourself that you are too fat. If your mum told you that you were stupid, your inner critic will attack your intelligence.
Shame is often called the ‘master emotion’. It’s tricky. Part of it is the feeling that we aren’t good enough: we aren’t competent, we don’t do enough, we aren’t enough. It goes deep, so deep that often we don’t even consciously experience it in our day-to-day lives. However, it’s always there.
How shame gets to you
Shame is stunting. Though it can be useful when it inspires us to change, it often limits our room to grow, to flourish, and to be happier. There is no point in being the best version of yourself if you’re not happy or content. Shame will keep you from realising this happiness, this contentedness.
However, we can reverse this. We can shut down the inner critic.
How do you silence that inner critic to give yourself a happier time of it as you walk the path of recovery?
It’s simple, if not easy: you can take control of it. You turn your inner voice into one of positivity and self-acceptance. You turn away from the driving force of shame and embrace encouragement and growth.
Switching out your inner critic for something altogether happier
We need to talk about self-compassion.
If you want to be happier as you recover from addiction, you need to foster self-compassion. This is how you can draw attention away from that inner critic and put your energy into being kind to yourself.
But what is self-compassion – what do we mean when we talk about it?
Let’s begin with what we are not talking about. This isn’t self-compassion as rose-tinted self-care. We’re not talking about treating ourselves to something decadent as a treat, and we’re not talking about letting ourselves off the hook for any given thing.
Rather, compassion is best understood as a pivot. Turn towards suffering, accept it, embrace it, and then take positive steps to ease it and lighten the load. It is the ability to be objective, to a point, and ask yourself what your suffering is about and what the most helpful thing you can do for yourself might be.
Fostering self-compassion against your inner critic
How does this apply to your inner critic? Well, luckily, there are several things you can do to improve your self-compassion and turn it against your inner critic – or, rather, use it to diminish your inner critic’s power and reinforce more positive thoughts. Here are a few:
Engage the inner critic objectively
There will be plenty of negative thoughts swirling around in your head, looking to drag you down. They will make you think that you don’t deserve success or happiness, that these things are fleeting, that you aren’t good enough, and so on. It can be tempting to answer them by pushing yourself to achieve more, to be ‘better’.
Avoid this. Don’t try to outdo the critic in you, or to prove it right. Don’t try to shut it down, either. It will always find a way back, often louder and more stubborn than ever.
The answer is a healthy dialogue.
Try to be detached and be objective, as you might be when talking to another person. This is called self-distancing, and it has a proven track record of success, especially in cognitive behavioural therapy.
Replace the first-person pronoun ‘I’ with a second or third- person pronoun – ‘you’ or ‘he/she/it’.
Let’s take an imaginary example with an imaginary case. Let’s call them Jeff. Imagine that Jeff feels like a complete imposter at work.
He could ask himself: ‘Why does Jeff, who is so wonderful and confidant in his private life, feel like such an imposter at work?’
In combining this shift in grammar with some of your ‘why’ questions, you can be more objective. Jeff might be able to reason his way through things. He might find the answers he is looking for, rather than growing ever more heated, or despondent, or despairing – ever more subjective, in other words.
Self-distancing allows you to put the breaks on, step back, and give yourself the time, compassion and advice that you deserve. After all, it’s always easier to dish out advice to other people than to be objective about yourself. Self-distancing switches this paradigm – talk to yourself as though you were someone else.
Control the narrative
When you achieve this self-distance, and as you work your way through the answers it throws up, you can also use story editing to disrupt your inner critic. If your critic is currently disparaging you, making you feel angry, unwanted, or inadequate, then edit it. Change the story it is telling you.
Reframe each negative experience as a positive learning experience. For Jeff, this could be where he learns how to handle his inferiority complex; it could be where he learns to value his place at work, where he learns to stand up for himself.
Self-affirmation also has a large part to play in overcoming the inner critic. Jeff could self-distance, listen to the critic, and say ‘no, I don’t agree’. He could direct his attention to things he knows but perhaps he doesn’t feel. There will be many good qualities he brings to his workplace – he might be creative, or insightful, or hardworking and determined. He should focus on these things as a response to the inner critic.
Reimagine the inner critic
There are different ways of engaging with the inner critic. No one way works for everyone.
Some will find success in addressing the inner critic directly, and forcefully. One view, known as Internal Family Systems (IFS), posits that we are all complex networks of subpersonalities struggling for dominance. Your inner critic is just one of these subpersonalities.
You can try to crush it – this may work for some. However, it may be better to reimagine it. Don’t think of it as an enemy, per se. Rather, see it as a protector. That’s kind of what it is, after all. It may be off the mark, but it is looking out for you, trying to keep you from situations, real or imagined, that could harm you.
Thank it. Then deny it, say ‘no, I would rather take the plunge. I think I’ll be OK.’
After all, this kind of negative inner dialogue isn’t evidence that there is something wrong with us. You aren’t degenerate for having an inner critic – it’s a cornerstone of what it is to be human. We all have our inner critics. They are a great defence mechanism if they work well for us.
Acceptance will be key. Accept the voice, listen to it, then go somewhere else.
Get into your body, rather than your brain
Or, rather, use your physical self to help your mental self. There are plenty of physical practices that can help you find the strength and calm to incorporate the above techniques into your daily life. There are plenty that can help you to live more healthily with the inner critic in and of yourself.
Guided discovery through breathwork, mindfulness activities and muscle relaxation exercises can work wonders. A soothing rhythm can be particularly good for getting into the objective, slightly detached, calm headspace you need to answer the inner critic how you need to. It will calm the autonomic nervous system, helping to relieve stress and anxiety.
Sit with your back and chest open, shoulders drawn back and slightly down. Slow your breathing down and deepen it. Take every inhalation and exhalation through the nose, with your lips gently sealed throughout and your tongue lightly pressed into the top of your mouth. Try to keep your breath silent and gentle.
Aim to breathe five or six times per minute, though realistically any slow, smooth breathing will work well. Do this for a few minutes. Then, whilst still maintaining this breathing pattern and posture, think about your inner critic. Think about the effect it has had on you recently, where it has taken you, and where it has made you falter.
Answer it objectively and calmly. You’ll find it far more amenable and reasonable than you might expect.
Recoverlutions Wellness hub also offers a myriad of proven therapies that can help to silence the inner critic. Join us by subscribing and learning directly from our treatment professionals how to have a happier and healthier recovery.
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- Jung, Carl Gustav (1997) . "The transcendent function". In Chodorow, Joan (ed.). Jung on active imagination. Encountering Jung. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 54. ISBN 0691015767.
- Brown, Byron (1999). Soul without shame: a guide to liberating yourself from the judge within. Boston: Shambhala Publications. ISBN 157062383X. OCLC 39013815.
- Gilbert, Paul, ed. (2005). Compassion: conceptualisations, research and use in psychotherapy. London; New York: