Imagine for a minute that you are waiting outside a doctor’s office for your appointment. A number flashes up on the screen and you automatically stand up and head for the doctor’s door. Suddenly a man taps you rudely on the shoulder and says with great frustration, “Are you stupid or something? Can’t you see this isn’t your number?!”
What’s the first feeling you experience in that moment?
Do you feel ashamed and embarrassed about your stupid mistake that obviously caused this other man such distress? Or do you accept that you made a simple error, but feel rather disturbed by the other man’s clearly disproportionate anger?
Our initial emotional response at moments like these tells us a lot about our own internal dialogue and the fixed beliefs we hold about ourselves and our own self-worth.
The truth is that many of us have internalised criticism – often criticism that we experienced during childhood – and now have a fierce inner critic continually berating us in our head.
When other people criticise us, we automatically believe it’s true because it lines up with what we already believe about ourselves.
If we are living with an inner critic like this, we will often find ourselves in situations where we feel mistreated and taken advantage of by others. We know it’s wrong and feel a deep sense of injustice, but we struggle to assert our boundaries. Even when we try to stand up for ourselves, it feels like no one actually hears us. Our voice sounds small and powerless because deep down we don’t really believe in our own value.
So, how do we break the cycle of criticism and step into healthier relationships with ourselves and with other people?
As a believer in Jesus who sometimes struggles with self-doubt, I know that I need to make time to listen to the voice of God when my inner critic gets too loud. I have learnt how to hear God’s gentle affirmations and rest in the tenderness of His embrace. Just a few minutes in His presence breaks off the cruel voice of the accuser.
But for some people it’s not always easy to tune into the kindness of God. If our internal dialogue is very harsh, we naturally expect that our relationship with God will be the same. We find it enormously difficult to hear what God is really saying because whenever we try, we just hear the thundering voice of inner criticism and judgment. We easily assume that this is the voice of God.
But it isn’t! It really isn’t!
No matter what mistakes we have made in our lives or how much we feel like we’ve failed, our Father is waiting with outstretched arms. He longs for us to dare to trust Him and receive the love He wants to pour out.
However, if for whatever reason, we do not want or are not ready to seek out God’s presence, there are other ways of dealing with an inner critic. In fact, even if we do experience God’s love and affirmation in our devotional times with Him, there are still strategies we need to put in place in our day to day lives.
The first thing is simply to become aware of our own thoughts and feelings. This may sound simple, but it’s really quite difficult. If we struggle with a sense of low self-esteem, feelings of shame often flood in and overwhelm us as soon as someone says something critical. It happens before we even know it! We find ourselves dragged back into the same old negative patterns without even realising we can choose to do things differently.
When we first start trying to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, we may only be able to figure out what happened after the event. But as we become more in tune with ourselves, we will be able to see what’s going on much earlier. We will be able to choose not to feel ashamed of something that isn’t our fault, or not to be swept along with something we don’t want to do because we feel we have no right to say no.
This leads me on to the final thought I will share now on how to deal with a harsh inner critic. The critic inside you is on a mission to pull you down, to erode your self-confidence, to strip you of your joy. You don’t need to allow your beautiful, precious self to be bullied in this way. In fact, you can silence the critic by actively taking the opposite position and standing up for yourself.
When someone else says something negative to you, or when you hear the voice of your own inner critic, you can choose to disagree. You don’t need to allow yourself to feel small and incompetent. Instead, pull in the opposite direction! Remind yourself of all the things that are wonderful about you! In every situation, pick out the things you did well and choose to focus on these.
If someone belittles you or disregards your boundaries, you can tell them calmly and respectfully that it is not appropriate for them to speak to you like this. At first, you may feel uncomfortable speaking out. You may doubt yourself and your own perceptions. But the more you stand up for yourself and take your own needs seriously, the stronger you will become. As you step into the role of nurturing and championing yourself and letting your true colours shine, you will find the voice of the inner critic will start to become fainter.