Opinion - The Inner Critic

Bill Abbate

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How well do you know yourself? Do you realize inside you is something that determines your future? Imagine how valuable it would be to know more about this something, which is an influential part of yourself. Even a little knowledge of it can be a major life-changer.

Who are you?

Are you aware of the internal chatter that regularly occurs in your mind? If so, you have probably run into the part of yourself known as the "inner critic"? It is a very real part of each of us, and neuroscience has a great deal to say on this subject.

Think about this - is your worst enemy somewhere out there, or is it in you? Who could be a worse enemy than your inner critic with its impossibly high standards?

If you are like most of us, he's been with you your entire life. As the character Pogo once said:

"We have met the enemy and he is us." Walt Kelly (1913-1973)

Yes, there is part of each of us that can hold us back, keeping us from becoming more of who we can become. It imparts self-imposed limitations. From where does this part of us come? Let's try to make sense of it all.

Making sense of internal voices

Think about what goes on in your thoughts that no one else can see—the doubts, the fears, the cares and concerns, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Each is a part of who you are. Each expands or restricts the life you live.

I've come to see these parts of myself in new ways as I age. I was unaware of them for much of my life, unable to see or stop them. I did not realize they existed until I learned of them from someone else.

Once I began developing the ability to see these parts of myself, to think about and reflect on them, I started to take steps to change them. This allowed me to develop control over these thoughts rather than being controlled by them.

A few years back, a shift happened in my thinking. While I originally viewed some parts of myself as "the enemy," I came to see them for what they are. Most have been with me since I was a child. They are just parts of me that have not matured well.

Before I learned about this concept, a part of me feared public speaking because I listened to my inner critic say I wasn't good enough. It was like a small child crying "Wolf!" when there was no wolf.

This part of me had not grown up and continued to voice its concerns. I understand now that this inner critic hindered my progress. But why? Why did this part of me do what it did? More on this in a moment.

Please note I use "voice" and "part" interchangeably in this article.

Hearing voices

Let's extend this concept further. Each of us has several voices that "speak" to us and affect our life. Have you ever "heard" your mother or someone else saying in your mind, "you shouldn't do that," or your spouse in your head saying, "I would not buy that if I were you." Such voices can manifest themselves in a thousand ways. Some will say it is their conscience speaking to them, which may well be. After all, our conscience is affected by those who have been influential in our lives.

Nonetheless, a great deal of research on inner voices exists. In fact, there are whole systems of therapy based on them. Check out the latest research by simply doing an internet search on internal voices and neuroscience. You'll be amazed at what you find.

Some of these voices, especially those known as our inner critic(s), say things like, "You can't do that," "You're not qualified to accomplish anything like that," or "If you do that, you will make a fool of yourself." It may also say something like, "You don't have the education that so-and-so does, so what makes you think you can do something like that?" or "You may fail if you try that."

For the most part, I have found that many of my voices trace back to a younger Bill Abbate, often from my childhood or young adult years. I despised these voices when I first learned of them. I was angry that I would allow myself to say such nonsense to me. But I have come to see them differently.

Rather than think of my critical inner voices as destructive and condescending, I now understand how they came from a part of me that had a purpose at one time. I outgrew them, and they no longer serve me, but they still exist.

As I examined these voices, I realized many came from fear. I discovered these younger, underdeveloped parts of me were only trying to protect me. They wanted to keep me from experiencing hurt, failure, embarrassment, etc. In their own way, they tried to serve and protect me.

Stopping the critic

"Low self-esteem results when the inner critic prevails." Catherine Cardinal (1953-present)

Before I could see these parts of myself, I regularly fell prey to their input. When they warned or criticized me, I listened and sometimes allowed them to control my thoughts and emotions.

What's a person to do when part of his brain trys to sabotage his future? First, you must recognize that these voices exist and realize you have been subject to them, likely for many years. Yes, they have been your master, and you have allowed them to control you. You no longer need to be in this position.

Instead of being subject to them, make them subject to you. When you see these voices for what they are, take their power and control. When I finally understood what my inner critic had been doing, creating self-imposed limitations and doubt in my life, I positioned myself to conquer them! When you see them clearly in your life, you too can easily conquer them!

The worst thing my inner critic "made" me do was impose limits on myself. I now know these self-limiting beliefs are real. I have yet to meet a person that doesn't have some. I have, however, met many people who, like me, did not realize that they had self-imposed these limitations because of the internal chatter of their voices.

Uncovering the root

What are the sources of such self-defeating thoughts? Answer the following question to unearth as many as you can. Try to remember what people have said to you, especially in your early life. Imagine what they would say to represent their attitude toward you if you don't have a clear memory of their words.

What do I continue to believe each of the following has said about me?

  • Parent(s)
  • Sibling(s)
  • Teacher(s)
  • Spouse
  • Boss(es)
  • Colleague(s)
  • Friend(s)
  • Society in general
  • Yourself

For example, did anyone ever tell you that you were stupid or not smart? Did anyone ever say you are skinny, fat, short, ugly, or make other such derogatory remarks? What have others said to put you down in any way? Do you get the message from society or acquaintances that you are not good enough, don't have enough drive, are not good-looking, don't make enough money, don't own a home, have a cheap car, etc. These are only a few examples of where your critical inner thoughts can come from and embed in your subconscious. Do you hear any echoes in what was said to you? Are you still saying any of those things to yourself?

Pay attention to your inner voices, whether they originate from external or internal sources. I suggest you take some time in a quiet place with no interruptions and your journal to think deeply about the above question and the effect of others. Unearth everything you can so you can see it clearly and take power from it. The dividends from this simple exercise will pay handsomely!

Shifting your mindset

"People become discouraged when they listen to their 'inner critic'... Whatever that voice is saying, articulate a response, drawing from the part of you that feels strong and confident. Be your own cheerleader." Lauren Mackler (1957-present)

A great way to use this information is whenever you tell yourself you can't, wouldn't, couldn't, or shouldn't do something, stop, examine your thinking, and ask, which voice is speaking to me, and from where does it come?

When you have any negative thoughts, ask the same thing: "What voice is speaking, and from where does it come?" Then challenge what it says, and don't stop challenging it until you understand it and can refute it.

This method also applies to any fear or doubt you have. Don't give up. Inquire within yourself and ask, "What CAN I do?"

Why is it important to recognize these sources? There is power in seeing and understanding where a voice originates because you can then decide if its message is still valid or something leftover from long ago.

After all, why should I allow a 7-year-old Bill Abbate, who tripped in a play still control me when I speak in public? And why should a teacher from when I was only ten still affect me by telling me I couldn't write? If I allowed these voices to go unchecked, there is little I can do about them. They controlled my thoughts and affected my emotions. They became a source of much frustration until I recognized, refuted, and overcame them.

When you identify where a critical inner voice is coming from, you can choose whether to believe it or not. You can move from letting it control you to you controlling it. You can make a deliberate choice about what to do with the information you learn. Will you accept it, or will you stand your ground and reject it?

"Winning the war of words inside your soul means learning to defy your inner critic." Steven Furtick (1980-present)

Final thoughts

You can choose to become mindful of these voices in your head or mindlessly allow them to control you. Which choice do you prefer?

When you open your eyes to your critical inner voices and begin thoughtfully examining them, your life will begin to change. Do the mature thing and take responsibility for them. Reject those voices you no longer want and overcome the limitations they have placed in your life.

You now possess information that can change the entire course of your life. What do you choose to do with it? It's your life, and the choice is completely up to you. Choose wisely!

"The more we refuse to buy into our inner critics - and our external ones too - the easier it will get to have confidence in our choices, and to feel comfortable with who we are." Arianna Huffington (1950-present)

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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