Photograph by Nathaniel Welch
Just minutes into her interview at the white-shoe law firm, Elena heard the voice, that voice, in her head. They see right through me. Biting the inside of her cheek, she gazed at the faces around her. I’m not one of them, it said. I’m a lightweight. It struck Elena, a recent law-school graduate, that she was the only woman in the room with the dark wood paneling and marble floors, the only face that might not belong in a colonial-era portrait gallery. She fumbled through the next three questions.
By the 30-minute mark, Elena was able to slide in a mention of her rank at the top of her class and her hands-on experience in immigration law. At last, her confidence was kicking in. That’s when a partner in a blue pinstripe suit waved Elena’s résumé in the air, and in a carefully neutral voice asked, “How wonderful that you’ve been involved in pro bono work for Honduran immigrants. Is that where your family’s from?” Unsure of his intentions, Elena gulped and nodded. That was an unlawyerly response, her inner voice complained. Now I’m definitely not going get a call back.
The second Elena stepped out the door, her internal critic was all over her. I’m blowing this, it said, and built a persuasive case for why her future in law wasn’t going to pan out, including a rehash of all the blunders she’d made in the last few interviews and the time her torts professor only half-jokingly told her that she was too emotional to be a litigator. I’m done.article continues after advertisement
Like many accomplished people, Elena feels she owes a lot to her inner critic. Her self-discipline, she believes, comes from the “succeed or suffer” mentality of that driving, sometimes derogatory taskmaster. The critic helped her win cross-country races, become the first in her family to go to college, and to pass the bar exam. It helped her seek out the support of teachers and bosses in the same way she always sought the approval of her ambitious, hard-driving mother. Most important, from Elena’s perspective, it has always helped her home in on her faults and weaknesses before others detect them.
But over time, the self-critic can take a toll.
Your Own Worst Enemy?
Photograph by Nathaniel Welch
Too old, too fat, too lazy. A terrible parent, daughter, son, partner, citizen. Clueless. Thoughtless. Never good enough.article continues after advertisement
“You can’t ever stop ‘cracking the whip’ on yourself for fear that if you don’t, the disapproval and rejection that seems imminent will become your reality,” explains psychologist Leon Seltzer of Del Mar, California. “The stress is unremitting.” As a result, “When you do something well, you won’t jump for joy but merely breathe a sigh of relief: You’ve escaped from being criticized or censored.” But that relief lasts only until the next expectation presents itself. It’s the perfect setup for anxiety and depression.
Elena suspected that her internal critic might have been harsher than most, but she had always seen it as a net positive, especially as it pushed her through college and law school. But in the real world, where the path to success isn’t so well defined, it seemed to carry a different message. It made her feel she didn’t have the right pedigree or background, or maybe even the necessary competence. I’m an imposter, it said, whenever she entered the minimalist confines of a top-tier law firm. Not as smart as I think I am. After her fifth rejection, a previously unthinkable idea popped into her mind: Maybe she should just return to the family restaurant business, the life she had worked so hard to leave behind.article continues after advertisement
Herein lies the koan-like paradox of the inner critic: It attacks and undermines you to protect you from the shame of failure. For many, this is a link that dates back to a time when they feared the disapproval and rejection of caregivers. It’s no coincidence that an internal critic’s words often sound as if they’re coming from an authoritarian parent: The critic may literally be an echo of a parental figure’s voice. When you internalize its judgments and expectations, Seltzer says, you “join it in demanding that you always do more, and better, than you may be doing now.”
Shame, sometimes called the “master emotion,” is the feeling that we’re not worthy, competent, or good—that we are, in a sense, rotten at the core. Beating ourselves up is a preemptive gambit to inoculate ourselves from external shaming. Sometimes, the message is: Shame on you if you don’t work really, really, really hard. Or, Shame on you if you’re not tougher, smarter, and better than you were last time. But sometimes, as Elena found, the message is: Shame on you if you fail, so don’t try.
There’s one thing the inner critic doesn’t offer: Room for growth. All too often it sends us back to a zone where we find ourselves safe, but also stuck.
Answering the Voices
People with a strong inner critic tend to have one thing in common: However great their success, they don’t feel it’s genuine. “Achievement may feel conditional, even fortuitous,” Seltzer says. “The inner critic won’t let them see their past achievements as ‘real’ for fear that, if they do, they’ll slack off and end up a ne’er-do-well.” So they may push themselves more, with diminishing returns, driven more by fear of failure than inspiration.
The solution isn’t to shut down the critic, suggests research by Ethan Kross, of the University of Michigan’s Emotion & Self Control Lab, and his colleague Ozlem Ayduk, of the University of California, Berkeley. It won’t work; the voice will return no matter how hard you try to suppress it. Nor is it always effective to analyze the emotions it rouses; that opens you to the risk of ruminating or reliving those feelings and getting stuck in a negative cycle. The best intervention may be to respond to its grievances from a detached perspective—almost as if you were another person.
Photograph by Nathaniel Welch
This technique, called self-distancing, is increasingly used in cognitive-behavioral therapy. To self-distance, one replaces the first-person pronoun I with a non-first-person pronoun, you or he/she, when talking to themselves (Elena, what happened is no reflection on your abilities. You were surprised by his question during the interview but now you know what to do. It’s called experience.)
Self-distancing can be combined with asking yourself “why” questions: Why does Elena, who is so confident in the classroom, feel like a sham in a boardroom? This grammatical shift works especially well in the heated moments when you’re beating yourself up most, Kross finds. Instead of feeling pain again, as when you recount an experience in the first-person mode, self-distancing allows you to pause, step back, and think as clearly and rationally as if it had happened to someone else.
Once emotions cool, “use story editing to stop reverting to that negative cycle over and over again,” advises Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia and the author of Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. A story edit offers a way to reframe or revise a negative experience. If Elena’s critic disparages her about her performance in a job interview, her default reaction might be to listen to it, question her whole careerpath, and get trapped in a self-defeating thought cycle. Or, says Wilson, she could reframe the experience as a turning point: This is when you first learned how to handle curveball questions. In this revised version, Elena can see that a failure is not a reflection on her intelligence, character, self-worth, or anything else the inner critic is hardwired to protect. The critic’s story is no longer the only story.
Self-affirmation has also proven to be a useful offset to self-criticism. When we hear a voice saying we’re inferior or deficient, Seltzer recommends that we try to see the evidence that refutes it in our mind’s eye. Elena could redirect her focus to her strengths—her managerial talents, her improv-comedy hobby, her famous tiramisu, or her ability to put people at ease. Affirmations can revise the negative messages we hear—or think we hear—from the voices of parental figures unable to show that they believed in us enough, or from a naturally neurotic or self-doubting personality. And when the inner critic pipes up with counterexamples, we can label the voice: Oh, that’s just the inner critic again. In doing so, we—again—detach ourselves from the badgering fault-finder rather than reflexively identifying with it and letting it dominate.
No one intervention works for everyone. Some find success in addressing the critic directly, Seltzer says, and befriending it rather than treating it as the enemy within. This approach draws on the psychotherapy model known as Internal Family Systems (IFS), developed by Harvard psychologist Richard Schwartz, Ph.D. It views the person as containing a network of subpersonalities struggling for dominance, with the inner critic just one part of a multiplicity within, one that activates other parts, like the “taskmaster,” the “perfectionist,” and the “underminer.” The challenge, Seltzer says, is to see the critic as a protector that is on our side, looking out for our interests, even if it’s often misguided. If it’s making us feel that we’re not good enough, it’s only because it is trying to prevent us from the ego blow of not being good enough. We can learn to thank the critic for trying so hard to protect us—and then ask for it to step back.
We can help our self-compassion find its voice. In one exercise, often guided by a therapist, individuals are encouraged to remember when their inner critic was born, so that they can give their younger selves more sympathy and security than they received in the first go-round. Elena wouldn’t tell her 5-year-old self that she’ll never achieve her dreams; she’d reassure her. Ideally, a self-compassionate response emerges from this interaction and can, going forward, be called on as a buffer against self-criticism. In a study at University College London employing virtual reality, women with severe inner-critic issues simulated a scenario in which they had to console a crying child. In the next session, each adult was embodied as the hurt child and became the recipient of her own recorded words and gestures of compassion. Many reported experiencing a surge of long-overdue self-compassion and—at last—reprieve from their critic.
Photograph by Nathaniel Welch
A New Image
Margot felt sick about the incident at the playground. A moment after arriving with her 2-year-old son, she noticed that a group of teenage bicyclists had unlatched the gate behind her. “Hey!” she said, advancing toward them with hands on hips. “Read the sign! No bikes allowed!” In a flash she found herself exchanging heated words with five or six of the young men while their friends rode in circles around her wide-eyed toddler and other kids. Startled, Margot pulled out her phone and waved it in the air. The teens, who were black, froze and glared at her, a white woman, understanding her implicit threat to call the police, before pedaling toward the exit.
Later, Margot couldn’t stop thinking about the shock, fear, and outrage on the boys’ faces. Idiot! her inner critic screeched. There are a trillion better ways I could have handled that. Here I am, making the world worse.
Margot’s mistake was the sort that could be a springboard for self-growth, says Dolly Chugh, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business. But if beating herself up over it is all she does, she’ll either conclude that she’s a bungling bigot at her core or she’ll do a 180 and insist that she is a good person and in the right. We tend to think of the self in a simplistic binary way, Chugh says—good or not, honest or not, fair or not. It’s a false dichotomy, of course, but many of us hew to it unconsciously.
While most people see their core self as good, some take the opposite tack. When certain individuals are confronted with their unethical misdeeds, like ostracizing others, they begin to see themselves as “bad,” or even less than human. To compensate for a mistake and restore a positive self-image, someone like Margot might work to be more socially conscious. But sometimes wrongdoers, especially those who feel powerless or disconnected from others, internalize a bad self-image, according to research by Northwestern University’s Maryam Kouchaki and others, and come to believe that they’re damaged at the core. When this shift occurs, they’re likelier to commit subsequent offenses.
Taking refuge in the “good-person” self-image that most of us have, Chugh says, is not a solution, either: It leaves us with no room to fail, which means no room to grow. All we need is someone or some situation to suggest we’re not sufficiently fair, ambitious, responsible, motivated, maternal, paternal, or good, and our defenses go up, leading us to deny, self-justify, deflect, and minimize blame. It’s one thing to be self-critical; it’s quite another for others to criticize us.
Instead of “good” or “bad,” Chugh suggests, we need to start thinking of ourselves as good-ish, a term she introduces in her book, The Person You Mean to Be. Good-ish embraces the idea that the self is error-prone and conflicted, yet strives to be better. It’s a rejection of a fixed “good person” image—like the one the inner critic pushes us toward—in favor of the idea that we are a work in progress. Good-ish encourages us to take risks, make mistakes, and, most important, learn from them. The emphasis is not on who you are, but who you’re becoming.
To make this shift, Chugh advises that people activate a new, growth-oriented inner voice that stands opposite the self-critic. Elena’s inner critic might insist that she’s bad at interviews; Margot’s might call her stupid. But a growth-oriented voice could respond with self-compassion and forgiveness for a mistake, followed by encouragement: What can you learn from this?
If Margot had channeled a growth-oriented voice instead of her inner critic, the playground episode could have ended in revelation instead of recrimination. That voice would have asked the crucial questions, What were the boys seeing and hearing in the interaction? Why do you think you reacted that way? What was their perspective? In embracing such a mindset, she’d lay the groundwork for self-improvement rather than dwelling on feelings of self-loathing or defensiveness. That voice, Chugh says, could have also asked her what she’d do differently next time; if she would have responded the same way if the boys were white; or whether an African American mother would have done what she did. “Then, hopefully, she’d share her reflections with others,” Chugh adds, because that’s how personal growth leads to social change.
Wilson calls this sort of incremental self-growth “do good, be good.” If we consistently act the part of the person we’d like to be, we can methodically work to overcome the parts of ourselves that hold us back. Say your protective and disapproving critic prevents you from being the sort of person who speaks up more. In the past, Wilson says, it might have told you that you’re just not the type, or that you’ll come across as attention-seeking and embarrass yourself. A growth-oriented voice, once it’s been embraced, can instead pipe up and tell you to seize every opportunity to be heard—to speak up at meetings and parties, to step to the microphone during Q-and-A sessions, or to make small talk on public transportation, even if it initially seems tedious or unpleasant.
“The day will come when you’ll think, I guess I am that type sometimes,” Wilson says, “and you’ll be more likely to speak up next time, and the time after that.” Eventually, it will feel more natural to engage people or to share your reflections and insights, because you’ll start to see yourself as more outspoken. It begins with a conscious choice to let the growth-oriented voice speak louder than the critic.
Hearing the Choir
Every morning as Paul waits for the elevator at his son’s preschool, he’s confronted by a sign with bright red lettering: “Did you know that seven minutes of stair climbing a day protects your heart?” Paul, who is 60 pounds overweight, hates that sign. “Every time I see it, my knee-jerk compulsion is to look at my reflection in the elevator door. I see an elephant.” That’s just the first moment each day that Paul’s inner voice shames him about his weight. The next comes when he squeezes himself into the crowded elevator, avoiding eye contact for fear he’ll see revulsion. “But do I take the stairs?” he asks. “No.”
Photograph by Nathaniel Welch
Paul isn’t alone in his self-sabotage. People who are self-critical about their fitness and body image are often less likely to follow motivational health prompts, which typically spur not action but shame and self-threat, a study at the University of Pennsylvania revealed. Those prompts are read as criticism from the outside—exactly what an inner critic fears and tries to protect us from. Paul doesn’t want to see himself, and certainly doesn’t want others to see him, as unfit or in need of nudges.
In limbo between self-criticism and self-defense, there’s little room for self-improvement. But we can escape the trap by transcending, or shifting our focus beyond the self. After all, self-criticism and self-transcendence are opposing forces—one inward-looking and inhibiting, the other outward-looking and expansive. There are many ways to transcend—through meditation, time in nature, religious faith, ecstatic dance, and creative pursuits. But we can also rise above by affirming our core values, such as care for family, friends, and the causes we believe in.
Could people like Paul use self-transcendence to get out of their own way? In the Penn study, subjects received daily text messages with instructions to reflect compassionately on other people or to tap into their own connection with a higher power, followed by health prompts urging them to be more active (stair-climbing included). And indeed, in the weeks that followed, the transcenders’ fitness trackers showed that they exercised more than a control group. Turns out, these messages were like Trojan horses: With them, targets became less guarded, and the self-improvement advice penetrated and was followed; without them, the advice was rejected.
Could self-transcendence work as a counterforce when self-criticism and shame hold us back? If Paul were able to activate a voice in his head to think benevolent outward-looking thoughts—his hopes for his ailing mother, his concern for Syrian refugees, his love for the 4-year-old holding his hand, and the desire to keep up with him—he might find himself less resistant to, or less threatened by, reminders to improve his health. Outward compassion, it seems, opens the door to the self-compassion and patience we need to help ourselves. Perhaps Paul wouldn’t push back so hard when his wife urged him to exercise, or she’d find ways to strategically pepper those nags with thoughts that helped him think beyond himself.
Self-transcendence may also free us to grow in areas in which we lack self-confidence. For Elena, as for many women, one such impasse is networking. “I know schmoozing would help my job search, but it makes me feel desperate and phony, like I’m using others to get ahead,” she says, contrasting how fake she feels in networking sessions compared with her genuine enthusiasm for less contrived social situations. But research finds that when reluctant networkers are directed to think beyond themselves—to see how making connections contributes to a greater cause, like increasing female presence in traditionally male fields or helping coworkers or clients—they can overcome the aversion.
For Elena, a shift in focus from inward to outward empowered her in a way her inner critic couldn’t, even in its most hard-driving, guilt-inducing, moments. Thinking about her future, she asked herself, “What if my performance isn’t just about me, but everyone who is like me—a first-generation woman of color going into law?” In this new script, the plot is no longer driven by self-doubt, fear of shame, or a vestigial dread of parental disappointment, but by a higher purpose.
After all, it is one thing to heed an inner critic and live in the suffocating space between self-threat and self-motivation. It is another thing to align your star with something greater. “I was pursuing corporate law because I saw it as an obvious touchstone of success,” admits Elena, who has now set her sights on a career in human rights. On the old path, she says, she was reluctant to take a risk. She didn’t feel authentic or confident. “But when it comes to helping others overcome their personal obstacles,” she says, “I fight like hell.”
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