Quietening your Inner Critic

June 22 • Self


So the presentation went well: you had the attention of the room and there were plenty of encouraging nods and smiles. There were even some great questions and you managed to be witty as well as smart in your answers. As you left the meeting you felt good. Maybe you even allowed yourself a moment of congratulation. So why is it that as you arrive home your mind is playing on the one point that wasn’t quite perfect? Over dinner, your partner asks how it went and you say it was ‘okay’ and by the time you head to bed you’ve unravelled all the joy of the experience. The confident person who led the session with skill and understanding has been replaced with a vision of self-doubt, all the success erased by self-criticism.

Sound familiar? Well, the good news is you’re not alone. The even better news is that there is a way to tackle it: practising self-compassion quietens our inner critic and presses pause on the tendency to self-sabotage that limits our confidence and holds us back from making our ambitions a reality.

Take a minute: how many times this past week have you criticised yourself? Maybe you don’t feel your hair looks great today, or perhaps you haven’t met your target at the gym this week. Now think about how often you have offered yourself a moment of self-kindness. I bet you’re even wondering whether that’s something you ought to do, whether it’s not just a little selfish and self-indulgent.

Self-criticism is a habit that sets in early: sometimes it’s a defence we learn in our childhood context, running ourselves down before anyone else in the family or the playground has a chance to do it. Even in a loving home, with supportive and encouraging parents, perhaps you picked up the message that it’s not good to think too highly of yourself – other people come first and your job is to prioritise their needs over your own.

It might start with small things – a tendency to apologise before serving a meal you’ve spent time preparing: ‘it’s not as creamy/spicy/cheesy as it should be’ – and before long it’s your default. You might even catch yourself apologising for things you can’t control: ‘I’m sorry it’s so cloudy today’. I know. I’ve heard myself say it.

But does it matter? Wouldn’t we prefer to be known as self-effacing rather than full of self-importance? Perhaps we imagine we’re more likeable if we present ourselves as flawed. The truth is, of course, that we’re all flawed – that’s what it is to be human – but when unpicking all that’s good about us becomes an established pattern our relationships suffer, our self-image becomes unhealthily negative and our confidence takes a hit. Because the stories we tell ourselves matter.

Just as we can be damaged by the hurtful remarks of an abusive parent or controlling partner, repeating a litany of our imagined shortcomings is disabling and limits us from growing into the person we have the potential to become.

We know from the research that our brains have a negativity bias – it’s why we obsess about the minor detail we missed out of our report or focus on our lopsided smile in a friend’s gorgeous wedding pics. It evolved to keep us safe, to allow us to spot threats and give us a chance of taking action to survive. It means we’re wired to be super-sensitive to the bad stuff; as Rick Hanson has it, ‘our brains are like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones’.[1] And if we don’t check our self-judging behaviour it’s all too easy for our sense of self-worth to get out of kilter.

Psychologists talk about ‘contingent self-worth’,[2] where our self-esteem is strongly tied to approval or success. Maybe our sense of our own value was built on being popular or doing brilliantly at school. So what happens when someone else gets the promotion we wanted? Like the mood crash after a sugar high, we feel deflated, the voices of self-judgement quickly undermining our confidence and implying that we’ve failed. And in the next breath we’re doubling down and telling ourselves we’re better off not being ambitious anyway.

So what works? How do we deal with our inner critic and build genuine self-confidence with all its potential for seizing new opportunities and personal growth? Self-compassion starts where we are and invites us to ‘take the perspective of a compassionate other towards ourselves’.[3] Imagine how you would respond to a friend who picked up a rejection letter after a job interview. You wouldn’t tell them the interviewers could probably tell they weren’t up to the job or suggest that they were over-reaching by applying in the first place.

Being kind to ourselves can feel alien at the start. We might even need reminding that we deserve to be cared for, that as a human being we are intrinsically valuable. But it works: practising self-kindness triggers oxytocin production, reducing anxiety levels and counteracting the unhelpful levels of cortisol that stressful situations stimulate.[4] It works because self-compassion uses love as a motivator rather than fear. And the evidence[5] suggests that that makes us confident to be more ambitious, to try new things – and to give ourselves some slack when we don’t always get it right.

Try reframing difficult situations to move away from self-blame: not ‘I’m hopeless with technology’ but ‘there were some hiccups getting the kit fired up but I made the key points clearly in the time I had’. Think about changing the language you use to describe yourself and ask ‘what would be helpful for me here?’ rather than ‘am I as good as they are ?’ Just as you might encourage a good friend with a reassuring squeeze of the arm or a conspiratorial wink, offer yourself the same care. Let your hand rest on your heart for a moment before you face a tricky conversation or use your folded arms to give yourself a quietly comforting hug when two of your team just won’t play ball. If your role involves leading others, you probably already do this for your people as a matter of course, and you’re making a real difference. Just remember the oxygen mask analogy: putting your own on first means you’re in a position to help those around you to thrive.

Far from being a fuzzy ‘there, there’ feeling that tempts us to wallow, self-compassion allows us to feel calm and safe to acknowledge when circumstances are painful for us and to have the confidence to embrace new challenges. It means we no longer connect our sense of self-worth to performance goals because we can see that we are of value and we are open to learning and growth because we no longer sit in judgement on ourselves. It’s a life-enhancing change. How can you show yourself some compassion today?

Jan Cresswell


[1] Rick Hanson, psychologist, senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and author of numerous books including Hardwiring Happiness, at https://www.rickhanson.net/take-in-the-good/
[2] Kristin Neff is, along with Paul Gilbert, a leading authority on research into self-compassion. Associate professor in human development at the University of Texas, her eminently readable book Self Compassion is subtitled ‘stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind’. Also check out her comprehensive website: https://self-compassion.org
[3] Kristin Neff, Self Compassion
[4] Kristin Neff, Self Compassion
[5] Kirkpatrick, K., Neff, K. and Rude, S., An Examination of Self-Compassion in Relation to Positive Psychological Functioning and Personality Traits

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