Tame Your Inner Critic in 8 Steps
with Jess Baker
Welcome to this Tame Your Inner Critic series of blogs with me, Jess Baker. I am a Chartered Business Psychologist, Women’s Leadership Coach, and I’m currently writing my first book on compassionate people.
The Inner Critic prevents us from feeling confident and satisfied with our life. It’s one of the most powerful forces we face, in every moment, and if your Inner Critic is not ‘on-message’ with how amazingly brilliant you are, then you’re going to feel, well, pants.
It seems that we are more likely to be attacked by self-critical thoughts when we’re stepping out of our comfort zone; when we try something new or take risks etc., but it actually stems from something deep-seated, well-established and is well-rehearsed.
Having worked with literally thousands of people and their inner critics I wrote this blog to explain everything you need to know about your Inner Critic, demystifying it, explaining the truth about it, and sharing 8 steps to follow that will help you to get closer to reclaiming your headspace. I hope you find it useful.
Why do I need to know about your Inner Critic?
If you’ve ever doubted your ability, even though you have relevant qualifications and lots of experience
If you’ve ever worried about an event or situation so much that you’ve wanted to pull out of it
If you ever say yes too often when you really meant no, and those same people keep asking more of you
If you’ve ever procrastinated, or deferred making decisions, all the while feeling terrible about yourself
If you answered yes to any of these (or all!), then I know how you feel. I wrote this guide especially for you.
While we all have this experience, some of us are more susceptible to its message than others. It can cause anxiety, self-doubt, procrastination, even self-loathing. The end result is that you feel under-confident, lack focus, can’t make decisions easily, and feel frustrated.
How will it hep me / my friends / my colleagues?
You’ll get a sound understanding of why we have an Inner Critic. You will see it differently once you realise the 4 truths about your Inner Critic. Then you can choose one of the 8 evidence-based techniques I set out, to help you overcome your Inner Critic and begin to act in your own best interest.
The Inner Critic is trying to Protect you
Your Inner Critic is your brain’s method of trying to protect you from harm. Your brain is wired to keep you alive.
A hundred thousand years ago, when your ancestors came face to face with actual life-threatening situations, they would have to decide whether to run away to save their lives or stay and fight it out.
What we know now is that a few milliseconds before the body jumps to action (fighting or fleeing) a tiny part of the brain has already been activated: the amygdala (an almond shaped cluster of cells in the emotional centre of the brain). This is called the “fight or flight” phenomenon that you’ve probably heard of.
When faced with actual life-threatening life situations the amygdala sends messages to the body to send blood and oxygen to large muscles so that it has enough energy to fight or run away. Your heartbeat quickens because it is being told to pump oxygen to your large muscles, and you take quick shallow breaths. Your body also stops digesting which causes a tingling sensation in the stomach, that ‘butterflies’ feeling.
In the 21st century, the amygdala continues to fire in actual life-threatening situations – which is very useful for example, when a motorcycle speeds around the corner just as you are crossing the road, and your body jumps back on to the pavement and out of danger. This happens before you even have time to think, ‘Oh look there’s a motorcycle coming my way, and it looks as though it might hit me, I should step back on to the pavement to stop myself from being killed’.
But your amygdala also fires when you are faced with perceived threat – and this is exhausting! The little things in life that are not actually life-threatening become triggers for worry and stress… such as (a) an email from your boss at 5pm saying ‘see me in my office immediately’, or (b) a message from your mum saying ‘call me now it’s urgent’, or (c) you have to present to the board next Monday and you wake up at 4am every morning fretting about it.
Your accompanying thoughts will contain a negative assessment of the situation:
(a) Your boss says, ‘See me in my office immediately’ – I’ve done something wrong, someone has made a complaint, I wonder what it could be…
(b) The message from your mum saying, ‘Call me now it’s urgent’ – Oh dear she’s in pain, she’s fallen over, I should call 999…
(c) You have a presentation to the board next Monday and you wake up at 4am every morning of the week before fretting about it – I’ll be so nervous my voice will shake, they’ll think I’m stupid, I’m already feeling nervous, I’m going to feel so much worse on the day, what if they ask a question I can’t answer.
Do any of these resonate with you?
What other examples have you experienced in the past?
We seek approval from others from a very young age. e.g. we need our parent’s approval so that they’ll look after us. As social animals we want to be liked by our friends, teachers, lovers etc. So we learn to do what we can to be liked and win their approval. From a very early age, we learn to rely on other people’s opinion of us so that we can gauge our personal success. Are we liked? Valued? Trusted?
But if we are criticised (or even if we witness someone else being criticised) our brain latches on to this criticism as if it is the truth. We internalise this criticism and adopt it as our own. It is now our own self-critical thought. And because it’s our own thought we don’t question it as we would question other people’s ideas or beliefs.
This internalised thought becomes part of our story, forming the beliefs we hold about ourselves, and we rehearse these thoughts – “I’m never going to be good / thin / smart / popular / beautiful / rich / x / y / z / enough”. When can tell ourselves ‘I should’ and ‘I ought’ (e.g. I should go to the gym more often, I ought to be earning more money by now’), it’s because we’re trying to attain a betterversion of ourselves.
This better version is an idealised image of how we would like to be. We have, over time, defined our ultimate self as slimmer, younger, fitter, more successful, wealthier, living in luxury. You have a specific image of your idealised self in your mind’s eye. Psychologists call this the Ideal Self.
Several psychologists have devised complex theories explaining how we humans have an innate desire to improve our state, or self-actualise (Jung, Karen Horey, Carl Rogers, Maslow). However, all the time we are not meeting the standard of our Ideal Self, we feel we are lacking. We experience dissatisfaction with how we are right now in this moment. And guess what? The Inner Critic voices this dissatisfaction extremely well, like your very judgemental commentary, streaming live to you, and about you, in your head 24 hours 7 days a week, 365 days a year. I call it Critical FM. And it’s not going ot stop of its own accord.
1. Four Truths about your Inner Critic
#1.1 Original Thought
Your Inner Critic is not your original thought. It puts pressure on you to be better, perfect even. It reminds you of your faults, and flaws. But actually, these thoughts are usually based on something that somebody else once said to you, about you, or in front of you. Your brain has internalised other people’s words, and held on to them as a truth about you.
People with a particularly domineering Inner Critic may have had critical parents or internalised critical messages from teachers or other sources – bullying kids, critical ex-partners (hoepfully an ex- by now).
#1.2 It’s not true
Your Inner Critic voices thoughts that are not based on any truth. But because these thoughts are embedded and well rehearsed in your own head, you don’t question them as readily as you question other people’s thoughts or behaviour.
#1.3 Switching off
Your Inner Critic is never going to switch off. Never ever! Trust me, I’ve tried. Actually, rather than desperately hushing it or arguing with it, you need to befriend your Inner Critic. You need to know it really well. That’s the only way to disempower it: understand where it’s coming from, what it’s saying to you, and why it’s saying that right now, and then you can learn to choose how you react to it.
#1.4 Negative Cycle
One negative thought leads to another, and so it goes. This negative thought cycle is something like this:
You compare yourself negatively to others. It diminishes your self-esteem. You don’t feel comfortable in your skin. Your confidence reduces. Maybe you try to make attempts at self-development, but it undermines your effort every step. You want to succeed but it triggers anxiety and stress every time you try and step out of your comfort zone. It reminds you of past failures. It’s degrading and demeaning and uses a horrible nagging or whiny voice. It sabotaged your self-development. It doesn’t want you to succeed. So you end up repeating your negative behavioural patterns, avoiding the same thing, feeling stuck, procrastinating, whatever it might be, which inevitably ends up with you feeling worse, and hating yourself more because you feel totally inadequate. And so the Inner Critic continues…
Does this sound familiar? When you find yourself unexpectedly in a negative cycle of worry or mild self-loathing, it is almost impossible to snap out of it. The great news is that it is possible to interrupt it and even disable it completely. I tell you how in the next section.
2. Tame Your Inner Critic ~ in 8 steps
One of the reasons why I help people learn how to tame their Inner Critic is because I know how much damage it can do. If only we knew about this from a younger age; we could be walking around in our teens and twenties feeling so much better about ourselves.
#2.1 Sharing the thoughts to reduce the shame
The one thing that maintains and supports your Inner Critic is that you never tell anyone about it. You never voice your self-critical thoughts. And why would you? You don’t need other people to jump in and start judging you and criticising the way you look, your parenting skills, the way you do your job etc.
But what most people do not know is that EVERYONE has similar self-critical thoughts. It’s true. Regardless of where you live in the world or your socio-economic status, we all have the same rubbish going round and round our heads.
The one thing we do have in common is that we are stepping outside of our comfort zone. We are striving to improve ourselves or our life in some way. Examples include, applying for a new job, starting a new business, or being a busy mum balancing lots of responsibilities.
By sharing your Inner Critical thoughts, you are getting those insidious thoughts out of your head, realising that you are not alone, and releasing the shame that has made you feel worse about yourself for years, totally unnecessarily.
#2.2 Learn to Interrupt your Inner Critic
Learning to interrupt your IC is essential – it is the only way you are going to be able to regain any control over it and reclaim your headspace. I have recorded a video explaining in detail 5 ways to disempower your Inner Critic (with lots of detailed slides and examples so you can pause and makes notes as you go along). My blended approach includes an eclectic mix of mindfulness principles, lessons in self-compassion, well-established cognitive behavioural techniques and a selection of activities from my training in the performing arts.
#2.3 Being your own parent
Let me share with you that I had a very critical mother. She never asked me how I was or what I needed. I had to do things for her to prove my love for her, and in the hope of winning her approval. At the deepest level she taught me that I didn’t deserve to be loved for just who I was, I had to be useful.
It won’t surprise you that I grew up desperately trying to win other people’s approval by doing things for them, and putting their needs before my own. Many of us do this to some degree. Now I recognise that I was parenting myself in the way that I had been parented. How do you parent yourself at the moment? How could you be a better parent to yourself? More nurturing, forgiving, accepting and loving of yourself?
We need to stop relying on other people’s opinion about us to form our own. Research shows that when we compare ourselves with others, we do so unfavourably. So, instead of looking around the room and thinking how successful everyone else seems, and that you should be more like them, take a moment to build your self-worth. Remind yourself of how brilliant and capable you are. Yes! You! Try re-writing your CV (you have so much experience that you take for granted, or discount). You could write a letter as if it’s from one woman to another, raving about you and your work: “I must introduce you to my friend [insert your name], she’s an incredible woman who is… who has done…”. This is a really uplifting exercise.
Trying to increase your level of self-esteem is not actually a healthy pursuit (self-esteem requires you to compare yourself to others, which is not an accurate assessment of your selfnor is it helpful). Instead, choose to increase your level of self-acceptance and be kinder to yourself.
You are a phenomenal human being yet you continue to be bitchy and cutting about yourself… well instead, why not try being as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend? Soothing, caring, loving, nurturing yourself. Life’s really tough, so take the pressure off and give yourself a break. Instead of trying to change to fit the mould, why not acknowledge and embrace all your quirks and foibles as celebrate them as part of your unique authentic personality?
#2.6 Expect to fail sometimes
You’re only human. You have a natural desire to change and improve things, but not everything you do will work out. Your rational brain knows this. But your emotional brain feels the fear and tries to prevent you from making mistakes (it doesn’t want you to humiliate yourself when you fail). Failing to achieve one task, or even failing at running a business, does not mean that you are a failure. People who forgive themselves for making mistakes are more likely to be successful, because they will try and try and try again. Whereas people who are afraid of making mistakes will never try. So ask yourself, what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?
#2.7 Choose the language you use
Because our thoughts determine how we feel, which in turn impact how we behave, it’s easy to get caught up in our limiting self-beliefs. So, to turn your Inner Critic on its head, try changing the negative words into self-confident affirmations: ‘I don’t feel successful’ to ‘I deserve to feel successful’ or even ‘I am successful’. It might feel icky to say this at first, but try it anyway. Get used to saying it out loud, or in front of the mirror. If you don’t feel it yet, try acting it out as if you’re auditioning for a play. There’s magic (and science) in hearing yourself say positive feedback out loud in this way. As the brain begins to believe it, you will begin to feel it.
#2.8 Redefining your Ideal Self
Earlier I mentioned your Ideal Self and how the further away you believe you are from it, the more dissatisfied you will feel with how you are, in this moment. While it’s great to have big goals and delicious dreams to pursue, if these scare you or if you feel overwhelmed with worry, then you are not likely to make them happen. Being a little more realistic with what you can achieve will help you remain focused and motivated enough to continue to act in your own best interest. What small steps can you take right now, today, that will help you move towards your goals?
Other ways to work with me
Corporate programmes: I run a series of development programmes, talks, workshops, and online webinars and courses.
1:1 coaching packages for individual coaching clients, senior leaders and top teams
You can also book me as a speaker for your women’s leadership event, employee engagement event, or business networking lunch.
What they say…
“Jess is a highly professional and committed Business Psychologist. She has strong team-working and leadership skills, and brings a great deal of personal energy to her work. She also delivers to a high level and is fun to work with.”
Mike Thompson, Head of L&D, Barclays Plc
“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Jess over a number of years and in a range of different projects. She is a highly skilled facilitator with a great deal of insight, warmth and empathy. She brings training material to life and adds a depth of experience, which enables people to really reflect and gain new ways of understanding. I would not hesitate to recommend her.”
Judy Bennett, Director, Criterion Partnership
Women's Leadership Coach
Jess Baker is a Chartered Business Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. She has worked across a wide range of industries designing and delivering global programmes on leadership development, employee engagement, and assessment methods.
She is an experienced leader, a passionate coach, has trained in stand-up comedy, and is said to be an engaging facilitator. Jess gives her expert opinion on BBC Radio, is quoted in women’s magazines, and speaks at national wellbeing conferences and festivals.