how to deal when your inner critic is an asshole {self-talk first aid}

inner-critic-self-talk

This little beast goes by many names: Negative self-talk. Inner Critic. Inner mean girl/shit-talker. Limiting beliefs. Shame spiral. Your "gremlins".

It's that all-too-familiar voice in your head that knows just what to say to take you down a notch (or five), whether it's when you've made a mistake:

"Way to go. How stupid can you be?!  They're going to know you're a complete fraud now!"

Or even when you're doing well:

"They seemed to like the presentation.. but they're probably just complimenting me to be nice, not because they mean it. I'm nowhere near as good as Marie, and I'm sure I never will be even if I work my ass off."

Ok, let's pause for a second.

Take a breath.

Even just reading those words, do you notice anything happening in your body? A tightening of your chest, clenching your jaw — pit in your stomach?

Shaming yourself hurts, not only at the mental/emotional level, but at the physiological level, too. And one huge reason for that is because, as humans, we have not yet evolved to the point of self-awareness that we can clearly see our thoughts as just that — thoughts. Strings of words in our minds, which really should only be given any weight when they are somehow useful to us.

Instead, we give them a lot of credit and tend to automatically buy in to whatever idea they're selling us.

There are many different approaches to working with self-talk, and I'm not shy about my bias towards an acceptance-based approach rather than a traditional cognitive-behavioral approach of changing and eliminating "negative" thoughts. While I love the CBT framework of "ANTs" (automatic negative thoughts), I don't necessarily agree with the idea that we should aim to just kill all the ants because they're "bad." (I guess this is true at the literal level too, unless they're inside my house — then, sorry guys.)

Following this metaphor, let's say I have ants in my backyard that don't actually do anything harmful to my yard or myself, unless I step right in their mound and just leave my foot there for them to crawl on. This is very similar to your thoughts, because a thought itself can't actually harm you — it's just a string of syllables in your head, remember? The problem is that when we forget they're just thoughts that don't have real power to control our actions and our lives  — and we buy into them, hook, line and sinker — it's sort of like standing hopelessly in the ant pile. Also, if you spend lots of time, energy and money trying to get rid of those damn ants, instead of finding a way to coexist outside with them there and enjoy the sunshine, well... that's a lot of beautiful days you're missing out on unnecessarily.

Therein, one of the traps you can fall into as you're trying to improve your self-talk is that sometimes the more you focus on "getting rid of" the negative self-talk, the louder it becomes — and it can also make you feel like a failure, when in reality, humans inherently aren't equipped to turn thoughts a feelings on and off like a faucet.

We are great at problem-solving with external issues. (Dirt on the floor? Sweep it up! Need to drive over that body of water? Build a bridge!) But when we try to apply this same logic internally, it doesn't work out so well. (Don't like feeling guilty? Make it stop! Oh wait... it's still here. Have a drink - or 5! Go shopping!) Yeah... our methods for "getting rid of" difficult thoughts and feelings tend to backfire and create even more problems for us.

I could go on forever about this topic (which is why Self-Talk First-Aid is one of my coaching programs), but for now, here's an experiment to try out:

Every time you notice yourself in negative self-talk (or inner critic, or whatever you want to call it at this point) over the next week, simply make a statement to yourself: "Oh, there's that thought again. I'm having that thought that _______."

It might sound silly or way too basic, but you'd be surprised how powerful it can be to remind yourself that whatever Greatest Hits criticism of yourself that's playing is just a thought. Once you have more awareness around that, you can also remember that the thought is A) nothing novel or helpful that you haven't already heard 1000 times before, B) probably not giving you great advice, and C) mostly just arising because it's part of your default mode at this point.

Try it out and let me know what you think! And if you have any favorite go-to strategies to deal with your inner critic, I'd love to hear about them in the comments. 

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Valerie Martin

Valerie Martin, LMSW, is a Primary Therapist at The Ranch residential treatment center, where she works with eating disorders, addiction, trauma, and co-occurring mental health issues. Valerie focuses on a holistic treatment approach of mind + body integration, using Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic and bioenergetic therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), psychodrama, 12-step, and shame resilience. She is also a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT) Candidate. Valerie received her Bachelor of Science degree in Communications and Master of Science degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin. She is an active member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville, and emphasizes spiritual exploration in her work with clients.