Facing the Inner Critic: Shame and Self-Esteem

It was an all-staff meeting and the room was full of coworkers I barely knew — immediately reminding me why I was an introvert.  I felt the familiar rush of nerves when the supervisor suggested we all go around and introduce ourselves.  She even included the dreaded ‘fun fact’ question. My heart was pounding and when my turn came I opened my mouth to speak but all I could stammer out was: “I’m Laur-bor-la.”

What. Was That.  I had mispronounced my own first name in front of my coworkers and peers.  And for the rest of the meeting I could hardly hear the supervisors talk over the sound of my own Inner Critic tearing me apart:

“You fraud. Look how dumb you are. You can’t even do this right. You don’t belong here. You failure.”

Sound familiar?

The Inner Critic in All Of Us

The Inner Critic.  We all have it.  It’s that feeling, that voice that can challenge us in our strongest moments and push us further down in our lowest.  It’s the part of us that casts doubt, making us feel like worthless, shameful frauds.  Even on good days we can sometimes see it dancing around on the periphery, just looking for a reason to tear us down.

The Inner Critic is that source of impossible standards, the voice that demands perfectionism.  It’s the part of us that wants to look effortless and successful, fiercely strong but approachable, emotionally intelligent socialites that everyone loves.

It demands that we never make mistakes. Because mistakes are weaknesses and we aren’t allowed to be weak.

We say something embarrassing– we’re failures.
We make a mistake at school or work– we’re failures.
We aren’t as good as someone else– we’re failures.
We have a bad day– we’re failures.

And the list goes on and on.  Not only do we face the torrents of self-doubt with our everyday actions, but even when we succeed we’re subjected to reminders of the times we failed.  Even on my best days I still might lie awake thinking about that one embarrassing thing I did in fifth grade and wondering if my old classmates still judge me for it.

All around us we can see the boom of the “self love industry”– body positive accounts preaching loving ourselves no matter our size, communities dedicated to uplifting and empowering one another, self-esteem workshops for kids and adults.  To see the world finally take note of what it means to love ourselves is powerful and transformative. But it can trap us into an impossible standard, now on top of meeting the rest of our Inner Critic’s expectations, we have to love ourselves too. And if we still struggle with our Inner Critic, then we must still be a failure.

We all have an Inner Critic and the Inner Critic is rarely helpful.

How Not To Handle The Inner Critic

Our thoughts have power. They can influence our feelings, our actions, our relationships.  But have you ever tried NOT thinking about something?  Right now, think of a pink pony.  Now try to stop thinking about a pink pony.  Just by investing energy in what we don’t want to think about, we will find ourselves cycling to think right back to it.  We feel trapped by the thought, feel as though we can’t escape it no matter how hard we try to fight it.

Have you stopped thinking of the pink pony yet? Probably not.

Brute force doesn’t silence our Inner Critic.  As much as we may try to fight the thought  we can end up feeding back into its power.  It’s exhausting and overwhelming and it just doesn’t work.

So if fighting it doesn’t work– what do we do about it? Let’s explore several approaches below to ways to manage the Inner Critic (or at the very least, take back some of our power):

1. Watch the Thoughts Go By (Primarily Dialectical Behavior Therapy / Mindfulness)

When it comes to thoughts, we have two choices: we can hitch ourselves to every thought that passes and believe it wholeheartedly, or we can choose to recognize our disconnect from our thinking.  We can treat thoughts like a passing train, allowing the thoughts to pass on by before paying attention to the new one.  When we hear the Inner Critic’s comments, we can choose to see them as passing birds flying by or pebbles being carried by a river. Visualize watching the thoughts flow by.  Allow yourself to be mindful of your thoughts as they change and adapt.  When we pay attention to the way our thoughts continue to change, we give ourselves the power to avoid being chained to any one thought.

Let’s look to my mishap at my department meeting for an example:

Inner Critic: You fraud. Look how dumb you are. You can’t even do this right. You don’t belong here. You failure.

Me: Oh look, there’s my Inner Critic.  Okay, I see the thought, I can see it moving away– oh, moving, I should probably double-check on if my client needs moving boxes, I wonder if she still wants that one apartment.

Inner Critic: Stop, you suck. You’re awful at this.

Me: Oh there’s the Inner Critic again, I’m going to visualize it flying past me– I hope the weather turns nicer so I can take Scout for a walk today–

Everyday we have a countless number of thoughts. Each thought, even our Inner Critic, is temporary. Just like the pain of a stubbed toe or the shock of cold water, it will fade away.

2. Put the Thought on Trial (Primarily Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)

Just because we have a thought doesn’t mean we have to believe it.  And while we know arguing with the Inner Critic only feeds it, putting the thought on trial is a powerful way to offer contrary evidence.  Let’s look at the example again:

Inner Critic: You fraud. Look how dumb you are. You can’t even do this right. You don’t belong here. You failure.

Me: I was hired for this job which means they obviously thought I was capable of it.  I have a lot of strengths I bring to the position. It’s okay that I get nervous around big groups sometimes.  And I know that most people have probably already forgotten about it because I can’t remember every embarrassing thing I’ve ever seen other people do.

By gently providing factual evidence we can empower ourselves to weigh just how logical/reasonable these thoughts are.  Putting thoughts on trial is an essential step to changing the Inner Critic’s control over our self-perception.

3. Externalize the Inner Critic (Primarily Narrative Therapy)

One of the dangers of the Inner Critic is that it feels personal– it feels like a part of us is self-loathing and undermining and heartless and cruel.  We gain power back over the Inner Critic by externalizing it.  Imagine what the Inner Critic would look like if it stood right in front of you.  Would it be human?  Would it be a creature, a monster?  Detail its features, imagine its voice.  Create a clear image of the Inner Critic in your mind.  Now recognize your freedom.  This isn’t a part of you internally anymore, this is something you can see and speak with outside of yourself.  And you are not defined by your Inner Critic.

As a narrative therapist, my Inner Critic has morphed its form a great deal over the years.  Sometimes it seems small and weak and innocent, sometimes it looks awful and ugly and its hard to look at.  But it’s not me.  It’s outside of me, and that gives me power.

*Bonus points here: A fun tip is to picture your Inner Critic as someone you really don’t like, especially a character, politician, or celebrity.  It’s easier to tell our Inner Critics to screw off when they look like someone we’d never listen to anyways.

4. Accept the Origin of the Inner Critic (Primarily Acceptance and Commitment Therapy)

As harmful as our Inner Critic can be, the truth is that it’s there for a purpose.  Our Inner Critics exist out of fear, out of shame, out of defensiveness–out of living a life of risks and feeling hurt and wanting desperately to avoid feeling that pain.  What happens if we can understand where the Inner Critic comes from?  What changes when we can look at the root of the Inner Critic’s goals and better understand?

I’ll be honest, this realization was transformative for me.  I realized that my Inner Critic was afraid of failure or judgement– if I could talk myself out of taking risks socially and professionally, then I would never fail because I never tried. Looking at our example again:

Inner Critic: You fraud. Look how dumb you are. You can’t even do this right. You don’t belong here. You failure.

Me: I know you’re afraid.  This is scary and new and I might fail.  Thank you for being worried about me.  But it’s okay. I can do this.

*Bonus points: marrying this technique with #3 Externalizing can be a powerful combination.  I find that when I approach my Inner Critic with understanding, it changes into something tame and quiet.

5. Feel It In Your Body (Body Awareness Therapies)

Our bodies and minds are closely linked, which means any time we experience strong thoughts or feelings we’ll likely have a responding bodily reaction. Paying attention to our bodies allows us to refocus from the thought onto a more neutral focus. Maybe when the Inner Critic speaks I feel a tightness in my chest, or a pit in my stomach, or a tension in my shoulders or jaw.  Maybe I feel achy or nauseous, maybe I feel disoriented.  Whatever it is, our goal is to pull our awareness out of our mind and into our bodies.

We can choose to just stay there with awareness in our bodies, or we can take it one step further.  Not only do we want to notice where the tension/discomfort is in our body, but we also want to notice where it isn’t.  What parts of our body feel relaxed?  Then find the edge.  Find the place where that tension and relaxation meet.  Focus your awareness on the space and just breathe. Over time, your body may naturally relax, making it harder for the Inner Critic to do its thing.

6. Ask “Who Benefits from this Thought?” (Primarily Feminist Therapy)

The truth is there are entire industries built on our shame and feelings of failure.  Everything from aging creams to self-help books with promise of achieving perfection all monetize our guilt for being inadequate.  Maybe there’s someone in our life who would love to see us fail.  Maybe it feels like the system is against us. And maybe all of these systems and jerks would benefit from my tearing myself apart.

Inner Critic: You fraud. Look how dumb you are. You can’t even do this right. You don’t belong here. You failure.

Me: I have spent my entire life being a part of systems that monopolize on my shame.  I refuse to be a part of this. I will not let you tear me down.

Sometimes spite is a powerful tool.

But what do we do when nothing seems to work?

We all have those days where everything is terrible and none of our best coping skills are working.  You’re not alone.  Try to connect with someone, stay safe, and remember that this will pass. Our Inner Critics only have the power we give them, and even when we feel weak and alone, we are mightier than we feel.

It’s been months since my small, silly example, but I still remember.  I remember the way I felt, and sometimes the Inner Critic tries to pick up on it again.  But life moves on and so do we.  And with time, feelings fade.

We got this, loves!


  1. Fiona Jackson says

    It’s fascinating to see the strategies from different therapy modalities discussed in this way for one common topic! Thank you for this incredibly informative post.

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