A new character has been coming to therapy more and more frequently lately. This customer is pretty smart, I have to admit, and tirelessly observant. But I confess I don’t like this one very much. This is someone who butts into everyone’s sessions and gets in the way of personal lives, to boot. This is a character who listens to everything I say to people in our sessions and whispers in their ear, This won’t work for you. You’re messed up. You’re hopeless. You don’t have what it takes to change. And you’re probably not worth it, anyway.
Maybe by now you’ve recognized the voice of this so-and-so, who isn’t a real person at all and yet is familiar to so many of us: This is the voice of the Harsh Inner Critic.
Many of the brightest, most creative, outwardly-successful people I know are afflicted with a Harsh Inner Critic. These are folks for whom a certain critical acuity is important in their lives and work—constant observation, making fine distinctions, and assessing different results are essential characteristics for all kinds of people from artists to businesswomen to college professors. But these are qualities that have a tendency, when honed too fine, to become destructive.
The acute critic notices and identifies small details. This is a laudable and useful skill. But occasionally something happens to turn the nuanced observations of the acute critic into the blunt opinions of the Harsh Inner Critic, and fine distinctions morph into gross proclamations: This is bad. That was horrible. I am horrible. I am worthless.
We’ve all been encouraged at some time or another to engage in “constructive” criticism. It sounds like an oxymoron, right? But of course what it is is the fine-grained commentary that the acute observer supplies, the kind of observations that can serve as suggestions to make (“construct”) an improvement. Constructive criticism engages and helps you by identifying both the flaw that needs addressing and the inherent skill or strength you have to address that flaw.
“Criticism” as we usually think of it is destructive, not constructive. These are the dolorous appraisals of the Harsh Inner Critic, and they don’t serve to build up or improve anything. The judgments of the Harsh Inner Critic are hyperbolic and cruel, disproportionate to the flaws they address (That’s the worst, This is horrible! I’m an idiot). When the Harsh Inner Critic delivers its opinion all progress stops. The observations of the Harsh Inner Critic are absolute in their devaluation, and because they communicate no faith in a person’s ability to change anything, any hope for positive change is cut off at the knees.
By now you have probably thought of ways your own Harsh Inner Critic makes an appearance in your life. I know mine showed up briefly as I began to write this post—I got stuck for a few moments, and she snarked at me: This post is dumb! No one will like this. Luckily, by this point I have some tricks up my sleeve for defusing my Harsh Inner Critic’s critical stink bombs, and I was able to reinstate the more helpful acute critic. Let me give you some ideas for how you can free yourself from the unhelpful tirades of your Harsh Inner Critic, too:
- Recognize who’s talking. Not sure who’s making those pronouncements about you and your work? Notice the language that inner voice is using. While an acute critic has a flexible and nuanced vocabulary, the Harsh Inner Critic likes absolutes and extremes: Worst/best. Bad/good. In addition to this, the Harsh Inner Critic is drawn to the negative evaluation: Horrible. Terrible. Execrable. (Ok, sometimes the Harsh Inner Critic has a good vocabulary, but it’s not motivational or empowering.)
- Call out the voice. Once you’ve determined it’s the Harsh Inner Critic talking to you, call it out! Take a breath, and say (out loud, if that feels good, or silently if you feel self-conscious) “Harsh Inner Critic, you’re acting like a jerk! You’re being way harder on me than is necessary. Your commentary is mean and disrespectful and the things you say to me aren’t helpful.” Don’t be afraid to call a spade a spade.
- Supply precise language. The key to kicking out the Harsh Inner Critic and putting the acute critic in its place is to diligently replace extreme, condemnatory language with language that accurately describes a problem and its potential solution. For example, earlier I took the spiteful words of my Harsh Inner Critic as a cue to look at what, exactly, wasn’t working for me in my writing. I took pains to identify what I was unhappy with, in careful terms that indicated how I might improve: I notice all my sentences are really long and complicated. I lose track of the thought halfway through most of them, and I don’t want my readers to have to work so hard…or get bored! I might improve this by breaking up my thoughts into smaller chunks.
- Recognize your cues. As you grow more practiced with replacing extreme or absolute criticisms with nuanced observations, you can begin using the sound of the Harsh Critic’s Voice as a sort of automatic cue to engage in critical acuity. What are your Harsh Inner Critic’s favorite terms? Worst? Bad? Crapulous? The moment you first hear these words, use them as a sort of switch to turn on the flexible, detail-and-solution-rich observations of the acute critic. With practice, this switch becomes automatic. With more time and practice, the Harsh Inner Critic is out of a job—the helpful, acute critic has permanently taken its place!
For many of us, the Harsh Inner Critic makes appearances in multiple arenas: in our jobs, when we try to interact with our friends and families, and when we try to master a new skill or practice a longtime hobby. It can be hardy like a weed, popping up in a new area after having been banished from another.
But no matter how loud the Harsh Inner Critic speaks it is not the voice of truth, and it is not invincible. With attention, practice, and purposeful kindness, your Harsh Inner Critic can be made to give way to a constructive, helpful inner voice. Good luck in your efforts, and let me know if I can help.