“F***ing hell, Jana, what did you do that for?”
“You’ve done f*** all all day!”
Please meet my inner critic! It followed me like a shadow, it always had an opinion, and it used to swear - a lot. I write about it in the past tense, because my inner critic is on vacation. It’s not coming back, at least, that’s the plan. Life is so much more pleasant without it.
This article is about inner critics and how to get rid of them (Yes, it is possible, read on).
I suspect you know very well what I am talking about. We all have inner critics, eager to sabotage our lives at any possible opportunity. They have very little faith in our abilities, they love to point fingers, overdramatise and invent doomsday scenarios. In fact, they are some of the most creative, vocal and opinionated creatures out there. What are they?
In her brilliant book Sane New World, Ruby Wax explains that an inner critic is an incarnation of our "lizard brain” - the brain stem, cerebellum and basal ganglia both lizards and humans have inherited from fish. These parts of the brain handle basic body functions such as breathing, balance and coordination, as well as simple survival urges like feeding, mating and self-defence. The basic function of the “lizard brain” is self-preservation. As such, it cannot appreciate risk-taking, creativity or complex emotions like compassion. It will worry about everything beyond the realm of lizard’s life. Fortunately, our brains have evolved beyond the capabilities of reptiles, but the new complex machine that is our brain has this annoying flaw - lizard’s voice, inner critic, the gremlin, whatever you choose to call it.
You must agree that your life would improve considerably without unhelpful sabotage, if only we could put the wretched creature into a soundproof box and lock it there forever.
The creative method
Author John-Paul Flintoff, writing for the Guardian, recommends drawing an inner critic and giving it a name, thereby becoming aware of your negative thinking patterns and externalising them. His inner critic is "small with a shaved head and dark shadows under his bulging eyes. He generally looks worried, and avoids eye contact, but sometimes he stares boldly, his face contorted into a disbelieving sneer.” Flintoff calls his inner critic Uriah, "because like the Dickens character, his inner critic is "ever so ‘umble”". Whenever Flintoff thinks "You’re not ready”, "Nobody wants that anyway”, "You’re too old”, "It’s not going to make any difference”, he knows it’s Uriah talking and filters away negative chatter.
The taming method
Margeting guru and author Seth Godin and his many followers recommend talking to your inner critic like an indulgent nurse with a demented patient. If your gremlin is sneering at you after your pad thai came out clumpy and way too salty with “You can’t even follow a recipe, you can’t cook the simplest dish!”, you should politely respond with something cheerful like “Don’t you worry your pretty head about me, I’ll be all right…”. The idea is to demonstrate the inner critic that it cannot wind you up, so it might as well stop bothering.
The neuroplastic method
Neuroscientists have proven that our brains are “plastic": they don’t stop developing in childhood, as was previously assumed, and instead the brains can be “rewired” by laying down new pathways and practising the new route until it becomes “automatic” and followed subconsciously. Cognitive behavioural therapists have successfully adapted this scientific breakthrough to help their patients take advantage of neuroplasticity and replace negative patterns with positive ones.
When my pad thai did not turn out right, I said to myself: “Oh well, let’s try a different recipe next time and keep an eye on the quantities of fish sauce it instructs to add.” When I lost my breath after jogging for just 10 minutes after a long period of physical inactivity, I preempted my inner critic voicing its opinion by telling myself: “Wasn’t it amazing to be up and running again? You’ll build your fitness back in no time.” I say a lot of “well done” and “you are a rock star” to myself and have gradually noticed that my inner critic lost its voice. It still manages to sneak it a comment once in a while, but it’s nothing like the constant negative chatter it was capable of.
I find it helps when you address yourself as you would a child or your younger self. Think compassion: “It’s OK, you’ll do better next time”, think praise “That’s brilliant, keep up the good work”, think encouragement “I believe in you”. What’s beautiful about it is that not only does this method works (by rewiring your neural pathways) but suddenly you’ve acquired yourself an effective and free life coach whose diary is always at your disposal.
Bye-bye, inner critic, hello, brand new neuroplastic world!