Thanking Our Inner Critic for Teaching Us What Matters.
It’s Thanksgiving in the U.S. so you’re probably seeing a lot of blogs and social media posts on gratitude. And it makes sense: gratitude for the good stuff—friends, family, pets, a body that works, a job that puts food on the table—is associated with well-being.
But it can feel hard to be grateful if you have a mind that is constantly cruel to you.
“I’m not good enough.”
“I’m a bad parent.”
Do any of these sound familiar? It seems that most humans share the experience of having an inner critic. What does yours say to you? If I had a magic spell that could silence your critic permanently would you take me up on it?
I wouldn’t silence mine. In fact, I’m grateful for her.
Now before you go calling my therapist, let me explain. If we all have an inner critic, it’s highly unlikely it’s by accident. Evolution is too clever for that. Think of it like this: if a skunk came to you and said, “I have a terrible problem—every time I get scared, my butt smells. It’s embarrassing and you have to help me fix it.”—what might you say? Probably something simple like, “But you’re a skunk.” Like, duh, ALL skunks have smelly butts to keep them safe from predators. So perhaps this holiday, instead of trying to fix their stinky bums (as if that’s even possible), skunks should gather round their bird and berry feasts and express gratitude for the rancid rumps that let them see another day.
What about you? How might your inner critic be trying to help you?
Mine—I call her Sheila—tells me that I’m average and ordinary. She compares me to other people and points out how much better and smarter they are. Her favorite opinion is that I’m a fraud or an imposter, and when she’s really trying to do a number on me, she throws in “You’re a terrible mom” for good measure.
It’s hard to feel the pain, inadequacy, and self-doubt that arise when Sheila shows up. And I see how she is trying to keep me on my toes. She is trying to motivate me to avoid complacency and to strive to better myself. She is trying to protect me from putting myself out there and being rejected or humiliated. And she’s trying to make sure I take good care of the two small humans who mean everything to me.
There’s something else important here: if you look closely at the thoughts your inner critic generates, they are telling you everything you need to know about what matters most to you. Sheila rarely criticizes my driving or what I choose to watch on TV because being a world-class motorist or curator of fine sitcoms isn’t important to me. She saves her judgments for my family, my creative work, and my career. Why? Because she wants to make sure I don’t let the important stuff slide.
What is your inner critic trying to tell you about what matters to you?
How do you normally respond when your critic shows up? If you shut down, shy away, or second guess yourself, you’re not alone. That inner voice can feel pretty compelling. But the last thing we want is to move away from the things that matter to us most. So while we can’t silence the inner critic any more than we can snuff out the stinky skunk bum, we can choose to respond differently when the critic gets mouthy.
This Thanksgiving, try pulling up an extra chair next to your great-aunt Edith and inviting your inner critic to have a seat. Give your critic a name—you know each other so well, you ought to be on a first-name basis by now. Giving your critic a name, like Sheila, will create a little space between you and your judgy thoughts so they become a little less compelling. In that space, you can get curious—what is your Sheila trying to tell you about what matters to you?—and you can choose how to respond. Perhaps instead of shutting down, you might consider turning toward.
If your critic is saying you’re a fraud in your professional life, this means success or being taken seriously matter to you. So how might you choose to show up in your career in the next moment (even if you’re terrified of being “found out”)? If your critic is saying you’re boring and have nothing to add to the conversation, this means being liked or accepted is important to you because connected relationships matter to you. So how might you lean into the next moment in a way that honors the importance of your relationships (even if you’re afraid of being rejected)?
Turning toward what matters will require courage to feel vulnerable. It will also make you feel more alive. So this holiday season let’s put a new spin on gratitude and give thanks for the inner critics who are trying to help us be our best selves and remind us what matters to us most. Let’s honor our Sheilas by being brave, getting vulnerable, and turning toward what matters.
Stoddard, J.A. (2019) Be Mighty: A Woman's Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance. New Harbinger Publications: Oakland.