The idea of the self-critic is one of the most common topics that comes up in my sessions with clients. A quick google search of self-critic images shows representations of this idea of a smaller version of ourselves standing on the shoulder yelling at ourselves with a bullhorn.
I see this idea show up with clients when they start sharing feelings like hurt or sadness. I frequently borrow a question from Sue Johnson, “What would that feeling say if it had a voice?”
As we explore these voices, it usually comes out of inner dialogue or beliefs from childhood or early experiences with meaningful people in their lives. Often clients will say things like, “I’m dumb, I can never meet their expectations, I’m not good enough, I’m always on the outside, or I’m unlovable.”
Self-critical statements, over time and with enough repetition, shape perceptions about oneself. These limited perceptions usually become beliefs about self-worth and influence how we behave. When we act out these beliefs that we are not smart or that we aren’t capable, we frequently act in a way that brings our worst fears into reality. Then we have “proof” that confirms the beliefs that we are not capable of anything significant “See, I knew I was dumb. So why try?”
So you might be wondering, “Now what?” The first thing is to pay attention to the self-critic and observe yourself as these self-critical statements happen. Pay attention to what you feel and how you act as a result. You might be able to bring correction to the story you are telling yourself and learn to give your younger self the compassion that you wanted in the moment that belief developed.
For what that looks like in real-time, I will give an example. If you have ever seen a toddler fall down and scrape their knee, then you might be familiar with seeing parents kiss their child’s “boo boo.” The kiss does not fix the pain that the child is experiencing but lets them know the parent sees their pain and their pain matters. I have seen this approach calm a child almost immediately.
The point is not to get logical with the child but provide compassion for the feelings connected with the pain.
If you are aware of your self-critic but you are not sure how to navigate the self-critical beliefs, finding a trained therapist can help you calm the voice of your self-critic so that it does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Written by: Dustin Ellis