Staying ambitious without perfectionism or doubt.
You know who your inner critic is. It’s the little voice inside your head that insults you and criticizes you. It seems to chime in like a rude neighbor in the movie theater, loudly chattering away at the most important parts of the film! It’s the voice that says “Ugh, why did you say that?” and replays the mistake in the conversation for hours, even days. It is also the voice that compares and despairs, reminding you that your goals feel far from reach.
The inner critic is a voice that is crafted over time—absorbed by critical caregivers, teachers, coaches, siblings, peers, or bosses. Over time, that voice sounds so much like your own. This voice, however, is not your wise voice. It’s a voice of fear and limitation.
Imagine your inner critic was a friend—and not just any friend, but a friend in your inner circle. Let’s call that friend Jill. You invite Jill to a nice lunch and to an afternoon activity. Then, imagine that all afternoon, Jill judges and criticizes. She criticizes your outfit, what you ordered for lunch, your plans for the weekend, and what you said to your boss during your review. You part ways at the end of the day feeling belittled, unworthy, incompetent, and disappointed in yourself. Do you think you would be rushing to invite Jill out to lunch again? How long do you think Jill would remain in your inner circle?
So why do we invite and permit our inner critic to linger as long as it likes? We say things to ourselves that we would never say to someone we care about. The sad thing is that we often don’t even recognize how badly we are treating ourselves—or we think it’s deserved.
Some people fear that if they quiet their inner critic, they will lose their drive. But criticism and perfectionism are not the same as ambition. Researcher and author Brené Brown says, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.” (The Gifts of Imperfection).
As a therapist in New York City, I work with a lot of competent and accomplished individuals. While these attributes seem crystal clear to me, these same individuals have tremendous difficulty seeing those qualities in themselves. It’s easy to become stunted by hyper-focusing on the slightest flaws, rather than holding the big perspective, which recognizes progress. Your inner critic doesn’t propel your growth—it’s more like a detour sign, pointing you away from reaching your goals.
One way to quiet that inner critic is to first notice that voice that resides in yourself. You may want to label it “the critic” or give it a name. You can think of it like your playlist—and actively change the song or artist. You can get playful with this exercise, and give your inner critic a character, like Larry David or the critics from the Muppets. Once you do this, you will more easily recognize this critical voice as separate to your own and see it as unhelpful and inaccurate.
Another way to soften the inner critic is to bolster your capacity for self-compassion. Self-compassion is the simple wish that we don’t suffer. Self-compassion helps us pick ourselves up after a setback and gives us the courage to be vulnerable and move toward our goals.article continues after advertisement
You may want to develop a daily meditation practice on self-compassion, often known as loving-kindness meditation. A simple google search will reveal many meditations on the subject. Christopher Germer, a psychologist and co-developer of the Mindful Self-Compassion training program, has a wonderful assortment of free downloads on his website.
Each day, you can “send” compassionate wishes to yourself, your family, your friends, and anyone you like! You simply speak, think, or write these statements. You can tailor the wish to what you or others might need most that day. Safety, health, happiness, and courage are some examples.
A simple loving-kindness meditation may sound like:
- I wish wellness and peace for my family
- I wish wellness and peace for my friends
- I wish wellness and peace for my community
- I wish wellness and peace for all beings, everywhere
- I wish wellness and peace for myself
Self-compassion embraces the idea that you are worthy now—not when, if, or maybe—but now, just as you are. So say goodbye to the inner critic of your past and say hello to a productive, enjoyable future!