We all wrestle with our “inner critic” from time to time – that little nagging voice that tells you that you’re doing things wrong, that nothing in your life will ever improve, or that your child is stuck in a bad pattern that she’ll never shake.
Hopefully, these feelings of annoyance, anxiety or guilt pass and we can move on through our days. But do you ever feel like your negative emotions and inner critic are dominating your thinking, undermining your confidence, and draining joy from your life?
In my twenties, while battling anxiety and a lack of confidence while I was in graduate school and then searching for jobs afterwards, my mental life was dominated by my inner critic. This quiet, but persistent voice constantly told me that, no matter how things looked from the outside, I was failing in my efforts and would never be able to find stability or satisfaction in life. Every difficult exam or unsuccessful job interview felt like another indication that I was, indeed, doomed to fail and that I had no one to blame but myself. I got to the point where I had difficulty sleeping and eating, and was considering moving back in with my parents to at least feel safe and stable. But, with the help of some counseling sessions and supportive friends, I eventually learned to identify and counter my inner critic, and develop more perseverance until I did, indeed, find a job and begin to move on to the next phase of my life. It wasn’t a quick or easy process, but I eventually got to the point where my negative inner voice was much less dominant and could not derail me so easily.
Becoming a mom has brought my inner critic back in full force. There are so many new things to feel anxious, guilty, or frustrated about as parent, and it’s easy to spend what little extra mental capacity I have worrying and worrying and worrying about the same things.
When I first became a mom, I figured that this is what parenthood must be about – feeling anxious about my daughter’s eating or sleeping (or lack thereof), feeling frustrated about how difficult the long winter days at home could be, or feeling guilty about how little we had put into her college fund. The other new moms I became friends with often spoke of the same nagging voice that made them feel guilty or anxious even when things seemed to be going well with their children. However, recently I’ve been trying to return to the “basics” that I learned years ago to bring this negative voice to heel in order to gain more emotional and mental freedom to enjoy being a mom.
How can we confront our inner critic and not be driven by its negative mental and emotional cycles?
When you hear a cycle of negative messaging in your head, or you find yourself complaining or even ranting out loud but it doesn’t seem to make you feel better, you might be driven by your inner critic. The first step is to simply recognize your inner critic’s voice and the emotion behind it. Ask yourself, what emotion am I feeling – do I feel angry, anxious, guilty, or overwhelmed? Where do I feel this emotion in my body – is my chest tight, are my hands or jaw clenched, or is my breathing shallow? Try to pause without immediately seeking an explanation for why you feel that way. For example, you may think I feel anxious right now. It feels like my chest is tight and I can’t breathe. Or, I feel overwhelmed. My head feels fuzzy and I want to go to sleep.
If you have a few spare moments, you can then try to release your negative emotion before immediately seeking an explanation of why you feel that way. There are many techniques to do this, from breathing to yoga to physical exercise. I usually opt for a few deep breaths in the midst of my busy day, and often my thinking will clear and the negative emotion will recede without starting up a cycle of my inner critic’s negative messaging. There have been times when I even realized that I felt upset just because I was hungry (“hangry”!) although my inner critic tried to chime in with some other reason to explain my negative emotion.
At this point, you may still hear the voice of the inner critic, but you can process it in a less emotionally heightened state. The problem is that it is easy to assume that what your inner critic is saying about you, your situation, or your partner is correct, since it seems logical based on what you are feeling. However, the inner critic never tells you the whole truth. While it may be true that it was difficult the last time when your child didn’t sleep well, that does not mean that your child will never sleep well again or that you are guaranteed to have a rotten day tomorrow if she doesn’t sleep well tonight. The inner critic likes to take the negative view of things and blow it out of proportion in a way that heightens your anxiety, anger, or guilt even more.
Similarly, your inner critic will also never tell the whole truth when turned on other people. Yes, perhaps your partner could be more helpful at dinner but that probably doesn’t mean that he expects you to wait on him and the kids hand and foot. And, it probably ignores the other helpful things that your partner does do for you and your kids (which he may be annoyed that you don’t notice!) Do not let your inner critic drive your view of yourself, your partner, or your friends and family – while there may be very legitimate issues to address with them, your emotion-driven inner critic is not giving you the whole picture, and your loved ones will feel defensive and misunderstood if you only throw these unfair attacks at them.
What should I do if my inner critic will not be quiet or seems to indicate deeper issues or conflicts in my life?
If, as I did, you continually struggle with negative emotions like anxiety or anger, or constantly feel driven by your negative inner critic, you may benefit from some counseling sessions or further reading about behavioral psychology, mindfulness, and other techniques for dealing with negative emotions. It may also be true that there are deeper issues or areas of conflict that you, perhaps along with your partner, need to work through. However, it will be difficult to get to the root of these issues if you have not learned to work through your negative emotions and move beyond the rantings of your inner critic – your conversations will continue to be warped by the anger, fear, and inaccurate “half-truths” that your inner critic feeds on. While learning to face your inner critic will not solve everything, it is an important first step in working towards greater emotional freedom and true enjoyment of your life and your family.
It may seem like you have no time to spend on releasing your emotions or trying to fight the negativity of your inner critic, but I can tell you that it is worth it! For me, learning to pay attention to my negative emotions and my inner critic was the beginning of my journey out of debilitating anxiety and insomnia.