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How to Disarm Your Inner Critic – and Empower Your Inner Ally

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It was a normal day at work for me. Scouring through a piece of work, I spotted a different way of doing it that would work much better. I sighed, facepalmed myself for not having spotted it before, and started using the new approach.

Later that day, I was in a meeting with my colleague – let’s call him Bob. He was fired up with enthusiasm, explaining a genius idea he’d had. Senior management were full of admiration, as was I.

That evening, something clicked. 

Bob’s idea had been about as revolutionary and helpful as mine. But he’d been proud of his brilliant new idea and got acclamation. And I’d just chastised myself for being stupid because I hadn’t thought of it before. I had an inner critic putting me down; he had an inner ally championing him. 

This article is for all you other lovely people out there with a strong inner critic – which is probably most of us humans – giving you ROAD, a framework to disarm your inner critic and let kinder voices speak up.

The voice within

The inner critic is that little voice inside us which does a huge amount of ‘negative self talk’. This authoritarian, judgemental voice was originally there for protection, usually forming back in childhood – we get into the habit of telling ourselves not to do things, before our parents can. But it’s really bad at how it does its job – like a furious sports coach who yells angrily at an athlete instead of explaining what to change.

Us humans with our big brains and flimsy bodies are geared to worry. And when we don’t have ravenous beasts in the undergrowth to worry about, we’ll fret about what our neighbours think, and clench when we remember that stupid mistake we made, and wince as we imagine doing the important presentation badly and everyone thinking we’re useless, and feel deeply certain that our dreadful crimes might mean we’re doomed….

Cartoon of many inner critics
Lucy Bellwood – 100 Demon Dialogues

At its worst, every waking moment, the critic has something negative to say. For some people, this voice plays a horribly large role in clinical depression or addiction – at this extreme end, it’s best to seek therapeutic help. But for many, it just creates useless discomfort throughout most of daily life, causing random lurches of guilt and keeping us awake at night with worries. Professionally, it might manifest as impostor syndrome – the inner certainty that your success is unwarranted, and that you’re not as good as your peers. It might drive you to perfectionism – or to procrastinate in starting, as you fear failure and judgement. In personal life, it often has a lot of negative judgements on your appearance, and your interactions with others. It’s often behind the self doubt and low self esteem which impact relationships with others as well as yourself.

Hopefully, your critic is not too extreme – you are the expert in knowing whether change is needed. The little voice that tells you to stop procrastinating on social media and do the thing you’re avoiding, is often right! But when it tips over to being a little voice that constantly tells you that you should be doing something different, and make you feel pangs of guilt for whatever you’re not currently engaged in – it’s maybe time to change. Golden rule: if it hurts more than it helps – it’s time to disarm your inner critic.

You’ll have to live with inner voices for all your life – some critical, some not; us humans have a lot of internal narratives going on. You can spend all that time with your worst enemy pouring poison in your ear to make every moment painful. Or – you can *not*. The choice is yours, whether to be mind-kind or not.


Cartoon of child looking sadly at blank canvas
Like many children, little Jimmy had an imaginary friend. Unfortunately for little Jimmy, he was a critic.

Psychologists often talk about the role of parents in creating a harsh inner critic – having a harsh, critical primary care-giver or significant person in early life, is usually considered as a primary cause in the literature on the subject.

However, in my experience, from discussing this with colleagues, friends and coaching clients, few seemed to readily identify this as a cause. Even the milder version – having a parent with their own harsh inner critic, whom you model yourself on – seemed relatively rare. 

For many, the critic just seems to naturally get worse over the years, usually gaining strength as you go through bad times. A school bully, a nasty relationship, a toxic work environment – all can exacerbate it. But overall, it seems like many of us (me!) just tend to let our inner critic get dominant, without any such easily identifiable trigger. But – it’s important to remember that it’s not actually right, assertive as it might seem

Thinking errors of the Inner Critic

A noisy critic tends to have such a strong voice that it sounds convincing – and it’s easy to just automatically react to what it says, without much challenge. But when you step back and examine what it’s saying, though, you’ll usually find a few of these errors:

  • Negativity bias – disqualify the positive, focus on the negative – “I just got lucky”; “Anyone could have done it”; or focusing on negative feedback and ignoring all positive feedback
  • ‘Should’ statements – guilt inducing statements for a moral reason, not tied to a specific reality driver eg “I should wake up early every day” (as opposed to waking early for a flight)
  • Emotional reasoning – because I feel x, y is true; your emotions change your worldview – ‘I feel anxious, so bad things are about to happen’; ‘I feel like a failure, so I am one’.
  • Labelling – using a negative label as a constant characteristic eg ‘I’m a klutz’ rather than “I’m having a clumsy morning”
  • Black and white thinking – things are dreadful or amazing; always or never; everyone or no-one.
  • Overgeneralization – extrapolate from a small incident to a sweeping conclusion – eg because of one error, you are no good at something
  • Personalization – negative interpretation of things as your fault; taking everything as criticism – eg if someone is irritable, it’s because of what you did. If something failed, it’s because of your error – so your responses are apologies or defences. 
  • Catastrophizing – dramatizing a small thing to exaggerate its negative impact – eg a bad presentation means you’ll lose your job 
  • Unproductive thinking – dwelling on negative thoughts that you can’t do anything about, eg ‘I might be asked a question that I don’t know the answer to”; “That thing I did years ago was so stupid”
  • Double standard – things which you’d happily accept in others, you cannot accept in yourself.

The ROAD: Steps to disarm your Inner critic

So – how do you disarm your inner critic, now you know more about it? Studies show that in therapy, a flexible approach works best – different techniques work at different times, and in almost half the therapy sessions dedicated to this, there was no change or evolution. So be prepared to try a few things, knowing that sometimes some won’t work, and that change is slow and unpredictable.

But here’s the good news. The brain is malleable. Repeatedly dwelling on a thought, makes it more automatic for that thought to recur. So the more often you focus on the positive, and treat yourself with kindness, and practice turning down the critic – the easier it all gets.

With that in mind, here are the ROAD steps to disarm your inner critic:

ROAD: Reflect - Observe - Assess - Disarm - framework to disarm your inner critic

1. Reflect

Now you’ve decided to take action – the first step is to understand your inner critic a bit more. Spend at least a few minutes writing down answers the below questions – this will help you with the next steps of noticing and evaluating it, and you can tweak your answers as you notice more over the weeks to come.

  • Purpose: What purpose/s does the inner critic play? What fears does it have; what is it protecting me from?
  • Triggers: When does it come out – in what situations tend to trigger it? When does it stay away – in what situations can I think I’m ok?
  • Impact: What impact does it have on me – behaviours, actions, thoughts and feelings? If I disarm the critic – what bad things might happen? What good things?
  • Status: Where am I now – how dominant and frequent is the voice? 
  • Goal: Where would be a good place to get to – what would have changed for me? What visible behaviour changes could others notice quickly? How can I tell for myself that I’ve improved?
  • Sources: Were there critical people or incidents – particularly adult figures from childhood – that went into forming this voice? How, when, who, where?

2. Observe & Assess 

These two go hand in hand. You have to be able to notice the critic is talking, before you can assess how what it’s saying compares to reality. You might like to spend some time just ‘observing’ first, before you can also assess, or you might be prefer to do both. See how you feel.

  • Observe – identify when the inner critic is being harsh, and be aware of it as a thought – not reality.
    • If there’s a sudden lurch in your stomach or feeling of dread – where did it come from, what thought triggered it? When you look in the mirror – what is it saying? In conversation – do you focus only on the parts that might indicate you’d done wrong? Are you often defending yourself or apologising – and what thoughts is it saying when you’re doing this?
    • Top tip: your inner critic might start giving out to you for having such a strong inner critic – ‘Damn, there I go again!”. Yes, that’s one of the paradoxical irritating features: you’ll beat yourself up for beating yourself up. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is just the inner critic again – just notice it, and practice saying “Ah, there it is” instead.
  • Assess – compare what the critic says, against reality. Ask yourself some or all of these questions below – they all boil down to: is what the critic says true and important? 
    • What evidence is there? Take an outsider’s perspective: what is happening in reality? What would someone with cheerful confidence say is happening?
    • What inaccuracies are there? See the list of ‘thinking errors’ above for common flaws
    • What purpose is it serving – what is it trying to protect you from? It might be trying to protect you from the shame of failure (eg people’s negative judgements), or the fear of success (success often means change, which the inner critic hates). There might be behind that swirl of negative emotion that’s worth acting on.
    • How bad would it actually be if it’s correct? This might take a bit of work. Our gut reaction to – for example – someone thinking we’ve done something wrong or badly, tends to be quite strong. But often – it doesn’t actually matter.
    • How else could it be said? The voice might be trying to protect you – from ridicule or judgement – but remember, it’s lousy at how it does it. How would you say this to a friend? How would you say this to your five year old self? The way it says it is usually only one version of ‘truth’

3. Disarm Your Inner Critic

Once you’ve got practised at spotting the critic, and evaluating what it says – you’re in a good place to start to disarm your inner critic.

This is something you’ll probably have to keep consciously doing occasionally throughout your life – it’s part of being human, to have unhelpful inner voices and negative self talk; tough situations might make these stronger again sometimes.

Think of it as being like exercise – doing one marathon will have you in good shape for a short while, but consistent small workouts are what you need for a strong body throughout life. Happily – most of these exercises are far more enjoyable than physical exercise is for most of us, as they’re all about moving from negative to positive thoughts. Most of these tools take time and practice: you’ll need to do explicit, clear practice several times, before it becomes something that takes less and less effort – and eventually it becomes fairly automatic.

To disarm your inner critic, there are a bunch of tools below. Different tools work for different people at different times – start by focusing on the ones that feel likely to work for you. Play with them all over time – some might work nicely, some might be more useful later. 

I’ve listed the top 5 tools to disarm the critic.

3.1. Mindfulness meditation

  • I loosely define the practice of mindfulness meditation as ‘see it, don’t be it’. It’s a useful way of detaching from your whirlwind of thoughts, and observing them – instead of being immersed in feeling them. Mindfulness was recommended as a way to improve your inner narrative in pretty much all 50+ articles and studies which I reviewed while writing this article.
  • The general recommendation is to spend a few minutes practising this daily. If you haven’t tried it before – there are a bunch of free resources here; and a handy NHS overview leaflet here. I personally like Headspace, but there are plenty of other apps, soundtracks, books or whatever else appeals. 
  • This is obviously part of what you’ve already done with the ‘notice’ step above – when the critic’s kicking off, take a deep breath and spend a moment using mindfulness techniques to detach from the emotion. But you’ll probably also find that a little daily practice helps you notice your thoughts and detach – before the critic can even begin to kick off.

3.2. Positive reflection and journaling

  • Reflecting on your wins in writing is another useful way of shushing the critic. Your critic is in the habit of focusing mostly on the negatives: part of disarming it is to increase your awareness of the positives. Writing a couple of bullet points daily about positive things, helps focus your attention here.
  • Even without journaling, you can still improve the habit of focusing on the positive moments throughout the day. Take a beat: admire the colour of the leaves, smile at the cute dog, taste the delicious coffee, enjoy a laugh with a friend. Before sleep, instead of churning over all the problems – replay the top few positive moments of the day in your head. In particular – acknowledge when you’ve done well. Let yourself say ‘Damn, I’m good!’ from time to time. If you’ve beaten the critic on something – notice it with pride and feel free to reward yourself. Keep practising focusing your attention on the many good things that are happening in your reality. 

3.3. Get help

  • Coaches or therapists can both help a lot with this area – we usually have a lot of experience as it’s a prevalent problem. Feel free to book a free introductory session if you’d like to hear more
  • Getting friends and family on side also helps. Talk with them about what you’re doing and what help you’d find useful – and how they can articulate it in a way that isn’t “There you go again!”. When you slip into automatic self deprecating mode, they might help you notice it’s happening, or highlight the positive ‘reality’ side, giving a different perspective.
  • As well as getting friends to actively help you, just talking with friends about the critic will help. Shame and guilt love secrecy. The more you talk about the difficult, horrible stuff, and share the mad stuff your critic is saying – the more you disempower it. 

3.4 Personify It

  • Give it a name, a ‘handle’ – this makes it easier to create distance between its thoughts and yourself – “Ah, it’s just xxx acting up again” – for example, Brene Brown refers to her inner critic as ‘the gremlin’. 
  • Visualise it – you can even sketch it out in a drawing. Look for a personification that you can slightly laugh at; something that is manageable for you. 

3.5. Create Your Ally

  • Who can you think of that would be able to put the inner critic in their place, and would tolerate none of their bad behaviour towards you? Who would big you up even more than the critic puts you down; who would help you to grow to be at your best? It might be a friend, a superhero, an adult from your childhood – or several of these.
  • Get these allies in place. When the critic starts carping, let them talk loudly in your head about your many strengths, and the inner critic the boot up the arse it needs from time to time. Call them forth at any time you need a different voice.

Putting it all together to Disarm your Inner Critic

The inner critic can be a right noisy bugger and leave you feeling pretty beat up and stuck in unhelpful negative thought patterns. It has good intentions in trying to protect you – but its execution is abysmal: it can poison your life. But remember the ROAD:

  • Reflect on where it’s coming from and how it works for you
  • Observe when it’s talking and detach from the emotions
  • Assess the reality of what it’s saying, whether it’s true and important
  • Disarm it with some of the tools above
    • Mindfulness meditation – helps you to ‘see it, don’t be it’
    • Positive reflection / journalling – explicitly shifts your focus from the critic’s negative, to positive
    • Personify it – having a manageable handle helps with detaching
    • Get help – supportive friends and family can help you with noticing and reframing; coaches or therapists can help you get to deeper change faster.
    • Create your champion – having a vivid set of inner allies will help counterbalance the voice

These tools are all about long, slow practice, to shift your focus to the good things rather than the bad. But even from the very first time you use them, you’re starting to disarm that critic, and empower an inner ally instead.