Inner Critic – Friend or Foe? How to Use Your Brain to Tell the Difference
There is so much to be said about the inner critic that I do believe it could be a whole book rather than a blog post, but I’ll give it my best shot. For one thing, it is a BEAST. It tells us so many negative and horrible things about ourselves. It expects more from us than is realistically human and then puts us down for not living up to those expectations. But why? Why does it exist? Why does it do this? Why does it torture us? How to we get rid of it?!
It all starts with our brain. Our brain’s primary job is to keep us safe and alive. When we experience a challenging or stressful situation, our amygdala, the part of our brain that detects threat and determines the appropriate response gets triggered. It then sends a message to our hypothalamus to turn on the survival response. It’s time to fight, fly, or freeze. The problem is that our amygdala does not know the difference between actual threat and perceived threat. It thinks that the challenging situation, and the related challenging feelings you’re experiencing, are a saber tooth tiger. No joke. It doesn’t know, nor is it its job to know, that your feelings are not attacking you. The amygdala’s job is to activate your survival response and prepare you to defend yourself. That’s it. This works great when we have to move out of the way of a moving vehicle or run away from a tiger trying to eat us. Not so great with every day life.
Once this mechanism is triggered, the brain’s need to defend against the “threat” of strong emotions, creates defense mechanisms. One of them is self-criticism. Somehow, and irrationally because it’s an irrational part of the brain, the survival response thinks that beating on yourself (the source of the pain/threat) will help the situation. The problem is that now you’re the one being attacked AND the attacker. Your brain continues to stay in the stress and survival mode because it’s continuing to experience “attack” and “threat”. And now you’re stuck. What a mess, right?
So, the answer to the original question is… the inner critic is both a friend and a foe. It’s a friend because it’s trying to protect us from what it perceives as threat, our difficult feelings. But it’s also a foe because one of the ways that it protects us is by saying mean things to us!
So first, can you see why this process might make you feel, um, a little bit nuts. Understandably. But the first thing I want you to understand is that it’s not you. It’s your brain. It does all kinds of wonky things to try to “protect” us but that in the end, hurt us and keep us stuck both in the stress cycle and in the pattern of feeling like we’re not good enough. Being in the stress cycle with the Inner Critic roaring in our ear makes us feel stuck and like we’re the problem.
So, what to do? First, take a breath. This is a lot to take in.
HOW TO MANAGE THE INNER CRITIC
1. Practice accepting that the inner critic is just your brain’s defense. It’s not you or anything you’re doing. It’s your brain’s natural defense system reacting to a stressor (your feelings) it perceives as a threat.
2. Give yourself a gentle reality check, “as intense as this is, it’s not going to kill me.” Experiencing difficult emotions is a part of being human. They can be really difficult to feel and experience but they won’t kill you. They’ll just sting for a bit.
3. Look for what’s familiar around you. Let your eyes focus on the immediate environment. (There’s my chair, my cat, my window, my remote control, whatever.) This helps your brain orient itself back to the present reality, you’re not actually being attacked!
4. Take a DEEP inhale and an even longer and deeper exhale. This will get your parasympathetic nervous system going and begin to calm your body down.
5. Close your eyes, if you’re able, and decrease the stimulation around you to further move you into a calmer state.
6. As you begin to come out of the stress cycle and begin to feel yourself more regulated, give yourself some big props! You did it! You moved yourself through a stress cycle and lived to tell about it!
7. Give yourself some self-lovin’. This means being kind and gentle with yourself, responding to yourself like you would a good friend. Avoid being unkind to yourself for just being a human.
Learning to move through the stress cycle and accepting it as a part of our humanity, is a key way to move the inner critic out of the way. You see, if we accept it and help ourselves through it with intention and kindness, we don’t need our inner critic’s “help”. It can just be on its way and take a nice nap. Every time our survival brain gets turned on, we can help ourselves through it instead of trying to stop it and perpetuating the problem.
Shifting your perspective from the inner critic being some faulty or messed up version of you to a simple defense mechanism in the brain is an important way to empower yourself. You are better able to move out of feeling powerless to feeling like you can have some mastery over your own brain, and therefore your own life.
The biggest benefit, however, might be to move through your life with more ease and grace as you let yourself off the hook for being your beautiful, imperfect self and learn to be kinder to yourself.
There is perhaps, no way to rid ourselves of the inner critic altogether, but through gentle practice you can change your relationship with it and help it find its, and your way, back to safety.
Myriam Martinez is a Women's Personal Life Coach, Licensed Psychotherapist, and Registered Art Therapist based out of Northern California. Her calling in this life is to teach women how to find happiness, success, and ease in their lives through the power of self-love, creativity, and compassion. To learn more about Myriam click here: https://www.myriammartinezcoaching.com/