I recently ended a long-term relationship – with my inner critic.
We’ve had some good times together. During law school, my inner critic kept me focused. It guided my career decisions and made sure I did the things I needed to do to earn the approval of my family and colleagues. It cheered me on in my pursuit of achievement. It has been an important source of motivation for me, both personally and professionally.
And we’ve got a long history. Growing up, my inner critic helped me to navigate dangerous and uncertain territory. My inner critic is the one who kept score of all the things and people that had hurt me, so it could steer me away from them (and things like them) in the future. I probably wouldn’t have made it this far without it.
But every healthy relationship needs boundaries – and that’s where the inner critic tends to go awry. What begins as reassuring encouragement turns into relentless perfectionism – nothing is ever good enough. And what starts out as a healthy apprehension of the unknown can become a debilitating denial of possibility.
Like the ‘frenemy’ (the so-called friend who has an uncanny knack for bringing you down), the inner critic’s voice is mired in pessimism. In its attempt to keep us safe, it shuts out the possibility of joy and love.
The problem is that the inner critic is primarily driven by fear, including:
- the fear of failure, which drives us to invest in perfectionism and stops us from taking risks;
- the fear of not belonging, which leads us to hide our uniqueness in order to fit in; and
- the fear of not being good enough, which causes us to settle for less than we deserve.
I remember the day I really started to realise that this relationship had run its course. I had just run a workshop for a client that, by most accounts, had gone extremely well. But my inner critic didn’t think so. My inner critic was focused on troubleshooting all of the parts of the workshop that hadn’t met its standards. “What happened there? You didn’t explain that activity properly.” “You shouldn’t have spent so much time on that section.” “That bit needs more work.” (I can feel my chest tighten as I write this.)
Ultimately, the penny dropped. My inner critic would never be satisfied. Nothing I could do would ever be good enough. And, in the meantime, it was robbing me of the joy of appreciating all that I had achieved. The client loved the workshop! Why couldn’t I enjoy this?
And so: “We. Need. To. Break. Up.”
(I threw in a gratuitous “It’s not you, it’s me” for good measure. My inner critic does have a sense of humour, after all!)
The break-up took some time (and it’s ongoing). When you’ve been in a relationship for that long, it can take a while to end it.
Along the way, I learned some valuable lessons about how to manage the break-up process:
1. Learn to hear your inner critic
This may go without saying, but the hardest part about breaking up with your inner critic is recognising that it exists. For many people, our inner critic is so ingrained that we don’t even notice it anymore. It’s like we’re watching a movie that begins with a narrator speaking. At first, we hear the narrator’s voice and recognise that it is separate to what’s unfolding on the screen. But at some point the narrator’s voice gives way to the drama, and we lose ourselves in it.
One way to isolate the voice of the inner critic is by journalling. Write down what’s going on in your mind and read it back to yourself. What are you saying to yourself? Would you say those things to someone you loved?
I’ve also realised that my inner critic doesn’t always speak to me directly. Sometimes it projects itself into internal conversations that I’m having with other people – my ‘peanut gallery’, if you like, made up of people whose approval I've been seeking. Becoming aware of this is a huge step towards the next stage…
2. Recognise that the relationship is no longer serving you
I used to take a certain sort of pride in being a perfectionist. To me, it meant that I had high standards, as well as the strength and determination to strive for them. And, to be fair, this worked for me for many years. But it came at the expense of my happiness. And now, as I explore the opportunities and freedom afforded by what I call a ‘post-conventional career’, my inner critic has become a liability to the extent that it is slowing me down from taking creative risks.
3. Develop a new relationship to replace the old one
Let’s be honest: it can often be easier to end one relationship when there is another on the horizon. In this case, it was the possibility of developing a relationship with my ‘inner coach’ that enabled me to recognise the limitations of the existing relationship with my inner critic.
But new relationships take time to develop. I am still learning to trust my inner coach. I don’t want to lose the excitement of ambition, but I do want to approach my goals in a more relaxed and flexible manner. It's important for me to be patient as I establish these new parameters with my inner coach.
4. Honour your inner critic
Once you’ve created some distance between yourself and your inner critic, it’s worth acknowledging some of the benefits that the relationship might have brought you. Like most relationships, it wasn’t all bad.
Recognise and thank your inner critic for their counsel. It always had your best interests at heart, even if it was limited in its appreciation of what those interests are.
5. Expect to see your inner critic ‘around the traps’
Just because you’ve declared the relationship over doesn’t mean you won’t hear from your inner critic again. Like an ex-boyfriend sending you random text messages to remind you that they are still breathing, your inner critic may recede into the shadows but probably won’t disappear completely.
You might need to be careful when you’re in situations where you are likely to encounter them – for example, when you’re about to give an important presentation, when you’re lying in bed trying to get to sleep, etc.
Simply notice the conversation and choose to disconnect it – and perhaps begin a conversation with your inner coach instead. (“Sorry, inner critic, I’m getting a call on the other line.” *click*)
6. Give yourself time to heal
The inner critic lives in our thoughts, so make it easier on yourself by doing things that don’t involve a high level of intellectual activity. For some, meditation is the most direct and obvious way to disengage from thinking, but it doesn’t have to be so deliberate.
Just do anything where you can feel completely engaged and ‘in the moment’ – what is often described as ‘flow’. For me, it’s yoga. For others, it’s playing with their children, hiking, playing or watching sport, playing or listening to music. Anything where you can engage your senses without engaging your analytical mind (or perhaps by occupying your analytical mind with something else) can give you the space you need to recover.
7. Develop a new relationship with your inner critic
Once you have some healthy boundaries in place (in other words, the ability to end unconstructive internal conversations), you can still be friends with your inner critic. Like the exceedingly honest friend who is the master of ‘tough love’, your inner critic knows you well and can help you to identify what might go wrong with a proposed business venture or creative project.
But be wary of its tendency to exaggerate the risks and catastrophise about failure. If this starts happening, simply smile (inwardly, otherwise you might seem crazy) and say: “Thanks for your advice. I’ll take that on board.” And then re-engage with your inner coach to determine how best to integrate that advice into your plan.
All relationships are based on conversations. The inner critic is simply the personification of a type of conversation that many high achievers are prone to indulge in (sometimes to the point of masochism). By becoming more observant of our internal conversations, we can recognise those that do not serve us and ‘switch tracks’ to ones that are more constructive.
So is it all worth it?
For some of you, this process might seem like a lot of work – and it is. When we’re in a dysfunctional relationship, it’s tempting to wonder whether the “grass is greener” in a different relationship and conclude that it’s “better the devil you know”. And, like all relationships, this is a question that only you can answer. But make sure you’re asking the right question to begin with. As I approach the end of my fourth decade, the question of how I want to live the rest of my life is looming large. And this has provided me with the added motivation to sort myself out internally – to develop a more constructive relationship with myself that is based on love, compassion and trust.
This is all neatly summed up in a realisation I had during a recent conversation with a mentor. In reflecting on the changes I’d experienced over the past 12 months, I said:
“I used to think I was a confident person, but my confidence was based on my achievements – on the strength of my CV. Now, I feel a new kind of confidence emerging. It’s a confidence based on pure love.”
[Note: I’d like to thank my inner coach for the support and encouragement to write this piece and share what has been an intensely personal journey for me. And I’d also like to thank my inner critic for helping me to edit this into something that is reasonably digestible. My inner critic is also urging me to mention that this post is not intended as professional advice. For professional advice on any mental health issues, please contact a medical doctor or psychologist, or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.]