We all contain an inner nitpicker, but we shouldn’t let it drag us down and drown out everything else. Psychologist Rick Hanson gives advice on how to put it back in its place.
We all have two different voices inside us: one that is nurturing, and one that is critical; one that lifts up, and one that weighs us down. Both of these voices have a role to play. Our inner nurturer brings self-compassion and encouragement, while the inner critic helps you recognize where you’ve gone wrong and what you need to do to set things right. But for most people, the inner critic goes way overboard, throwing dart after dart of scolding, shaming, nit-picking and faultfinding. It’s big and powerful, while the inner nurturer is small and ineffective, wearing down your mood, self-worth and resilience. Happily, there are good ways to reset this balance by restraining the critic and strengthening the nurturer inside yourself.
First, try to observe how self-criticism operates inside you. Notice any dismissal or minimization of your pain, your needs and your rights. Watch how little thoughts downplay your accomplishments: “Oh, anyone could have done that . . . but it wasn’t perfect . . . what about the other times when you messed up?” Observe any repetitive doubting or discouraging of your hopes and dreams.
When the inner critic starts pounding away, know that your inner nurturer is a refuge and an ally.
Be aware of anger at yourself that seems out of proportion to what happened. Listen inside for a tone of scolding, berating or shaming — like someone is yelling at you. Recognize any underlying attitude that you always have to do more to be good enough. And identify any over-the-top moralistic self-condemnation, conveyed by phrases such as “You should be ashamed of yourself” or “You’re a bad person.” As you observe what’s happening in your mind, label it with tags such as “self-criticism,” “saying my pain doesn’t matter,” or “lashing and lambasting again.”
Consider how self-critical attitudes developed inside you, perhaps when you were younger. When you’re mindful of your inner dialogue, you might notice there’s something familiar about the words, tone or attitude in the self-criticism. Does it remind you of anyone — a parent, sibling, relative, teacher, coach? By listening to yourself, you can hear the dogmatism, harshness and absurdity in much of what the inner critic has to say. Stepping back from the criticism to observe it can stop reinforcing it and help you dis-identify from it: In other words, you may hear it, but you don’t need to be it. This kind of calm witnessing can make the voice of your inner critic less intense and more reasonable.
When the inner critic starts pounding away, turn to your inner nurturer as a refuge and an ally. This part of yourself is protective and encouraging when other people are critical of you or when things are stressful, disappointing or terrible. It’s a major source of confidence and resilience. Starting in early childhood, we develop the inner nurturer by internalizing experiences with outside nurturers, such as parents, teachers and older children. But if external nurturance was spotty or compromised in some way — such as by having a parent who was loving and intensely critical — then self-nurturance doesn’t become as strong as it should be.
Try regarding your inner critic as something that lacks credibility — imagine it as a ridiculous character, like a silly cartoon villain.
It may sound silly, but you could imagine a “caring committee” inside yourself with different characters who represent various kinds of support and wisdom. My committee includes my wife and kids, a tough-but-kind rock-climbing guide, several close friends, and even some fictional characters, such as Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Spock from Star Trek, and the fairy godmother from the story of Sleeping Beauty. Who’s on your own caring committee?
Argue against your inner critic, and truly intend to win. Write down one of its typical lines (for example, “You always fail”) and then write down three or more believable rebuttals (perhaps some of the many times you have succeeded). Imagine members of your caring committee sticking up for you, and talking back to the critic. Ally with them, not with it. Talk to yourself in useful ways, such as: “This criticism has a grain of truth in it, but everything else is exaggerated or untrue”; “This is what ____ used to tell me; it was wrong then and it’s wrong now”; or “This is not helping me and I don’t have to listen to it.” You might also try regarding the inner critic as something that lacks credibility. Imagine it as a ridiculous character, like a silly cartoon villain. Place it “over there” in your mind, outside the core of your being — like that annoying person in a meeting who is always critical but whom everybody tunes out after a while.
Think about someone who you feel is a basically good person. No need to be a saint — just someone with a core of decency and caring. Then, think about someone else you consider to be a basically good person. Notice how often you see good qualities in others, even in people you don’t know that well. Now turn it around, and understand that most people are like you. They, too, routinely recognize that someone is a basically good person. In fact, they routinely recognize that you are a basically good person.
Recognize your own good qualities, and label them in your mind with phrases such as “trying hard”; “admitting a mistake”; or “enduring when things are tough.”
Can you see yourself the way others see you, as essentially good and worthy? For many people, this is quite hard to do. It can feel like a taboo of sorts, something that’s just not allowed. But why not? If it’s all right to recognize basic goodness in others and it’s all right for them to recognize it in you, why is it not all right to recognize it and stand up for it inside yourself?
As you go through your days, register when others see decency, capability, effort, and caring in you — typically in small passing moments that are nonetheless real. Recognize your own good qualities, much as you would see them in others. Just like a fair-minded observer would, label them in your mind with phrases such as “trying hard”; “being friendly”; “admitting a mistake”; “being skillful”; “contributing”; “enduring when things are tough”; or “giving love.”
Be aware of the integrity and lovingness deep inside you, even if they’re not always apparent or expressed. Let a sense of confidence in your inherent value grow and fill your mind and sink in; try to do this again and again. No matter your ups and downs, successes and failures, loves and losses — you can find comfort and strength in knowing you’re a basically good person.
Excerpted from the new book Resilient: How to Grow An Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness by Rick Hanson with Forrest Hanson. Published by Harmony, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2018 by Rick Hanson.
Watch Rick Hanson’s TEDxMarin Talk here: