We all have a natural critic inside of us. For every great idea, many of us have another part of our brain that immediately evaluates it to figure out why we are wrong. Research suggests that the ratio of positive to negative self-talk is about 1 to .6 (Kendall, Howard, & Hays, 1989; Shwartz, 1986). That is, for every 10 positive thoughts we have about ourselves, we have 6 negative ones! Let’s call this our inner critic. Now, let’s be clear, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, consider the people in your life who never stop to critique themselves. We need to be critical thinkers and test our ideas. The trouble comes when we can’t turn this critic off. The problems are easy to see if we get outside of ourselves and think about the conversations we have with others. All of us have times we find ourselves evaluating the other person before they even finish the sentence. In our relationships, turning off the inner critic means listening, taking the other person’s perspective, before we evaluate what we have heard.
Our inner critic is equally destructive when he turns his attention inward. For many of us, this is the echo of a negative person in our past. We can hear the person’s voice whenever we try something new. They are waiting for us to fail. The tape begins to play and we can’t shut it off. We have trouble convincing ourselves that everybody isn’t thinking the same thing.
We need control over the critic. Unfortunately, our inner critic loves to interrupt. He is ready to shut us down emotionally every time we dare to consider new possibilities. We hear him whisper, “That will never happen. That is so unrealistic. You better stop even thinking about this because you are going to be disappointed.” When we begin to consider new directions, we find ourselves thinking about all the reasons an idea won’t work and all the times we failed in the past. We stop in fear. Then, we look for something—anything really—to distract us (e.g., “Hey, look at that pile of dirty laundry!”) or look for something that is a quick win that will make us feel better (e.g., “I better go clean out my e-mail!”). We look for anything that will help us avoid the uneasy feeling that hangs around in the background.
So, how do we turn a conversation back to a potential focus? One way is to let your inner critic loose and then spend some time arguing with him. I challenge you to try an experiment. Begin by brainstorming a list of dreams that you have for the future. Next, we’ll let your inner critic run wild and unearth the worries and barriers that are holding you back. Finally, we’ll allow your inner mentor (which we’ll call your older, wiser self) to then argue equally why the criticisms are not valid. Let’s take each of these in turn.
Begin by listing 20 great things that you would love to have happen in the next five years. Let yourself dream. Go far beyond the bonds of what is realistic. After all, you are only making a list. Chances are that you have lots of barriers you have set up for yourself, and the truth is, this is what makes you a solid and reliable person. The trouble is that we sometimes let this part of ourselves have too much control. We put artificial limits on ourselves. We stop allowing ourselves to dream.
So, for just this activity, let yourself identify 20 things you would really like to do in the next five years. Just this one time, ignore the one’s you think you should do. After all, you don’t really have to do any of them! And, don’t stop at 10. The deep dreams will only start to emerge toward the end of the list. Don’t be surprised if you find a few hidden wishes along the way.
Your Inner Critic
Imagine, for a moment, that you were made for a special role in this world; that you have a unique mixture of talents and passions that will allow you to do something that no one else can do. Choose the three items where the fire burns hottest; the ones you would love to do if you only could. Now go back over the list and find the three items that you would like to play out. Read these dreams aloud. Notice that something interesting happens: Your inner critic will immediately start to raise objections and reasons why you can’t pursue this goal. This is what we’re trying to unearth. We seldom let the critic have its full voice. Instead, we usually leave it as a nagging irritating voice in the background and look for a distraction to make it stop. Eventually, we don’t even let ourselves get to this point so we can avoid the whole hassle. So, just this once, list them out, list them all out. Do this for all three of the items that you chose as the most important to you.
Your Older, Wiser Self
Now it is time to move to a level that we almost never get to. Imagine another voice inside of you. Imagine yourself at 80 years old. You have seen a lot of ups and downs. The journey wasn’t easy. You kept at it though and accomplished most everything that was most important in your life. Now, imagine that this older and wiser self is sitting next to you—the one who knows all of your strengths, weaknesses, and fears; the one who recognizes all of the complexities in you and in your current situation. Imagine that this person comes back in time and responds to your inner critic. What does he or she say to each of the critic’s objections? Write it out. What advice does your older and wiser self give to you?
Once you are done, keep that piece of paper and revisit every day for a week. Look for the areas where you find some new energy. Look for some small steps you can take in that direction. It will be hard. There will be failures along the way. You might only get partway to the place you were hoping to go. But keep checking back with that older and wiser self and see what he or she has to say about those small courageous steps that you are taking along the way.
Kendall, K.C., Howard, B. L., & Hays, R. C. (1989). Self-referent speech and psychopathology: The balance of positive and negative thinking. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 13, 583-598.
Schwartz, R. M. (1986). The internal dialogue: On the asymmetry between positive and negative coping thoughts. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 10, 591-605.