Forget Ghostface this Halloween. Most of us are bullied by a screaming ghoul of a different nature — the self-critical voice. Netflix’s animated gem, Bojack Horseman, offers surprising insight into its destructive nature. As the title, Stupid Piece of Sh*t, suggests, Bojack’s self-critic isn’t particularly friendly.
Those who pay too much attention to the noise become extremely vulnerable to depression, with Bojack levels of excessive self-criticism acknowledged as a huge factor behind major depressive disorders.
Don Miguel Ruiz refers to this as the parasite. Jungian psychologists The Saboteur. Spiritualists the Ego. Call it what you will, all of us can fall victim to the self-critic.
You smash a plate. Dick. You fail an exam. Stupid idiot. You’re rejected by someone you were convinced was The One on Tinder. Unlovable fuckwit. You accidentally call your boss mum. Weird Freudian-slipping manchild freak.
Certain situations fuel this voice. Maybe the self-critic perks up when in work, in social situations, when public speaking, when meeting the in-laws.
This nagging, judgemental, stupid piece of shit affects the quality of our relationships, lowers our self-esteem, limits the scope of our life choices and provides a barrier to inner-peace.
During a recent coaching conversation I had a realisation: the self-critic is fuelled by unrealistic expectations. Specifically, the self-critic is constantly comparing you to an idea of perfection, in which you will always be second best.
Expectations are flawed perspectives
The self-critic thrives on comparison. Think about it — without anything to compare yourself to, how can you come off worse? You can’t fail to meet expectations that don’t exist. Whether you’re not enough or too much, judgement requires an external element to compare yourself to.
Often, it’s not a direct comparison to some actual living, breathing human being. It’s an idea of who you should be. And, for bonus points, the negative bias and never-satisfied nature of the egoic mind means who you should be is perfect.
Always on the ball. Always funny. Always getting absolutely everything right. Always saying the right thing. Always productive. Always happy.
The self-critic is like an overprotective, neurotic parent desperately living vicariously through their child in a maladjusted attempt at love and discipline.
Like the neurotic, control freak of a parent, the self-critic wants the best for you. But with the expectation to be always perfect, best is unattainable.
Further still, the greater the distance we perceive ourselves to be from these lofty expectations, the louder the voice screams.
So how do we make it shut up?
Amplify the voice
If the self-critic screams, it appears counterintuitive to increase the decibels. However, the results may be surprising. Rather than tensing up and trying to ignore the critic, by amplifying its voice, we’re tuning in to its thirst for attention.
I’ll assume the typical dynamic is similar to how you’d respond to a real-life bully; feelings oscillate from fearing its presence, to feeling angry and frustrated at its attitude, or occasionally complying and taking what it says as truth.
Applied to the self-critical voice, amplification is really paying attention to the voice, and the myriad of ways it manifests in the mind. Amplifying the voice is saying: “I’m not afraid of you. And I come in peace.”
Identify the self-critic’s expectations
The peace treaty has been initiated, now it’s time to negotiate. The first step is to identify what expectations the self-critic has that aren’t being met.
For example, let’s say you amplify the voice and notice a recurring theme — the self-critic calls you stupid. A lot. When you trip in public, don’t register an intellectual joke, forget your keys. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Make an honest assessment of the underlying expectations to this theme, preferably in a journal. Perhaps the self-critic believes humans should never trip, and trip frequency has a direct correlation to one’s IQ. Perhaps the critic believes knowledge is power and to be anything but stupid, you have to know everything. Perhaps not being stupid is remembering everything all the time.
I can almost guarantee these expectations will always be always perfect.
Speak from the critic…
In 2013, a psychotherapy study specifically explored therapeutic methods related to managing the self-critic. One of their recommended treatments was to “speak from out of the inner critic.” That is, for a psychologist to encourage their client to talk about themselves in third person, from the perspective of the critic.
I know this works because my coach used this technique on me. By the time I heard myself say “I’m afraid people will think Ricky is pathetic,” I realised I was on to something. I’d like you to try this too. It’s a little trickier without someone to guide you through, but it’s doable. You can try this in your head, out loud, or better still, written.
… To understand what it wants
The main aim is to engage in dialogue. After all, the critic is a separate part of the psyche. If it wasn’t, phrases like “you idiot” wouldn’t exist; who’s the you in that scenario?
An inner-dialogue may go something like this:
“You keep saying I’m stupid. I made one slip up during the presentation and you were saying I’m completely useless and a waste of space. I was just wondering what would be good enough for you?”
“Well it’s just… I’m clearly not enough. So what does enough look like?”
“Oh, we’re going there. Well, seeing as you asked, mistakes aren’t tolerable.”
“I’m not allowed to make any mistakes?”
“Sure. Yeah. No mistakes.”
“What scares you so much about me making ‘mistakes’?”
“Look, I just want you to be loved, and to be loved, you have to be perfect.”
Bingo. It might not be this straightforward but you see the intention for this exercise. The critic wants you to be loved. However, this is underpinned by the mistaken belief that only perfection is loveable.
To action any “aha” moments coming from the dialogue, challenge the belief by reframing. For example — “I am imperfect and loveable. In fact, everyone is imperfect, and everyone is loveable. Equating perfection with lovability is a fallacy.”
Befriend the critic
In Godfather 2, Michael Corleone recounts fatherly advice: “keep your friends close, but your enemies even closer.” I wouldn’t usually advocate applying wisdom from the fictional Mafia, but, this works well for handling the self-critic.
Once you’ve understood its needs and discovered underlying expectations, it’s time to call a truce. And the best way to do that is to counter self-criticism with its polar opposite — self-compassion.
Put simply, be kind to yourself. Work on cultivating supportive self-talk, not destructive self-talk. It’s definitely not easy. It’ll take constant practice to master, such is the nature of the mind. Yet small steps can make a big difference in mood.
Like the unlikely protagonist of a Hollywood horror surviving against the odds, one day, when the self-critic tries to scream, it won’t have a voice.
How’s your relationship with your self-critic? Do you use any different tools to manage it?