When you think about yourself, what do you see? How do your picture the way you look to others, and what do you imagine people think about you? Answering these questions tells you what kind of self-perception you have. For a lot of people, this self-perception is overwhelmingly negative. If you constantly berate yourself, feel judgment and picture people ridiculing or dismissing you, you have a strong inner critic, and this inner critic is likely undermining everything from your relationships to your career success and overall happiness.
This guide will take a look at the nature of self-perception, including the factors that influence it. Next, we'll turn to seven powerful techniques you can use to tame the inner critic that gives you a negative sense of self. Throughout, you'll be encouraged to think about practical ways to implement these techniques in your daily life, and about how to overcome the most common roadblocks you'll face.
In a nutshell, self-perception theory tells us that we can use evidence about our own behavior to figure out the attitudes that caused that behavior. This is a contrast to the conventional idea that we should figure out our attitudes first and then examine our behaviors second.
Without delving into the complex scientific and psychological research supporting this view, you can use the general idea to boost self-knowledge and combat your inner critic. In other words, thinking about how you act can tell you a lot about how you see yourself. Plus, it can identify the ways in which your inner critic is influencing that self-perception.
The inner critic (or what Freud called the super-ego) is the part of you that holds you to an unrealistically high standard. It aims for perfection, focuses on your flaws, and may repeat negative messages you learned from authority figures in childhood. Some of this feedback is useful and helps to keep arrogance in check, but if you don't challenge the inner critic then your behaviors will largely be in line with an overly negative self-perception.
However, you can fight back against the super-ego and develop a more robust, positive sense of self in time. Let's take a closer look at how you might best do this.
It might sound strange at first, but it's actually helpful to listen to the negative thoughts of the inner critic rather than simply trying to ignore or repress them.
Basically, it's not possible to tame your inner critic unless you develop self-awareness of when it's speaking to you. So, when negative thoughts crop up, listen to them with an objective ear and take note of what they're saying. This gives insight into this inner critic.
In many cases, this voice will be catastrophizing, highlighting insecurities, and being downright silly, but listening to the thoughts gives you the opportunity to judge what's being said rather than simply letting it affect you without reflection.
Each time you notice your inner critic saying something to you, ask yourself:
“Is this really true? What evidence do I have that counts against what I'm thinking?”
You'll get into the habit of both detecting the presence of the inner critic and shutting it down when necessary.
When you're feeling down on yourself or disappointed with your lot in life, it's very natural to replay how the negative event went. However, this is a kind of self-torture, forcing you to constantly focus on what you wish you'd done differently and inducing the same feelings of shame, guilt, anger, or awkwardness that you felt in the moment. This doesn't solve any of your life problems, and it doesn't help you move on.
Instead of ruminating, shift into the mode of active problem-solving. When you notice your inner critic just replaying a movie reel of your worst moments, ask yourself “What can I do better going forward?” and focus on being constructive instead of self-destructive.
And if there's nothing you can do to mend what has happened and no obvious lesson you can draw, force your mind to attend to something else. Physical tasks like cleaning, exercise, or organizing often work well to force you to shift gears.
When you think about the way your inner critic talks to you, you'll likely find that you'd never speak to another person like this in a million years.
Firstly, the inner critic's language typically harsh and undermining. Compare it to how you'd approach a friend with worry or criticism, and it'll become apparent that you're talking to yourself in a way that's unfairly negative.
Secondly, examine the perspective your inner critic is taking when talking to you, and again compare this to the sort of perspective you'd take with respect to a friend. Would you brand them worthless, a failure, ugly or incompetent? No! You would take a much more balanced view, and likely feel that their positives outweighed their negatives.
So, the next time your inner critic speaks to you, try to translate its message and words into advice you’d give a friend. If you can't do that, then the voice of the critic isn't worth listening to.
The inner critic can be very good at masquerading as a reasonable, rational voice. As such, one way to undermine it is to take a critical look at the evidence and use that evidence to contest what your inner critic is telling you.
For example, if you start thinking “I'm never going to find a good partner and have a happy life”, look at the evidence for and against this perspective. You might even try writing it down in two columns. You'll find there's much more evidence against this negative premonition. For example, your successful past relationships, the fact romance isn't always a necessary condition of happiness, and your awareness that many of your friends have been able to find suitable partners.
In other cases, what your inner critic is saying may be roughly right, but properly weighing the evidence can help you blunt the critic's harsh language and replace it with constructive advice for positive change.
Your inner critic sees only your flaws, your weakest points, and your difficulties. To help tame this voice, deliberately and frequently turn more of your attention to your strengths, your best traits, and your triumphs.
One way to do this is to make a list of your best traits, including the things that your loved ones appreciate you for. Similarly, you can try making a list of your most significant achievements.
As you do so, don't simply choose the obvious things like qualifications and promotions. Think of the selfless things you've done, the gestures of compassion you've made, and moments when you overcame fears and left your comfort zone.
When you have these types of lists, you can come back to them any time you need a boost. You can also turn them into affirmations that you say to yourself in the mirror.
For example, repeat “I am [positive character trait]” three times into the mirror before leaving the house.
While complimenting other people might not seem like the most obvious way to get your inner critic under control, you might be surprised by how effective this can be. However, research on mental health and mood consistently shows that being kind to other people is one of the best ways to boost your own happiness. When you go out of your way to make someone else feel good, you end up feeling better about yourself in response.
The next time you're feeling down on yourself and can't stop thinking about all the things you dislike about your life, pick someone to compliment. This might involve calling a good friend and telling them how much they mean to you, doing a favor for a stressed-out co-worker, or just telling a passing stranger that you love your coat. This type of activity can make all the difference to someone else's day, as well as subduing your inner critic.
Finally, though it's important and healthy to find ways to fight back against your inner critic, that's not to say that you should avoid change. If you are stagnant, you'll be unhappy and you'll miss opportunities to get more from life. The ideal state to be in is one in which you are able to accept and embrace your past and the core parts of your personality but are also able to see where there's space for development.
Think about things you want to learn or grow and why this matters to you. It's okay to conceive of this as making yourself better, as long as you already believe that you are always good enough as you are. When you promote self-growth, you're trying to make the most of your talents and capacities. However, this isn't what makes you lovable, valuable or worthy; you are already all of these things by default.