I hear a lot about what my patients “should” be doing, whether it’s keeping the house neater, exercising more or finding a better job. Some people report feeling inadequate, inferior, or even like a failure because they aren’t doing what they “should.” They believe the standard has been set by someone else, and they aren’t measuring up. They compare themselves to the neighbors and expect that the neighbors are watching and judging them. It can create a lot of anxiety, trying to keep up. But we established last week that what other people think of us is their issue, not ours. If that’s true, then who are we really trying to please?
In reality, there is no judge, and no ideal we “should” be trying to reach. They only exist in our minds. The voice we hear telling us to keep up is our inner critic, and it is hopefully the harshest judge we will ever face. The inner critic sets the standards, and keeps the score. When we see a new friend’s beautiful home, it is the voice that reminds us we haven’t vacuumed recently. It notices the neighbor’s new car and reminds us that our income is down this year. You can bet it is the voice that whispers “failure” when we turn on the TV instead of going for a run. No one feels good in the face of such abuse, but most of us are used to letting the inner critic rule our minds, and subsequently, our moods.
As is so often the case, the first step toward change is to become aware of the situation. Take note of when the critic is most active, and most negative. You may find an association between your level of stress or fatigue, and start to recognize the need to rest before the critic can rear its ugly head. Second, notice what the critic is saying. Write down some of the most common themes, and assess the validity of the statements. Prepare your counter arguments by reminding yourself of the positives in your life. If you always hear that you’re a failure, keep a list of your successes. Third, recognize when the critic has a valid point. After all, this voice developed for a reason: as an internalized guide toward right and wrong. If the critic is questioning your morals, could there be a grain of truth in the attack? Does your behavior need to change in some way to adhere to your principles? Every now and then the critic is right, just don’t allow it to bully you the rest of the time!
Changing our relationship with the inner critic takes time and effort, but it is worth it. We may not silence the voice, but it will hold no power over us. We can release the negative energy of all the “shoulds”, stop the judgment, and listen to our true voice: the voice of the heart.