Ways to manage self-critical talk

The way that we talk to ourselves is so important to our ability to complete goals, face our fears, and to overall life success. If our inner voice is focused on all the ways we will fail, or not perform, we are likely to follow through with this self-fulfilling prophecy, and if nothing else, this self-criticism decreases our confidence and self-esteem. The way we talk to ourselves is also likely to seep out into our actions and how we talk about ourselves; out loud and in front of our children. I know so many parents who struggle with their own inner critic but are determined to help their children develop more positive self-talk. This post has ideas about how to work with your own inner critic through artistic pursuits, but you can also coach your child through using some of these approaches. And of course, you can model for your child how you are using them for yourself since we know this is a powerful teaching tool.

Recognize and label your inner critic.

Often, we connect so personally with the thoughts in our heads and our feelings, it can be hard to gain perspective. When this gets really bad, our internal fight or flight mechanism might be triggered, causing anxiety and crippling fear (or just procrastination). So how do we get out of our heads and come back to calm so we can move forward with our goal? It may be as easy as recognizing and labeling what we’re feeling.

Research suggests that talking to ourselves in the third person and providing a non-judgmental label for our feelings in stressful situations may help our brains shift from the emotionally reactive centers, to the cognitive processing pre-frontal cortex. This allows us to step aside from the overwhelming feelings and get back to planning and thinking more rationally.

Instead of telling yourself “I can’t do this…”, say to yourself, “there’s that inner critic again. The voice in my head that is trying to keep me safe from criticism is speaking up again.” Recognize it and name it.

You can also try reminding yourself that you are experiencing a “brain event”. Recognizing that you will have thoughts and feelings that come and go, but you are not your thoughts and feelings, nor do you have to listen to everything your inner voice is telling you is an important part of silencing the inner critic.

Be your own coach.

While our inner critic may seem like a horrible friend, it is more accurate to think of it as being an over-protective one. The inner critic is focused on thinking of all the worst-case scenarios in an effort to keep you safe, which also means, keeping you from embarrassing yourself. This is one reason our inner critic can be so powerful in getting in the way of artistic endeavors. So much of creativity is all about putting yourself out there, trying something new or something you are not already good at. It also tends to be pretty personal. Our art represents us, we made it, therefore (according to the inner critic) we should be especially fearful of showing others, or even trying something new. Luckily, we have the antidote. The power of self-talk, specifically: talking to ourselves in the 3rd person.

When your inner critic rears its ugly head, recognize it, thank it for doing its job, and start talking to yourself the way you would coach your best friend or child through something they are struggling with. It may sound hoakey, and it may take some time and practice, but you likely have years of listening to this negative voice to contend with. And what’s the worst that could happen? You just might start believing this inner coach instead…

If you need some ideas for what your inner coach might say, try reframing the situation; give yourself a different perspective.

  • Focus on the process. Instead of focusing on outcomes, pay attention to how hard you are working or practicing. This is also a helpful reframe if you tend to compare your work with others. Stop looking at the outcome, and focus on your own effort and growth.
  • It’s ok to have not so good days. If you are having an off day, or it just feels difficult, recognize that change and growth are hard. We will always have good days and not so good days, and we will practice the practice anyway. Don’t wait for inspiration, practice so that when inspiration hits, your skills and abilities will be ready to take on the task.
  • What are you learning? Reframe “mistakes” as learning: what is this telling me? What is this trying to teach me?
  • What if it all works out? Our inner critic is so focused on thinking of all the possibilities of what could go wrong, it is easy to forget there is even the possibility that it might go right. If there are that many ways it could go wrong, logically, there are just as many ways it could also work out! Help your brain focus on things working out instead.


Maybe you are a procrastinator? The inner critic may be responsible here too!

What is your first impulse when you realize you’re procrastinating? Do you berate and get angry at yourself? Tell yourself you’re weak? Research suggests that procrastination may actually be a response to perceived negative emotions, rather than a complete lack of will power. When we are saddled with a task we think of as negative, or difficult, our subconscious steps in to distract us from this imagined upcoming pain, and suggests a more enjoyable activity to do instead. “We seek out short term feelings at the cost of long term satisfaction – “giving in to feel good””. And then what happens? We beat ourselves up for being lazy. We think, maybe if I criticize myself internally enough I will cease to procrastinate. Research has a suggestion here too: that this self-criticism may actually be perpetuating the problem! If you recognize this pattern (my hand is raised!) try some of the suggestions above and see if psychological distancing and coaching yourself like you would your best friend helps you get around these mental roadblocks.

Most everyone struggles with their own inner critic to some degree. But recognizing, and understanding you are not captive to what your inner dialogue says can be powerful. Change takes time and practice, much like anything, but the good news is, your brain is capable of making new neural connections!




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