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How to Transform Self-Criticism into Something More Powerful

Befriend your inner critic, it is trying to protect you.

Image credit: danielsampaioneto on pixabay

Being self-critical can prevent us from leading authentic, fulfilling lives. Yet psychological theories like Internal Family Systems and Compassion Focused therapy explain it is a form of self-protection. Paradoxically, whilst being hard on ourselves can frustrate and even depress us, it also helps us feel safe. Understanding this can help you transform your inner critic into your number one supporter.

Why Are We So Hard On Ourselves?


Humans are tribal creatures. In hunter-gather times, belonging to the pack was essential for survival. People had to compete for food, territory and sex, meaning it was vital not to be weaker, or less able, than others. Because of this, we have evolved to compare ourselves to each other and are hard-wired to fear failure and rejection.

Learnt behaviour

Did you grow up encouraged to be a creative, free-spirited, healthy-risk taker? Were you taught not to be afraid of being judged? Or did you learn to obey the rules, work hard, fit in, not upset people, and avoid trouble?

Maybe you had a primary caregiver, family member or teacher who motivated you by subtly using shame and fear. You may notice your inner-critical voice mirroring someone from your childhood.


Many social institutions exploit our tendency to compare ourselves to each other and magnify the fear of not being good enough. These include educational systems which are exam/results-based, social media which can promote social comparison and religions which operate around fixed notions of good and evil.

Negative core beliefs

When we are young, we are unable to make sense of emotionally challenging situations. If someone we love dismisses us or gets angry, we think we are to blame. If we feel disappointed, scared or alone, we incorrectly conclude there is something wrong with us. These feelings of inadequacy can lurk in the background throughout our adult lives. These unconscious, or core, beliefs, are often at the heart of self-criticism.

Despite our innate tendency towards self-judgment, we can learn to be less hard on ourselves. By understanding and befriending our inner critics, we can transform the way we motivate ourselves.

Seven Steps to Transforming your Inner Critic

1. Recognise you are not your thoughts

Evidence-based approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness explain when we recognise we are not our thoughts, they stop defining us. For example, if you replace “I am a failure” with “I am experiencing feelings of failure” this becomes an unpleasant emotion rather than a shameful identity.

Acknowledging a feeling comes only from a part of us, an approach advocated by IFS therapy also prevents us from being defined by it. For example, you might say “a part of me feels like I’ve failed”.

2. Learn to spot when your inner-critic pops up

Sometimes our sneaky minds judge us without us even realising it. Only once you have learnt to spot your inner critic can you choose to separate from it.

What are the warning signs that alert you to the presence of your inner critic? Maybe butterflies, a sinking feeling in your stomach, repetitive thoughts, negative self-beliefs, a sense of dread, or a sudden desire to withdraw.

When does this happen? Are you sensitive to how others perceive you? Are you prone to comparing yourself to others? Maybe you have fixed ideas of failure and rejection. Are you are more critical of yourself around certain people or in specific situations?

Does the voice of your inner critic mimic someone you grew up with, like a parent or teacher? Are they repeating things you learnt as a child?

Reflect on how the reasons why we tend to be self-critical (as explained above) play out in your life.

3. Work out how your inner-critic is trying to protect you

We are hard-wired to believe failure and rejection are dangerous. We feel safe when we are admired and loved. We use self-criticism to motivate and protect ourselves, and on some level, we fear it would be dangerous not to do this. Maybe some of the following examples resonate with you.

  • Beating yourself up makes you work harder. You then produce more impressive results.
  • The constant worry people are judging you drives you to people-please and ‘fit in’, therefore protecting you against rejection.
  • Your self-doubt encourages you to hide away and avoid taking risks. This behaviour keeps you safe from potential failure.
  • If you put yourself down, you believe it will hurt less when others do this. If you expect the worse you are less likely to be disappointed.

What are you afraid would happen if you stopped being self-critical?

Once you realise the critical voices in your head are trying to protect you, they stop being the enemy. Thank them for their misguided efforts. This shift is the first step to transforming your inner critic.

4. Stop running from challenging feelings

Primal fears lie at the heart of self-criticism. We want to avoid being rejected or abandoned or proven worthless because we have evolved to experience such things (on an emotional and physiological level) as life-threatening. These fears can seem alienating. Yet we all feel them. They connect us to the whole of humanity.

…feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal…suffering is part of the shared human experience. Kristin Neff

Core beliefs, such as not feeling good enough, developed at a young age when the world was confusing. Our inner critics are trying to protect us in the face of these frightening feelings. Next time you notice your inner critic, see if you can identify its core fear. Breath deeply and sit with the emotions that come up. Remind yourself everybody has these fears. They are bearable and will not destroy you.

5. Determine if self-criticism helps you live the life you want

Our inner critics want to motivate and protect us. However, their attempts are misguided. Criticism causes shame and doubt. It can lead to perfectionism, procrastination, anxiety, over-working and avoidance. Self-judgement can make us judgmental of others and frightened of expressing our true selves. It can even depress us.

How do you feel and act in self-critical moments?

6. Identify the positive things that motivate you

Think about all the skills and qualities you have developed whilst being critical of yourself. These might include the ability to work hard or be responsive to the needs of others. You can keep these skills and qualities without being so hard on yourself. It is possible to feel inspired and motivated without shame and fear.

Imagine you are free of fear and self-doubt. How would you be inspired? What would ignite your motivation to work hard and make an effort with others? How would you be propelled out of your comfort zone?

Maybe you are energised by creativity and passion. You may desire connection and love educating and entertaining others. Perhaps you are driven by spirituality or a fun-loving nature. Think of as many things as possible.

Next time your inner critic pops up, remind yourself that you do not need to motivate yourself with fear. You have other things you can choose to be driven by instead.

7. Develop an empowering inner voice

Has anyone ever supported you with thoughtful compassion? Have you witnessed someone you admire inspire others with courage and kindness? Use these people to guide you. Take the lead from a teacher, coach, therapist, mentor, writer, speaker, celebrity or thought leader you appreciate.

You can keep yourself safe without being harsh. Stop beating yourself up. Instead, see what words of wisdom you can offer yourself when you bump up against the trials and tribulations of life.

Maybe you are firm but fair. You might remind yourself failure is part of life. No one is perfect. You might congratulate yourself for stepping out of your comfort zone regardless of the outcome. You might remember that everybody feels inadequate and rejected at times. Such feelings connect you to the whole of humanity, yet they do not define you. Your inner voice might remind you that you are more powerful and courageous than you realise. It might encourage you to nurture rather than deny, your fear and vulnerability.

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. Winnie the Pooh

See what exciting new qualities your calm empowering inner voice can enable you to adopt. Maybe you can start to embody joy and develop an ability to laugh at yourself. Perhaps you will begin to welcome challenging feelings and gain an increased sense of resilience. You may embrace a give-it-a-go attitude and a desire to get your hands dirty.

Our critical thoughts are attempting to protect us from deeps fears like inadequacy and rejection. These fears are not dangerous or alienating. They connect us to what it means to be human. Once we realise this, we can move beyond self-criticism to courage, clarity and compassion.

Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage. Brene Brown

Final thought

We all have inner critics (parts of us who doubt ourselves). They are misguidedly trying to help us. They have learnt that fear and shame are the best, and only, ways to motivate us.

Get to know your inner critic. Learn to spot when it shows up. Discover how it communicates with you. Explore how it learnt to be so mean, and what it fears. Learn to separate from it. Your critical thoughts do not define you.

Our inner critics are protecting us from scary feelings like rejection and failure. Acknowledge your deepest fears. Thank your critical thoughts for trying to protect you. Breath into your vulnerability and meet it with compassion. Stop trying to squash your fears. Accept and nurture them, and they are less likely to rule you.

Let your inner critic take on a new role. Your inner critic wants you to succeed. How else can you inspire this success? Remind yourself of all the positive things that motivate you. Tap into your creativity and your desire to connect to others. Talk to yourself in the voice of the inspiring figures you admire. Let your inner voice guide you from a place of compassion and excitement.

Remember that if you really want to motivate yourself, love is more powerful than fear. Kristin Neff

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Psychotherapist, Sex and Relationships therapist and Internal Family Systems therapist.