We all have an inner critic. For some, its voice is loud and consistent, getting in the way of our confidence, our growth, our ability to take risks, and much more. For others, it whispers occasionally, and fills us with momentary self-doubt.

The inner critic is not just one voice, it’s more like a subset of the cast of characters in our heads, living alongside other characters much more to our liking. We’ve got voices that are nurturing, and some that are critical; those that lift us up, and others that weigh us down. Of course, positive psychology is all about developing the tools to tune into and activate the nurturing, uplifting parts of ourselves, and to reduce the power that critical inner voices have over us.

The Struggle to Silence the Inner Critic

Whether acquired through messages we received from parents, teachers, or other influences in childhood, or through the general messaging of the culture we live in, the voice of the inner critic tells us that we are “less than perfect” at best, and incompetent, mean, ugly, a failure, unlovable, and unworthy at worst.

When the inner critic’s voice is taking up a lot of the real estate in our headspace, we understandably simply want it to STOP. As a result, we often try to block and ignore what it’s saying; to simply pretend it doesn’t exist.

So what steps can we take to turn this cycle around? Below are three possibilities for changing the inner critic from foe to friend.

1. Reframing Our Saboteurs

Positive Intelligence, a framework developed by Shirzad Chamine, former CEO of the largest coaching organization in the world, is based in mindfulness, neuroscience, and positive psychology. It offers us tools for transforming the voices of the inner critic, or Saboteurs, which Chamine gives names like “The Judge,” “The Pleaser,” “The Avoider,” and “The Hypervigilant,” to name a few.

The first steps in this transformation include becoming aware of these voices, naming them, and then distancing ourselves from them. As an example, when The Judge speaks up—saying, “You messed up … again!”—rather than hearing that message as I messed up, you’d say to yourself, The critical Judge in me says I messed up. We come to see it as just a voice within us, likely one that has been there for a very long time, and whose messages are not necessarily true or helpful. This distancing weakens the power of the Saboteurs.

2. Strengthening Our Sage Muscles

Along with weakening the Saboteurs, Positive Intelligence teaches that we can strengthen what this model calls our Sage muscles. Just as we work on physical fitness by going to the gym, so we can develop mental fitness by strengthening the parts of our brain that help us move from inner criticism to access Sage powers. These include the ability to empathize, explore, innovate, navigate, and activate new possibilities.

Neuroscience research provides evidence of our ability to weaken the power of the Saboteurs and strengthen the qualities of the Sage. The voices of the Saboteurs are based in the survival brain, made up mostly of the brain stem, limbic system, and parts of the left brain. These areas are responsible for scanning the environment for threats and alerting us of perceived danger. The Sage capacities, by contrast, are accessed primarily through the middle prefrontal cortex and parts of the right brain. As Chamine states, “The survival brain region and its saboteurs are hardwired to feel stress and unhappiness. If you want to feel consistently happier, you must learn to strengthen your sage and weaken your saboteurs.”

One way to strengthen the Sage is through brief mindfulness exercises that help us access the prefrontal cortex. Even short moments of being fully present—by paying attention to breath, rubbing our fingers together and feeling the ridges of our skin, or seeing with eyes that fully take in the beauty around us—help our brains make that shift.

3. Accessing Self-Compassion

While the Positive Intelligence model for transforming the inner critic implies the necessity of self-compassion, the importance of self-compassion should be stated explicitly. Kristin Neff, a leading expert on this topic, emphasizes that having compassion for oneself is really no different than having compassion for others. To experience self -compassion, we have to actually notice the ways the inner critic is causing us suffering, and have a desire to alleviate that suffering, just as we would want to do for a friend.

Secondly, Neff teaches that self-compassion has an element of shared humanity: recognizing that suffering, failure, and imperfection are part of the shared human experience. We all have an inner critic; we are not alone.

Finally, self-compassion means responding with warmth, understanding, and kindness—offering ourselves words of support, encouragement, and kindness, just as we would do for others that we care about deeply.

Those inner critic voices that weigh us down and seem to be our foes can truly become our friends. We can work with them as gateways to open new choices, possibilities, and habits of mind that can transform debilitating self-criticism into self-compassion and growth.

Simcha offers a webinar on transforming the inner critic on Tuesday, May 7, at 12:00 pm ET, as part of the WBI/JCC Positive Psychology Hour. Register here.

Simcha Zevit

Simcha Zevit

Simcha Zevit is a WBI-certified Positive Psychology Coach, as well as a rabbi and certified mindfulness teacher. In addition to her Wholebeing Leadership and Life Coaching practice, Simcha is a coach and consultant for VITAL WorkLife and several nonprofit organizations. She offers a holistic and strengths-based approach to leadership and life that increases self-awareness on all levels—body, heart, mind, and spirit—helping clients to cultivate their outer and inner resources and to clarify and actualize their goals.