Befriending the Inner Critic and Overcoming Perfectionism

A while back I read an amazing article about the Creative Life. There were so many great insights, but this one particularly stood out:

“The Inner Critic gets a lot of bad press – Google the term and you’ll find plenty of advice on how to ignore, banish, silence or obliterate your Inner Critic. But if you think about it, you’d be in big trouble without an Inner Critic. If you didn’t have this internal quality filter, you’d be happy to churn out any old rubbish – and join the ranks of mediocrities.”

When I read this, in a flash I saw my Inner Critic jump up and scream “Yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” It felt like a revelation.

You see, I’d spent years trying to silence my Inner Critic or at least get her to quiet down. In my mind, she was what held me back from greatness.

The bar was too high, and since I could never meet it, I felt fear that if I took action, I would disappoint her once again. The shame I felt when she attacked me was overwhelming, so I procrastinated, and resisted my creative impulses, and held myself back from truly being seen. If you don’t take action, there’s no risk of failure, right?

But suddenly, I saw things differently. Yes the years of perfectionism were difficult, and yes it can be really hard to live with a nagging voice in your head that always wants you to do better. But what if that quality is exactly what will allow me to be of service in the world in a really powerful way?

What if the fact that I will never settle for less than excellent is what will allow me to do excellent work? What if I could truly befriend my inner critic- allow her to help me - instead of always fighting against her?

The key to this, for me, was “Parts Work”. This is the idea, originally from Internal Family Systems Therapy, that we have a higher Self who is always calm, courageous, grounded and wise. We also have many other parts, most of whom were formed in our psyches during childhood. Some of these parts are “protectors”, some are “managers” some are vulnerable, wounded parts.

They’re all there to serve us and they’re all helpful – if we can stay in the seat of the higher Self and not let them swamp us.

One of the most powerful pieces of my healing process was learning how to talk with these parts without letting them completely take over my decision making and emotional self. In that way, I could assign them new, more beneficial roles, and integrate them in a healthy way.

Once I shifted my view of the Inner Critic from an enemy to an important and valuable asset, these conversations went a lot better.

Now, when my Inner Critic pipes up, I turn towards her and listen to what she has to say - looking for the nugget of wisdom - and dismissing the pieces that are overly critical or perfectionistic.

The key is, I see my Inner Critic as a member of my advisory team now, rather than a dictator.

Ultimately, I make the decisions about what I create in my life, and if things aren’t always up to her standards, that’s OK. Her bar IS too high- but that’s no longer a problem, it’s something I can strive for and I don’t have to feel bad when I don’t reach it.

Exercise: Have a conversation with your Inner Critic.

  1. Take some time to ground in, with a meditation or some deep breathing. It’s important that you’re fully connected to the part of you that is calm, open and wise before you begin this.

  2. When you feel ready, project your Inner Critic outside of yourself so they’re “sitting” in front of you. Imagine what they look/feel like in as much detail as you can. Do they remind you of a teacher from childhood, or a drill sergeant, or a cartoon monster? Mine is always looking down her nose at me with a skeptical eyebrow raised.

  3. Let the Inner Critic talk. Ask them to tell you why they’re always criticizing you- what’s their goal for you by doing so?

  4. Thank your Inner Critic for all the work they’ve done over the years to protect you and motivate you. Let them know that they’re an important part of you, but the WAY they motivate you isn’t working. Ask them to use words of kindness and compassion in the future, and remind them that YOU are ultimately in charge.

  5. Sit with your Inner Critic in dialogue like this for as long as feels good, then thank yourself and your Part before you re-enter your day.  

*Note: this is a therapeutic process, so please only try this on your own if you feel capable of bringing yourself back to that grounded state if you get triggered. Don’t do this by yourself if you have unprocessed trauma or are not sure how to access your wise and calm Self. I use this process regularly in my work with clients, so if you’d like to be guided through it, please let me know!