by Grace Judson
OK, that’s a trick question, because we all talk to ourselves. Maybe not out loud (though I’d be willing to bet you do sometimes), but absolutely, definitely, positively, certainly in our heads. And most of the time those internal conversations … aren’t very nice. While occasionally we might be caught high-fiving ourselves or proclaiming, “Hey, that was a good job I just did!”, more often we’re chastising ourselves for a perceived flaw or “stupid” mistake.
I haven’t yet met anyone who enjoys this inner dialogue. Quite the opposite: Most people deeply desire to at least turn down the volume on the inner critic. But no matter how hard we try, it seems like it just keeps on chattering—and sometimes, the harder we try, the louder it gets.
While the full suite of tools, concepts, and processes for managing the inner critic is more than I can cover here, I’m going to give you the single most effective way to begin the process for yourself. It’s just one word, but before I tell you what that one word is, I need to give you a bit of background.
To begin with, the inner critic isn’t you. It was installed in you over the course of years, beginning in very early childhood. It doesn’t intend to be mean, malicious, or keep you from doing what you want and being who you are (even though it often is and does all of that). Its original intent was simply to keep you safe.
As a child, the things we’re taught that became part of the inner critic’s script are perfectly reasonable. When we’re small, we need limits and restrictions to stay safe, and guidance to learn appropriate behavior. The problem is that when we become adults, those limits, restrictions, and rules don’t fit any more. It’s like trying to squash ourselves into a tiny box—a box that was roomy enough to explore when we were little, but which is now restrictive and, frankly, dysfunctional.
Our caretakers—whether parents or some other adult figure—generally had the best of intentions. (I’m setting aside questions of abuse; that’s outside the scope for this article.) But they also had their own agenda. They had ideas, dreams, and wishes for who we would be and what we would accomplish—and they had anxieties, fears, and limitations of their own. All of this becomes part of how they taught us as children to “be” in the world. No matter how well-intentioned, they couldn’t know who we would truly be, and what we would want to accomplish, as we matured.
This creates the too-small box that the inner critic continues trying to enforce and enclose us into. And because these early authority figures were so important in our lives, the inner critic is firmly embedded within us, even as adults.
With this in mind, it’s easier to understand why we often feel so frustrated, hurt, and confused by what the inner critic tries to tell us about ourselves—and why the inner critic is so relentlessly persistent. So what’s that one word I promised you that can start turning down the volume on the inner critic?
Um … what?
Yes. Just that one word.
When the inner critic starts yelling at you, telling you how you can’t or shouldn’t do something, or that you’ve screwed something up, or all the various things it loves to say … just say…
You’re not agreeing with it. But you’re also not engaging in an argument with it—because you’ll never win that argument. (It seems reasonable to try to convince the inner critic that it’s wrong, but trust me; you’ll never win that argument.)
That one word—OK—acknowledges what the inner critic is saying, and gives it nothing to latch onto to continue the debate. There’s nothing it can do except to repeat some variation on what it’s already said, to which, of course, you’ll just respond … OK… once again.
There’s one crucial factor in this: once you’ve said “OK,” you need to keep going with what you’re doing. Don’t stop. Don’t wait for the inner critic to shut up (it won’t). Just say OK and keep going.
If you can practice this consistently, over time you’ll find that the inner critic really will get gradually more quiet. By the way, this OK thing works with people, too. If someone you know loves picking arguments, just say—yes, you guessed it—OK, and they, just like the inner critic, will have nothing to grab onto to continue the discussion.