Self-esteem and your inner critic

Each one of us has things that we want to accomplish in our lives - building a loving home, eating healthier, performing well in school, improving our finances, being a caring partner, reading more books, running a marathon, to name just some examples. However, for some of us, in fact many of us, things come in the way of us achieving our goals. Enter our self-esteem and the inner critic that lives in each of us.

Let me explain.

Self-esteem refers to the positive and negative feelings we have about ourselves - our perceived capabilities and self-worth. It also refers to the degree of satisfaction, acceptance or rejection we have towards ourselves. These day-to-day beliefs, both past and present, are reinforced through our self-talk or inner critic.

The inner critic is that voice that all people have within themselves. At first, we don't even know that it is there. Silently, it whispers things in our minds that impact the way we feel about ourselves and the world around us. Over time, it prevents us from achieving personal growth and reaching our potential.

In his book, John Rowan defines the inner critic as a subpersonality, which is “a semi-permanent and semi-autonomous region of the personality capable of acting as a person,” and has its own way of thinking, feeling and behaving. These subpersonalities and the resultant inner critic could be developed out of unmet needs, and are geared towards making us feel safe and secure.  

The inner critic also repeats the messages we have heard and internalised from society, especially from our parents. This is supported by many studies that highlights that the family plays an important role in a child’s self-esteem.

However, does it mean if we have a negative inner critic that we are doomed for life? Not at all.

We all have the ability to actively fight off negative, self-defeating thoughts. Instead of focusing only on the negatives, we can start to change the focus to the successes in our lives and to the positive aspects of various situations. This healthy voice is our natural ability to think realistically, which helps us to confront the inner critic. Our inner critic is a negative influence to a healthy self-esteem, and to change it we must use reassuring, positive self-talk, allowing us to live a happy life.

So how do we stop negative self-talk?

If you have a low self-esteem and a highly critical inner voice, here are three ideas on how to disarm your inner critic:

  1. Try to understand what possible childhood experiences may have been a source of your negative beliefs. These can include the children in school, your teachers, and even siblings, parents and other role models you had while growing up. People who develop a low self-esteem have often grown up hearing negative and derogatory comments. This can be especially dramatic in childhood and adolescence, as young people are much more sensitive to negative criticism and can more easily develop a negative self-concept that stays with them in adulthood.
  2. Identify and correct your inner critical voice that is attacking your self-esteem. To defuse your negative self-talk and beliefs, you have to cut the vicious cycle of irrational thoughts. This critical voice is rigid so this requires consistency. Some examples of irrational beliefs include: “I have to be the perfect student”, "I have to solve everyone’s problems”, “I’m such a loser”, "I never make mistakes", and “Relaxation is a waste of time”, to name some.
  3. Work on building a healthy sense of personal value that is not influenced by negative social pressures. You don’t have to be the best at everything, the richest at work, the most muscular in school, the most educated in your family, etc. Accept yourself for who you are at this very moment.

Is it easy?

Not quite. It takes significant effort to separate ourselves from the demoralising voices of the past. I believe that consistency and discipline may be what is needed to stay on the right track. We need to reaffirm that our true selves would never want to be unkind and mean, or keep us away from opportunities that would result in self-improvement and happiness. We also need to keep our inner critic in check by setting boundaries, and wherever possible addressing our inner critics firmly yet compassionately.