We all have an inner critic: The voice that criticizes us, the voice that replays conversations in our head doing a play-by-play, the voice that tells us that maybe we’re not good enough (the voice that tells me the sentence I just wrote sucks).
The message from the wellness community is clear: Quiet your inner critic, shut down the a–hole who lives in your head, and banish it once and for all.
Here’s the thing: This approach doesn’t work—at least not for me, but I suspect for others as well.
When I try to expel my inner critic, it doesn’t leave. It starts doing push-ups. It starts downing Red Bulls. It then roars back to life, at the worst possible time, louder than ever.
Before, the inner critic was telling me that this sentence is insufferably unreadable. After I “silence” it, it comes back to tell me that I’m a no-hit wonder and that I should stop writing altogether.
Instead of quieting your inner critic, start listening to it.
It’s there for a reason: to challenge you, to push you, to make you uncomfortable. Doubt and learning come hand in hand: The inner critic forces us to consider different perspectives, to cross our t’s and dot our i’s, to over-prepare for that job interview, and to rehearse that opening argument until we know it cold.
When we don’t listen to our inner critic, we stop learning and growing. When we think we’re invincible, we start blaming others if things don’t go as planned. When we believe ourselves to be an indisputable expert on something, we begin asserting confident conclusions without bothering to gather all of the facts.
As woo-woo as it sounds, our inner critic needs love, just like the rest of us. It’s only when I started embracing, rather than hating, my inner critic that I was able to tame the beast. It’s no longer frothing at the mouth getting ready to bulldoze me. It’s now lying by my side, ready to serve as a trusted guardian.
Listening to your inner critic doesn’t mean you do everything it says. Think of the inner critic as the devil’s advocate who lives in your head. It’s there to push and prod you, but don’t let it mock you or dictate your direction. You’re in control. When it steps out of bounds with destructive self-talk, respond with a simple “I hear you, thanks for your opinion, but I’m on top of it.”
The better relationship I developed with my inner critic also expanded outward. Empathy is quite the buzzword these days, but our dedication to it rarely extends beyond lip service. It requires patience, curiosity, and above all, practice. Where better to start than by empathizing with the critic who lives within you?
Perhaps we also err in calling this voice the “inner critic,” which has all sorts of negative connotations. If you don’t like it, give it a new name. You can call it the inner guardian, the inner challenger, the inner rabble-rouser.
If you don’t like the narrative, change the narrative.
But more importantly, the next time you’re tempted to banish your inner critic, resist the urge and give it a big hug instead. Much like the fellow human beings around us, once you start respecting it, you’ll find that it respects you back.
Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor and bestselling author. Click here to download a free copy of his e-book, The Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating Your Thinking. Along with your free e-book, you’ll get the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom and changes the way we look at the world (plus access to exclusive content for subscribers only).