4 ways to manage your critical self

1 June 2021

We all have a critical self! Fotini Roberts, Psychotherapist in UCL Student Support and Wellbeing, suggests 4 ways we can help ourselves to manage our inner critic when it becomes too much.

Man pointing his own camera lens towards the camera

Everyone has a critical self! It forms a part of what we call our conscience and plays a necessary role in not allowing us to do things that are wrong (e.g. unkind, immoral or illegal), even when nobody watches us.

However, it can sometimes appear as a harsh, unkind and punitive voice that can punish us from inside, either by directly instructing us in harsh tone (“Do more work NOW or you will FAIL the course!”) or by issuing blame even when we haven’t done anything that is wrong (“I am an ABSOLUTELY horrible person to not be more sympathetic to my brother: I don’t deserve any of his love”).

The critical self can stop us from doing things even when we are not aware of it (“I don’t know why, but I just don’t feel like going to my friends’ house for dinner… I can relax only after I’ve finished all my work and tidied my room”). This can be an aspect of depression and it can remove the pleasure from your life and leave you feeling that all is dull.

Sometimes it is too much to have such a critical voice inside and we experience it as located outside in other people (“I KNOW that my peers thought that I was stupid when I made a mistake in my presentation”).

At other times the criticism can be redirected at someone else. We then experience ourselves being unusually harsh and contemptuous (“What an INADEQUATE performance by X. He should not be on the course!”). This sense of superiority can be to protect ourselves from feelings of exclusion, vulnerability and inadequacy.

Of course it is not all bad news! The critical self is also part of the structure that helps us maintain our ideals, to respect our wishes for order, and to keep working at difficult things to pursue our ambitions. This can be the good aspect of what we have taken in from important figures in our lives and from the environment since we were young.

How can we help ourselves to manage our critical self?

  • Try to be aware when we are criticising ourselves harshly and ask ourselves if the criticism makes sense and if we would judge someone else in our situation this way. 
  • This self-awareness may free us to allow other feelings to emerge about the situation we are in: we may find, for example, that we feel angry or jealous or guilty about something. Acknowledging and thinking about our feelings, including our contradictory ones, can in the end help us gain a better understanding, feel more sure-footed, more lively and less caught in rigid patterns. 
  • We can’t be successful in everything and we need to allow the possibility of failure and loss in life. It is important that we have expectations of ourselves and our environment so we can plan for the future. However, it is crucial that we base our expectations on reality rather than setting up expectations that are impossible to live up to. Sometimes we can feel that there is a huge gap between the level of expectation generated in us by our environment (e.g. society, media or perhaps family) and our actual experience.
  • Finally, it may also be helpful to think of kindness here. Ordinary kindness is not a magical cure but an exchange of caring feelings between people that encourages our sense of aliveness and connects us with our ordinary vulnerability. Applying such compassion to ourselves can help us resist the enemy within – our very critical self. Resisting means acknowledging its existence but not letting it occupy our minds!

    By Fotini Roberts, Psychotherapist, UCL Student Support and Wellbeing