The Inner Critic: Or, the never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole

Have you ever noticed how much our brains love to find evidence of what they want to believe? Or is that just me?


No, I mean, it truly amazes me how the human brain (or, my human brain, at least) can ignore literally everything that counters its beliefs and find the most miniscule, obscure shred of “evidence” that will reinforce its perceived truth.


And no, I’m not talking about your uncle’s political views here and the awkward dinner conversations that will ensue this year (or not, because, COVID) over the holidays, though the sentiment does certainly apply (sorry not sorry).


Nope, I’m talking about that gem of a friend that lives inside my brain and doesn’t care what time of year it is, it’ll just bother me with its unsolicited and unfriendly opinions...all. the. TIME.


Yep, friends, I’m talking about my *lovely* iNneR CriTiC.


You know, that best friend of a voice that offers nothing but negativity and self-loathing? Most people are familiar. I find that mine is typically always ‘on’ – like that friend who never shuts up, but, like, not in a good way.


It constantly offers something to the tune of:


You’re too intense.


No one wants to hear what you have to say.


You screwed it all up.


You’re being too clingy.


You can’t do it.


They don’t like you.


You’re annoying.


Quit while you’re ahead.


And that’s just when it’s tame. Lately, it’s been even worse. Yeah…not a fun roommate.


It’s exhausting to manage a voice that tries so hard to make me feel like garbage. And on days when the voice is nearly ear-shattering, damage control is all I do. I go to bed having accomplished nothing at work but feeling utterly exhausted because I was fighting with my own mind all day.


That’s what I’ve been doing for the past few days: managing the critic, then going to bed feeling drained; and sometimes, even after all the fighting, it still wins, and I cry myself to sleep.


Despite its ceaseless noise and the way it demands my every waking moment of attention, I started wondering why it suddenly decided to turn up the heat and the volume – why now? Because it’s not like this all the time…so what triggers it to crank the intensity?


I started observing the way my critical voice behaves, and I quickly discovered two things about my critic that I had not noticed before:


  1. It only comments on one area of my life at a time – it is not a multitasker.

  2. It finds exactly the evidence it needs to support its point of view, and neglects to ‘see’ anything else – especially things that refute its beliefs.


Let’s unpack both of those a little further, shall we?


1. The inner critic can’t multitask


This was an interesting, yet unsurprising, discovery. For the most part, the criticism has been recently directed at my business endeavors as I struggled to find the courage and confidence to start growing my business. It whispered to me sweet nothings about how you’ll annoy other people with your social media posting, you’re clearly already failing, you’re all talk and no action, and you’ll never succeed in building a business so why bother?


Damn. Okay. Talk about demoralizing…


So after several long conversations with my business sponsor, I dug my heels in and decided that I wasn’t going to let my inner critic win. I didn’t care if it was trying to scare me out of my own business; I was going to do it anyways.


Boom. Critic got shut down.


But lol nope, it actually did not.


It just popped up somewhere else.


Oh my god, you screwed up. You put your foot in your mouth and said the wrong thing. They don’t want to talk to you anymore. No one wants to talk to you anymore. You’re unlovable. You’ll never have any significant meaningful relationships.


Gee. Thanks.


So then I spent a couple of days calming myself down and reminding myself that people don’t hate me.


I have finally (almost) quieted the voice there, but I can already feel it plotting and planning what it’s going to say about my writing when I finish this post and go to publish it.


It’s like playing a game of emotional whack-a-mole with an entity that seems to have an unending energy supply – it only pops up in one area of my life at a time, and when I finally get the voice to cease in that particular area, it sneaks behind my back to turn up the mic in another. It’s a sneaky thing, that inner critic. Which brings me to point number two…


2. The inner critic finds exactly the evidence it needs to prove its point


Have you ever tried reasoning with someone who only listens to their own ‘facts’? (I realize that’s a touchy question to ask, but again, this isn’t about politics…and let’s be honest, you definitely have had this experience.) The infuriating nature of a one-sided conversation where there is no openness to other points of view or complexity or conflicting information?


That’s my inner critic – zero tolerance for any view except its own and a one-hundred-percent belief in its own views as absolute truth. And it’s amazing to me how it will turn seemingly meaningless information into ‘facts’ that ‘prove’ its point.


Let me offer some real-life situational examples:


I want to talk to someone, but they haven’t texted me back: See? They don’t want to talk to you anyways. If they did, they would have responded by now.


I want to grow my influence on social media, but my post doesn’t get any interaction: See? No one wants to hear what you have to say. If they did, they would have interacted.


I want to write and perform on Broadway, but I don’t get a part in a local community theatre show: See? You’re not even good enough for community theatre – how could you possibly be good enough for Broadway?


I want to move to New York City, but COVID’s had other plans: See? You’re just not cut out for NYC. You’re doomed for a life stuck in Ohio.


Do you see what it does there? The critic takes seemingly meaningless situations and spins them into evidence by adding meaning where there is none. From things as miniscule as talking to friends to dreams as big as moving to NYC and performing on Broadway – everything is fair game for the critical voice to manipulate ‘evidence’ and prove to me just how ‘right’ it is.

… … …


Fascinating stuff, right? (Well, I think so at least, but I’m also a psych nerd.) However, as intriguing as those two discoveries were for me, neither actually answered my initial question:


What triggers my inner critic’s amplified intensity?


As I mentioned earlier, even though the critical voice is typically always ‘on’ for me, its volume and intensity vary. Sometimes it’s so quiet I don’t even notice it, but other times – like the past few weeks – it’s so unbearably loud, I can’t focus on anything else.


So what have I been doing recently that could have triggered it?


Taking more risks with my business to grow it.


Writing more and posting to my blog again.


Auditioning again (though this is still limited because, ya know, COVID).


Doing the things that will actually get me to where I dream of going.


All of these actions involve facing fear – the fear of failure, of shame, of embarrassment, etc. And then I remembered a discovery I made about my critic a few years ago: the sole purpose of my inner critic is to protect me. From shame, humiliation, heartbreak, fill-in-the-“negative”-emotion-here. It’s a protective mechanism gone wrong, and it operates out of fear.


Okay, so my inner critic is afraid of failure, but that’s not news to me…there had to be something else.


And then it hit me: disappointment.


It’s afraid of disappointment.


Therein lies the third discovery, and ultimate answer to my question:


3. My brain seems to be convinced that the moment I actually start to care about how something turns out, is the moment I nail my own coffin shut.


Okay so stick with me: disappointment is the feeling we get when something doesn’t go the way we want it to, right? And what is the primary motivation for wanting something to go a certain way? Emotional investment: by caring about it.


I care about the things I do; I have an investment in their outcome.


Now, that’s not to say that I cling to my own expectations of how certain endeavors should go or that I cannot respect the unexpected places that my journey takes me, but if I love playwriting and I aspire to perform my work professionally on Broadway, I have a particular end goal in mind, and it’s likely I will face disappointment in some form or another if I don’t achieve that goal.


If I dream of living in New York City and I don’t make it there, I’m going to feel disappointed.


If I feel romantically interested in someone and things don’t pan out, I’m going to feel disappointed.


If I ask my best friends to hang out and they're not available, even that may lead to me feeling disappointed!


If I set any goal for myself and I don’t achieve it, I’m most likely going to battle disappointment.


And my inner critic seems to believe that disappointment hurts even more than failure, so it reasons that if I can quit before I care, then I’ll protect myself from hurt and disappointment. And if I do start to care, well, then I’ve passed the point of no return and I’m doomed to end up disappointed.


I understand that sentiment – go with the flow and let things roll off my back, without expectations. And I’ve gotten fairly good at that when starting something new, whether it’s getting a new job (or, in my case, business) up and running, or talking to someone new, or moving to a new city. I go in with few expectations.


But as time goes on, I start to see where those new opportunities could go – and I start to become more emotionally attached and invested. As most humans do! We would never reach our goals and dreams if we never bothered to care about the outcome.


And that’s just it: I do care about the outcome.


I care about where my business goes.


I care about where that conversation goes.


I care about whether I make it to New York.


I care about spending time with the people I love.


I care about my dreams and aspirations.


And so long as I care about the outcome, I will always risk feeling disappointed if it doesn’t work out the way I want it to, and my inner critic will probably always try to stop me before I get there.


But which is worse? Refusing to ever care to avoid hard feelings, but therefore realize none of my dreams in life? Or taking the risk of failure and disappointment in order to care about something enough to try to make it happen?


Despite my inner critic’s mindbogglingly frustrating presence, I still choose the latter.


I choose to take the risk; I choose to care.




(Photo credit: Pete Pedroza on Unsplash)

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