The Inner Critic—Your Biggest Obstacle to Happiness

Jennifer Williams, the author of this blog, is the founder of Heartmanity. Her passion is to help people create thriving relationships first with themselves and then with each other. She teaches emotional intelligence skills to remove the obstacles to growth, loving connection and communication.

Happiness. Inner peace. Success. These words are thrown around a lot. But did you know that your mind controls your perception of life experiences? Your mind, how you think, and how you frame your experiences determine the quality of your life for better or for worse.

If I asked you to describe what’s going on inside your head, what would you say?

That your mental space is crowded like a pushy, chaotic Black Friday shopping experience? Or that it’s more like the NASCAR Daytona 500, speeding from one thought to another, checking off endless tasks all day long? 

Perhaps, your inner world resembles Google, perpetually searching for answers, and relentlessly analyzing everything you do and say. Looping and anxious. Maybe your inner critic is front and center badgering you with negative self-talk.

Frustrating, right? These thought patterns happen because your brain’s number one job is to keep you safe. But what exactly does this mean? And how does the brain’s emphasis on safety impact your thoughts?

Even though the highest priority of your brain is safety, safety is perceived, measured, and implemented uniquely for every person. Why? Because security is defined by and patterned through childhood experiences. The way your “fight, flight, or freeze” survival mechanisms and your emotional regulation systems are programmed depend on your personal experiences.

When we were growing up, our parents’ responses and care formed the foundation of secure attachment, which defined our self-esteem and our set point for safety. Our environment and the parenting we received formulated many of our habitual thoughts and beliefs about life. It’s not so much what a parent does or says; it’s what we conclude as children that impact us most. Unfortunately, children lack understanding and experience, which makes most of their conclusions inaccurate and incomplete. 

Now, stop for a minute. Imagine you’re on a peaceful Hawaiian beach. Immerse yourself in the serenity of the ocean sounds. Feel the gentle breeze caress your face and the warm sand beneath you. Breathe in the freshness. In the distance, you hear a songbird singing gleefully and a small child’s laughter as he chases the waves.

Can your mind feel this peaceful regularly? “That’s impossible,” you might think. But what if it WAS possible to train your mind for peacefulness in the same way athletes train and build their muscles? What if you could change your long-held limiting beliefs about yourself and life? What if you could change those unhealthy mental habits you formed as a child, which may still be unconsciously controlling you? It’s possible. Keep reading.

How Your Inner Critic Is Born

Much of our suffering as children has nothing to do with us; our hurt comes from parents doing their best. For example, when you were five and your mom told you to leave her alone and stop bothering her, it simply might have been because a looming bill or an ill sibling was causing her stress. Or, for another example, your dad might have yelled at you while you were playing, not because you deserved it but because he was scared for your safety. However, you may have interpreted their responses to mean that you did something wrong, or that what you wanted wasn’t important to them.

It’s essential to understand that sometimes parents carry unresolved pain that’s triggered unexpectedly, like a hand grenade. As a child, our behavior can unintentionally pull out the firing pin that releases the charge of a parent’s emotion. However, when we then feel the loss of mom and dad’s approval or love, it’s very frightening. Thus, our inner critic is born.

Our inner critic is formed from our ardent desire as a child to avoid the same pain or loss of approval. Our brain, with its need for safety, puts a strategy in play: hypervigilance becomes a way to prevent mistakes that could jeopardize our security. Based on outdated interpretations of our childhood experiences, our adult mind continues to perceive danger even though there is none. After a while, our self-talk and emotions become so familiar that they feel true and real. 

But what if you had encouraging and loving parents? Well, then your self-talk may be more helpful than if you grew up mired in continual criticism or abuse because confidence and self-love are the earmarks of a stable, loving environment. However, keep in mind that all experiences affect us, not just childhood ones. Your inner critic, or self-talk, develops throughout your life. For instance, a car backfiring does not cause most children (or even most adults) to think they are being attacked. However, veterans or others with PTSD, due to exposure to continual life-threatening situations, might perceive the noise as gunfire. They are responding based on their intense or trauma-based memories, not reality. In many ways, perhaps not as severe, we are all perceiving danger differently.

Why Is the Inner Critic an Obstacle to Happiness?

With every thought, there is a corresponding neural transmitter and emotion followed by behavior. When our minds circulate fearful, critical, judgmental thoughts, our brains release stress hormones, such as the well-known one called cortisol. Why? Because our brain doesn’t know the difference between an event that’s actually happening and one that we are imagining. Our brains react based on thoughts and emotions rather than truth. Our survival response (fight, flight, or freeze) overrides our logical brains, putting our system on guard. The more we churn stressful thoughts in our mind, the more the stress creation process becomes a habit. 

Therefore, our happiness is an inside job that begins with our thoughts. The inner critic is a pivotal obstacle to feeling peaceful, confident, and happy.

There is good news, though! Regardless of our experiences, we can acquire inner peace and healing by rewiring our brain through mindfulness. And yes, it’s possible to retrain your mind to serve your best self, not your past or wounded self. Neuroscience shows us that we can rewire our neural pathways to heal and transcend our past.

As Henry David Thoreau said so long ago, “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”

Now that you know it’s possible to quiet your inner critic, where do you begin?

Transforming Critical Thoughts into Encouraging Ones

If you wanted to Photoshop an image, you would need to download the software first, wouldn’t you? You would never expect to be able to professionally edit a photo without first ensuring you have the software. 

Your brain is just like a massively powerful computer hard drive! To begin any transformation, you’ll need to download a new thinking skill.

You can download a new perspective and see life differently. You can load a new mindset and approach situations with greater confidence. You can upgrade your brain wiring and begin to leap over the greatest obstacle to happiness—the inner critic. Your mind determines the quality of your life or lack thereof. Silencing the inner critic takes practice and persistence.

One of the first ways to silence the inner critic is by building greater self-awareness and mindfulness. You are not your mind. By developing your mental mindfulness muscles, it allows you to slow and monitor your thoughts, release judgment, and gently retrain critical thoughts to more encouraging ones.

3 Steps to Developing Mindfulness

  • Step 1: Remind yourself that your thoughts are not truth or reality. Whether they stick or not is up to you.
  • Step 2: Observe your thoughts. Are they true? The mind is a great storyteller, and many times, it is very dramatic and exaggerates inaccurately. Find out what’s true.

For example, if your inner critic shrieks, “You never get it right!” and then proceeds to recite all the things you should have done differently or could have done better, ask yourself, “Is this really true?” Probably not. You may have done a dozen things right and made one legitimate mistake.

  • Step 3: Reframe your thoughts to match what is most valid. If your thought doesn’t support or encourage you, reframe and retrain it. Let’s take the example above. Interrupt the thought, “You never get it right” by redirecting your attention to the ways you’ve succeeded in the past or things you did well. Or challenge the logic by affirming to yourself, “It’s not about getting it right; it’s about growing better every day.” Either of these ways will help create a more spacious and peaceful sense of well-being. 

The more you practice this simple mindfulness training process, the more often you’ll remember to do it. The more you remember, the easier mindfulness becomes. Then one day, the process will be as natural as breathing. It will be habitual, and your inner critic will transform into a new you — happiness will sprout.

Jennifer Williams, the author of this blog, is the founder of Heartmanity. Her passion is to help people create thriving relationships first with themselves, and then with each other. She teaches emotional intelligence skills to remove the obstacles to growth, loving connection, and communication. Her popular One Year Makeover and Return to Serenity programs provide a personalized approach to transformation. Jennifer’s understanding of brain science strategically reshapes a person’s pain into power while restoring inner peace and well-being through a fun and remarkable learning experience. She is happily married to her beloved husband and is the mother of three grown children.

Jennifer Williams

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