Achieving Goals Despite Your Inner Critic: A Helpful Metaphor

Often people want to make changes, but are overwhelmed by a very loud and convincing inner critic.

An inner critic is:

  • a powerful, internal voice that tells us we cannot do well in life and achieve our goals
  • a form of self-criticism
  • a common symptom of depression

An inner critic is a voice that is built up from messages we’ve heard from others or tell ourselves and carry with us as absolute truths. These messages are painful and can get in the way of taking action to improve our lives. For example:

  • You want to start a romantic relationship, but your inner critic says “I’m unlovable” and you avoid the pain of trying
  • You want to begin exercising regularly, but have heard past criticism about your appearance and body image and think “What’s the point?”
  • You have the thought “I’m not good enough” or “I don’t matter” so you choose to stay home instead of reach out to others to create relationships and plan events

Arguing with a strong inner critic can leave you fatigued, stressed, and even frozen when action is needed to complete goals. In fact, arguing with self-critical thoughts only makes them bigger, stronger, and more intimidating.

I like to use the metaphor of a tight rope walker to explain how we can take action toward our goals despite the presence of an inner critic that tells us we can’t do well or should give up.

Tight Rope Walker Metaphor

Bring to mind a tight rope walker at a circus. All the lights shine down on the tight rope walker and the circus tent is packed with a rowdy audience. The tight rope walker has one goal and that is to get to the other side.

In this metaphor, you are the tight rope walker and the audience is your inner critic. The audience shouts out your critical thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts can be so overwhelming that it’s hard to take even the first step to achieve the goals waiting for you at the end of the tight rope. The shouts are so powerful you think you will fall if they are not silenced.

In the audience are people from your past shouting negative messages that have stopped you from reaching your goals previously. One stands up and shouts, “You can’t do it!” Another yells, “You’re not good enough!” In the face of such critical thoughts, it is understandable why anyone might struggle to take action or take the risks required to achieve the results you want in life. Taking that first step is hard.

When critical thoughts are so overwhelming, it makes sense that we would want to reason with, hush, or try to silence the audience (our critical thoughts). Some people try to change or erase these critical thoughts through logical, reasoned debate. However, what if there is another way?

Let’s focus on what it takes for a tight rope walker to successfully make it across to the other side.

Tight rope walking requires mindful focus and attention despite being unable to control what the audience says and does. It doesn’t help to turn to the crowd and argue with the critics. Responding to, “You can’t do it” with “Yes, I can” or “You’re going to fall” with “No I am not and here are ten reasons why” just distracts you from your task. At worst, focusing on the critics could result in a fall.

Instead, success requires observing the negative voices (that is, the critical thoughts) and continuing on the path to the other side. It involves a willingness to experience the internal criticism, label it as thoughts and not truths, let it go, and continue on the path toward goals. This allows you to keep your focus on staying balanced and in control of your feet, which will help you to take the needed steps forward to achieve goals even if your inner critic is present.

To learn more:

If this sounds like a skill you’d like to develop, attending therapy can assist with addressing depressed moods and critical thoughts. We—at Portland Psychotherapy—are here to help you figure out how to let go of past experiences and messages from your inner critic.

Women! – We Are More Than Our Stories

This summer, I attended the first ever “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) BootCamp for Women’s Issues.”

Though I had attended a traditional ACT Bootcamp earlier this year, I was drawn to this summer event out of a desire to connect more with my community of women and to examine ways I can better serve my female clients. The reality of the unique struggles women face in the world has been inescapable in both my personal life and in the therapy room.

I went to the training ready to learn. I walked away empowered and inspired.

A Mutually Shared Story

Throughout the training, we often reflected on the question, “What is our story?”

In other words, “How did I come to be who I am?”

The answer would help us to understand the multitude of challenges we often face as women—how our story may limit us in terms of the choices we make in our lives and what we feel our lives can be.

There is so much commonality in that story—it crosses over the human experience. Pain and suffering do not discriminate by gender.

However, there is commonality that is also very gender-specific. Women have different experiences that can impact us in so many ways in our lives, such as our relationship to finances, to aging, to sexuality, or to a career.

Even though we have distinct personal experiences, there are ways in which women also have shared experiences—a shared story, essentially. For example:

  • Women are more likely than men to be the main caregiver for their children and other dependent relatives
  • Women are overrepresented in low-income, low-status jobs
  • Women are more likely to be sexually assaulted and neglected or abused in childhood

We explored a lot of sobering but not surprising facts like the ones above.

But the most powerful experience from the training did not come from a lecture or discussion. The act of sitting in a room full of people who had similar experiences, and feeling and understanding the power of connection coming from these mutually shared experiences, was by far the most impactful.

Breaking Free of the Confines of Our Story

The pain of our experiences often leads us to withdraw and isolate. And when we do that, it is easy to think that we are alone, and for many of us, that we are at fault. It keeps the story alive and makes our lives small.

That isolation keeps us contained—trapped in our little boxes and limited in our lives. It has profound consequences. For example, research has shown that a lack of social connection negatively impacts our health equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The antidote is simple—connection.

Connecting can help us see that our story is not an uncommon one. When we connect to others and build community with them, we can start to recognize how our story got built. And that not only helps us to understand ourselves and our situation, but it also takes the power out of that story as something that has to define us and isolate us.

In turn, connection allows us to break free of the confines of that story, making room for the fullness and complexity of our beings and giving us greater freedom to choose our path.

Looking for more connection in your life?

Sign Up for Our 9-week ACT on Life Class for Women in Portland, Oregon.

In ACT on Life for Women, you’ll learn techniques based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to break the grip of unwanted thoughts and feelings and more fully engage your life. Amongst a community of other women, we will connect and dismantle common stories we carry that are often barriers to the full life we want and deserve to live.

Sign Up Here

Embrace Discomfort and Connect to the Meaningful Things in Your Life

Did you make a new year’s resolution at the start of this year?

Or have you ever made one in the past?

Like most of us, you probably started off with a lot of enthusiasm and lofty goals.

But how many times have you actually succeeded in sticking to the resolution? How many times have you reached your final goal?

And if you failed, have you ever wondered what exactly has gotten in the way?

There is no shame in admitting it. You are in good company.

Even with the best intentions and motivations, we all have a tendency to lose sight of our goals and falter at making the changes that we desire.

Why is that?

An Unsound Relationship with Discomfort

One of the biggest obstacles to making lasting change is having to repeatedly face discomfort. Often, we try to white-knuckle our way through it, only to find that will power and muscle are not enough.

The real problem is that our relationship with being uncomfortable is unsound. We have grown up with the notion that discomfort is something negative—a bad thing—and therefore, something that we have to avoid or get rid of as fast as possible.

The reality is that any change you make in your life, even a positive one—moving into a new house, starting a new relationship or job, or traveling abroad—comes with inherent discomfort.

But if discomfort is something that must be avoided, what do you give up as a result? Make discomfort the enemy long enough and you may even lose sight of what really matters to you in life.

Learning to See Discomfort in a Different Light

Many years back, I realized that much of my life centered around being comfortable. I had a good job and friends, but I lacked passion and meaning. It was as if I was living on autopilot.

It was then when I realized in order to have the life I wanted, I needed to adopt a new motto – “get comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

I started to see discomfort as just an inherent part of change and growth—as something welcomed, neither good nor bad. From then on, when I felt discomfort, I stopped looking for ways to get rid of it. Instead, I reminded myself that it was simply a part of the process.

The lesson for you?

When you learn to see discomfort differently and start to actually invite it into your life, you can better connect with the things that are meaningful to you.

If you no longer have to avoid discomfort, what might you spend your energy doing?

Creating a Different Relationship with Discomfort

What steps can you take to become more comfortable with being uncomfortable?

As odd as it may sound, in order to try creating a different relationship with discomfort, you actually have to actively pursue the things that you know will make you uncomfortable.

Ask yourself: “Are there things I always wanted to do but did not do because I felt too awkward or embarrassed to do them?”

For some, it may be taking a dance class, singing karaoke, or doing improv. Remember, the important thing is that whatever you decide, it is something that matters to you.

The next step is to pursue these activities while noticing how it feels to be uncomfortable. You will likely hear some of the same old discouraging thoughts: “I can’t”, “I look silly.”

But what happens if you continue anyway and invite discomfort and all its friends to the party? Could you learn to engage differently with discomfort, embrace it, and in turn, grow and enrich your life? The only way to know is to try it!


Therapy is a great way of exploring your relationship with discomfort, how you responded to pain and discomfort in the past, and how you can get more in touch with the things that are meaningful in your life now. I would love to help you find the right balance and perspective.

Quit Drinking to Create Better Relationships

Many people drink as part of socializing with others and feel it helps them loosen up, have a better time, and overcome any social anxiety they may feel. They may think alcohol helps them stay connected with people and have better relationships.  Yet, after reflection, some people find that alcohol use actually interferes with their relationships.

However, quitting or cutting back drinking is often difficult. It can be an isolating experience for someone who has been a “social drinker”. In addition, people who normally drink during social occasions can often find themselves coping with increased anxiety when attempting to connect with others. This makes quitting or cutting back alcohol hard when you start to think you might need to.

Why it’s hard to stop being a social drinker

People often meet for drinks after work. This is a common way that professional adults are able to form interpersonal connections with colleagues. It is also a common way that people meet their future intimate partners. Many people find friendships and dating often involve drinking alcohol.

Given this situation, the exciting nightlife in cities such as Portland—with its wide variety of craft beers and breweries—can make it even more difficult to avoid being around alcohol if trying to quit. In turn, this can make it even harder to refrain from drinking alcohol if you have a drinking problem (and simply too easy to slip back into depending on alcohol to feel okay).

It is really hard to go against the grain, and the social pressure to drink can be very strong. However, anyone grappling with an alcohol problem knows that it is necessary to resist that peer pressure.

If you have ever felt “different” from everyone around you in a social situation where you are the only one not drinking, you know this is hard. It’s also another reason why you need support to stay the course.

Alcohol is no longer helping my relationships. What should I do?

It is not easy to change any habit—especially one that involves using alcohol (or drugs) to ease anxiety or depression.  If you have relied on alcohol to help you relate to other people, you may find it difficult to feel the same level of comfort in your relationships without alcohol.

A therapist can assist you in identifying how alcohol is affecting your life and your relationships, and how quitting drinking can make a difference in your life. Portland Psychotherapy has therapists who are knowledgeable, and can help you get control over your drinking and get your life back on track.

Drinking Too Much and Trying to Stop?

Most people who drink excessively experience times where they know it is causing problems for them. From too many hang-overs to conflicts with family members and friends, drinking frequently to excess can interfere with your relationships, impact your work and other activities, and basically disrupt your life. Is this you or someone you know?

When a heavy drinker receives feedback from others that they have a problem with alcohol consumption, that feedback often is advice to entirely cease alcohol consumption immediately. But, that just exacerbates the problem. Indeed, it can make a person who enjoys drinking (and/or relies on alcohol as a stress-reliever) feel stuck to the point where that drinker just gives up trying to quit. Long-term habits are truly hard to break, and choosing to entirely stop drinking all at once is not possible for the majority of over-drinkers. You are not a failure.

Abstinence from alcohol – Is this necessary for me?

“How can I make my drinking more manageable without stopping altogether?” This is a question that I often hear in working with people who are struggling to change their relationship with alcohol. My experience is that many people who are heavy drinkers feel that just ceasing entirely from drinking is not a realistic option for them. Likewise, they feel frustrated that the “cold turkey” and “just stop drinking” option is the one most often presented to them.

I don’t argue for (or against) the merits of embarking on the path of total abstinence from drinking for an adult who has had a drinking problem. This can be the right path for one person, but the wrong path for someone else. The important thing is to recognize if you have a drinking problem, so you can take steps to address it.

What if I can’t just stop drinking?

Those with repeated difficulty sticking to their plans of limiting their drinking often experience increased feelings of shame—as well as feeling hopeless about changing their alcohol over-consumption. Working with a trained therapist to change your relationship with alcohol may be the best option if you have been unable to make that change alone.

We—at Portland Psychotherapy—are here to help you figure out the best way for you to take control of your drinking, and find better ways of coping with the pull of negative patterns that push you toward drinking to excess. You do not have to do it all by yourself, and we can help you stick to your goals.