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.

How to Read Your Emotions Part II: Put on Your Spec’s

Reading your emotions is all about perspective. Perspective is just a place from which you are looking at something – it’s a point of view from which you observe things as they happen. Your experience of an event can be dramatically different depending on how you view that experience.

If you’re watching a movie but sitting behind someone with an enormous hat that blocks your view, you’re likely to experience frustration because you’re missing out on the movie. You might politely ask this individual to remove his or her hat, and sometimes that works. But if they refuse, the situation can become even more upsetting and you might be tempted to start an argument. After all, people “shouldn’t” wear big hats in movie theaters! While you might feel you are justified in arguing, making a scene usually isn’t actually much fun for anyone (no, your date will not be impressed). If the point of your evening is to have fun enjoying a movie, then the simplest solution is to change seats.

But notice that whether or not your view is blocked by a hat, the movie itself is exactly the same. For that matter, changing seats doesn’t mean the person with the hat suddenly stops existing. The important difference is in where you’re sitting – it all depends on your perspective. The same is true of your emotions: don’t try to change them, get a better view.

The ability to take perspective on one’s emotions isn’t a matter of understanding – it’s a matter of repetition and practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get. One of the best ways to develop your emotional perspective-taking skills is through practicing mindfulness meditation.  Mindfulness is the practice of taking perspective on your feelings, thoughts, and sensations. It can also help you learn to take other people’s perspectives, develop a stronger sense of self, and become more accepting of your psychological experience (see my earlier blog post on the perils of judging emotions).

Just like it’s hard to read a book that is an inch away from your face, it’s hard to read your emotions without creating a little space. How and from where you look at your emotions can be much more important than what emotions you are looking at. By “stepping back” from your emotions you create a new vantage point that will help you see more clearly. As you’ll see, that perspective gives you an advantage.

How to Read Your Emotions Part I: Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

Sometimes when you first start having a feeling, your brain will very quickly make up its mind that the emotion is somehow dangerous or bad. Then it tries to escape from the emotion or control the emotion by turning your attention elsewhere and getting you to do something that makes the emotion go away. Because our brains are trying to protect us from harm, this well-intentioned judgment about our feelings comes from a good place. However, somewhere along the way our brains got a little confused about what is actually harmful. Emotions themselves are not harmful, our brain just says they are. 

Doing something that makes fear go away can work to keep you safe, but it’s only a stand-in for the real solution, which is to get away from the actual danger. Put another way, fear isn’t ever harmful, but masked figures holding knives often are. It’s much more important to get away from any danger in the world than to get away from any fear you are experiencing. In fact, when you are attuned to your environment, fear is just awareness of danger. In that sense, fear is probably a handy thing to experience – if you aren’t aware of real danger, you are less likely to respond and more likely to get hurt. The lesson is — don’t be so quick to judge fear. It may be your friend.

The same goes for other emotions: Sadness isn’t bad, it’s just awareness of loss, and loss is bad. Anger isn’t bad, it’s just awareness of conflict, and conflict isn’t great for relationships. Anxiety isn’t bad, it’s just awareness that something is important to you, and caring about things is good. For that matter, joy isn’t good, it’s just awareness that something wonderful is happening, and wonderful things are good. Emotions are there to be felt because they say something about the world in which you are living. Don’t leave your emotions on the shelf – check them out!

You can’t really blame your brain too harshly for making snap judgments – that’s what it evolved to do. Go ahead and thank your brain for its noble intentions of keeping you safe. But when it comes to your emotions, remember that they’re meant to be an open book.
For more on how to observe emotions without getting caught up in judgments, see How to Read Your Emotions Part II: Put on Your Spec’s.