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.

On the Virtues of Being Wrong

“Wow. I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong.”

Take a moment and consider, what are you wrong about right now? Are you aware of being wrong about something in this moment? I mean really stop and check. Can you think of something that you know you are wrong about right now?

Most of us walk around with a perpetual feeling of being right. In most moments of our lives we feel right about what we are doing and believing. And if we do feel wrong, it’s usually only in some small part of our lives. Doesn’t this seem odd that all of us are right almost all the time? Logically, it must be the case that we are wrong about something almost all the time.  Why don’t we know it?

One way to think about is to think about our thoughts as stories. Our minds are masterful storytellers, spinning new stories all the time. And most of the time we don’t even notice it. And these stories almost always seem to be true. Rarely do we tell stories that we know we are wrong about (unless we are telling a lie, in which case we usually know that we are telling a lie and know that’s right).

Unfortunately, our inability to notice when we are wrong can hold us back. We can miss information that can help us to grow. We can be right about things that don’t help us to move forward in our lives.

If you’re up for it, below I offer a brief exercise (including a video) on how believing our own stories can stand in our way. The whole process takes about 30 minutes.

Part 1

First, take a minute to think about a direction that you’ve wanted to head in for a while now. Something you’ve wanted to do and either haven’t been able to follow through on or haven’t been able to find the time for. Write out what you want to do. Write that out in a few sentences.

Second, think about why you haven’t done it. We all have explanations for our behavior. What is your story about why you haven’t progressed in this area? Write that out in a few sentences.

Third, once you have written out your explanation, check out whether your reasons seem right or wrong to you. I would bet that it’s pretty unlikely that your explanation seems wrong, as you wouldn’t have written the explanation if you felt it was wrong.

Fourth, keep your direction and explanation in mind as you watch this TED Talk by Kathryn Schultz:

Part 2

Now that you’ve watched the TED Talk, make a new plan for how you will move in this direction that you’ve been wanting to progress in. If you are willing to be wrong about your reasons, it opens up new possibilities. What possibilities might there be for how you could get this done? Outline your plan briefly in writing.