Five Actions to Conquer the Mental Jerk in Your HeadJul 05, 2021
Be careful. They’re probably judging you. Remember, you’ve failed at this before. I know - that you know - that you’re not that good at this and you’re simply making it up as you go along. Oh, and if you fail, there’s no coming back. You better get this right, because no one likes a loser. Okay? Maybe you should call it quits now, while you’re ahead.
By now you’re probably wondering who this jerk is why he’s casting insults at you. I mean, what the heck is his problem? We all have a version of this voice in our heads that constantly criticizes, belittles, and judges us. This voice has many names: inner critic, judge, saboteur, the superego or the pathological critic.
What is the pathological critic?
The pathological critic is a term coined by psychologist Eugene Sagan to describe the negative inner voice that attacks you. While everyone has a critical inner voice, people who struggle with self-esteem tend to have a more vicious and vocal pathological voice. Left unchecked, this voice can drastically influence how you feel about yourself, especially in relation to others.
When your inner voice is constantly telling you that you are unworthy, a failure, unattractive and hopeless, it’s difficult to take chances, achieve your goals, and to express yourself fully, both personally and professionally. Your pathological critic will make you believe terrible things about yourself, undermining your self-worth, constantly reminding you of your mistakes, but never allowing you to focus on your accomplishments. The worst part is that most of the time your pathological critic is lying to you, but sometimes it’s hard to separate the inner voice from your reality.
“The most influential and frequent voice you hear is your inner voice. It can work in your favor or against you, depending on what you listen to and act upon.” Maddy Malhotra
How does the pathological critic develop and what is its purpose?
While the pathological critic can seem like a nemesis has infiltrated your mind, it serves a valuable purpose. It helps you create a narrative about yourself and others and helps make sense of difficult situations. This hyper-critical inner voice is most commonly activated in childhood since children internalize what is said or done to them or people close to them.
Because the bond between parent and child is so strong and children rely on their parents for safety and security, they internalize the opinions of their parents, whether they are true or not. If a parent tells a child he is lazy or stupid or not as talented at baseball as his siblings, the child will grow up believing this is true and will operate as though it is.
A child might also develop low self-esteem because something negative is happening to someone he cares about. For example, if a child is constantly positioned between two arguing parents, the child will internalize the story that he is the reason his parents are arguing.
Since parents are a child’s source of safety and stability it makes sense that the child would rely on the voice of the inner critic rather than believe he/she is unsafe. In this way the inner critic, although misleading, acts as a protective survival mechanism to help the child feel a sense of security.
Think back in history and consider how much we relied on being accepted by our tribes. To be ostracized from the group was to literally be left alone in the cold. We had to adhere to the rules of the elders, regardless of how we really felt about them, because our survival depended on it. As children, we feel a similar vulnerability, but if the noisy inner critic continues badgering you into adulthood, you'll experience stress, dissatisfaction and possibly, anxiety.
Anxiety is the result of a super-charged pathological critic.
When the pathological critic becomes the dominant voice in our heads, it has the power to make us second guess our every move, doubt our own abilities and feel fearful that things are always going to go wrong.
This relentless attack from within can fuel anxiety as we become increasingly skeptical of our worthiness and ability to perform. We are continually alerted to potential dangers. Under these conditions, it's impossible to maintain a healthy self-esteem or to make an honest evaluation of ourselves and others.
Why is it important to understand, and manage the pathological critic?
I should point out that the pathological critic is not responsible for every negative thought you have about yourself. In fact, being able to critically evaluate yourself helps you discover areas for growth or improvement.
We each have an internal compass that lets us know when we are living a life that aligns with our expectations for ourselves and if we make choices that stray from that, our inner voice guides us back on track. However, when the voice of the pathological critic imparts a steady stream of negative thinking, it erodes confidence and feeds anxiety.
When you have realized that what you’re hearing is not a legitimate matter of conscience, stop and think about what the “voice” is saying to you. Take the time to identify what thoughts or experiences are triggering the harsh criticism and reframe them in the context of reality.
We all fail, make mistakes, and lose sometimes. But failing doesn't make you a permanent failure. Losing isn't a life sentence, hopefully, it is a motivation to prepare better and try again.
Here are five actions that can help tame the pathological critic.
Action 1: Become Familiar with Your Pathological Critic.
Oddly enough, your pathological critic is trying to convey something important to you. Take some time to objectively assess the message that it's communicating, and while you’re doing this, remember that a thought is just a thought. Your thoughts are not reality, and they certainly don't represent the truth.
The next step is to apply some good old-fashioned Socratic questioning. When a negative thought arises, ask yourself: Is this thought fact? If you answer - yes - that it is absolutely true, then ask yourself how you know this to be true, how and when did you take on this criticism, and how it's influenced you since adopting it.
Take a moment to examine 'your evidence' here. Ask yourself, 'what evidence do I have that supports this thought to be true?' If you discover that the thought is not true, i.e., a false statement, then you've just put the pathological critic in its place.
Action 2: Personifying the Pathological Critic.
Personifying is about assigning a unique name to the inner critic that you’ve identified. This serves to separate yourself from the pathological critic and observe the critical dialogue from an objective viewpoint.
It helps minimize the power that the inner voice has over your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, because it is observed as its own persona, and not necessarily one that has the best of intentions for you and can readily led you astray.
For example, you can name your pathological critic something cute or funny and every time you notice it acting up, you can imagine yourself patting it on the head and telling it to pipe down.
Action 3: Separate Yourself from the Pathological Critic
Stepping away from the barrage of self-criticism is the next step. Creating an objective perspective of your thoughts allows you to separate yourself from your cognitions. Again, this reinforces that you are not your thoughts and that these negative thoughts do not describe or define your character. Use the following tactic to objectify a negative statement.
Critical statement: I'm no good at talking to strangers at parties. I'm a loser.
Objective statement: I'm having thoughts that I'm not adept at meeting or talking to people I don't know. I'm imaging that I'm not competent. These thoughts are simply thoughts and are not true.
Restating a criticism in this manner, helps us recognize that the thoughts we're experiencing are simply a thought process and not factual.
Action 4: Rebuttal Your Pathological Critic with Self-Compassion.
Not only can you reframe and objectify all the negative self-dialogue, but you can turn it on its head and use it to your advantage. Remember that there's a reason for negative self-criticism - and that's to motivate you to change or improve - granted that we all typically don't react well to criticism. But we all like praise.
Use the following tactic to positively reframe a negative statement.
Critical statement: I'm no good at talking to strangers at parties. I'm a loser.
Reframed statement: Going to parties where there are lots of people you don't know, is difficult for a lot of folks. It might be a bit awkward to begin with, but I'll find my groove and have fun.
Offering yourself a realistic, compassionate statement helps you move in the right direction - rather than letting the pathological critic influence how you respond and act.
Action 5: Don't let the Pathologic Critic Dictate Your Actions.
There's a well-known episode of Seinfeld (the comedy show that aired during the late '80s and early '90s), titled 'The Opposite' where George declares "Yes, I will do the opposite. I used to sit here and do nothing and regret it for the rest of the day, so now I will do the opposite, and I will do something!"
His declaration was made to counteract the pathological critic that often led him to make all sorts of incongruent decisions, which frequently lead to conflict and disarray.
When you recognize a critical statement, follow the steps above and then make a choice that opposes the action that you would otherwise take. Over time, this step will help you adopt more authentic actions, and eventually dial back the intensity of negative self-talk.
Debrief and Digest
- The pathological critic is a term coined by psychologist Eugene Sagan to describe the negative inner voice that attacks you.
- Your pathological critic is trying to convey something important to you. Take some time to objectively assess the message that it's communicating, and while you’re doing this, remember that a thought is just a thought.
- Over time, all of these tactics will help you adopt more authentic actions, and eventually dial back the intensity of negative self-talk.
Breaking the cycle of negative thinking is an inside job. It requires self-love and a bit of gumption, the same way you would stand up to a bully on the playground. Chances are, if you heard mean words yelled at someone else, you would run to defend them.
But since no one can hear your inner critic, you have to come to your own rescue. Just know that you are worthy of a joyful life and that quieting the pathological critic is essential to living the life you envision for yourself.
If you’d like more one-on-one therapeutic support to help you quiet your inner critic, I hope you’ll contact me to schedule a consultation.
Also, be sure to sign up for MANifest Mondays, my free weekly email designed to offer more tools and tips for living well.
Positive Psychology. (2021). Living With Your Inner Critic. Accessed June 2021.
Mckay, M., & Fanning, P. (2016). Self-esteem: A proven program of cognitive techniques for assessing, improving, and maintaining your self-esteem. New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, CA.
Malhotra, M. (2013). How to Build Self-Esteem and Be Confident: Overcome Fears, Break Habits, Be Successful and Happy. For Betterment Publications. UK.
Linaman, T.E. (2021). Self-Talk: What Are You Saying? Accessed June 2021. https://www.relationaladvantage.com/blog/self-talk-what-are-you-saying