Learn to quiet the inner critic and its impossible demands
Each of us has a critical inner voice—the inner critic. The inner critic pushes us to be perfect, to meet an impossible standard. Rarely does our performance match the ideal perfect standards demanded by the inner critic.
When I reflect back, so much of my life has been governed by the inner critic. I had to prove I was worthy of belonging and love. I had to prove I wasn’t a failure. Yet no matter how much I achieved, the inner critic was never satisfied. I didn’t know how to pause, to savor, to appreciate the small and big accomplishments of my life.
I remember having overwhelming anxiety at my law school graduation ceremony because I didn’t know for certain where I’d work. “You’re such a loser. Graduating from law school and without a job,” the inner critic chided.
The voice of the inner critic is often not based in fact or reality. Yet the voices can be very compelling. In cognitive behavioral therapy, these thoughts are known as thinking errors or distorted thinking. Learning about these common thought patterns and working with them has been hugely helpful in reducing stress, anxiety and depression.
Here are some of the most common thinking errors, adapted from a document from the College of Charleston’s counseling and substance abuse services:
Catastrophizing: Imagining the worst-case scenario and blowing it out of proportion. For example, thinking if you don’t land this client, you’ll never make partner, and then you’ll live an unhappy and dissatisfied life.
Jumping to conclusions: Making a judgment without evidence to verify the conclusion, such as thinking the opposing counsel is refusing to stipulate to an extension just to be difficult.
Personalization: Attributing an external event to yourself without causal relationship. For example, your partner seems distracted, and you assume it’s because she is angry with you.
Overgeneralization: Generalizing based on a few limited occurrences, such as thinking you gave a terrible presentation because of the few negative feedback comments while ignoring the dozens of positive comments and praise.
Black-and-white thinking: Categorizing things into one of two extremes without recognizing the possibilities of gray, such as thinking you’re either a brilliant lawyer or a terrible one.
Labeling: Attaching a label to yourself, such as when you feel anxious before a hearing and then label yourself as “always anxious.”
Emotional reasoning: Thinking because you feel a certain way, it must be true. “I feel like the judge was upset with me; therefore she must be angry with me.”
“Should” statements: Motivating yourself with shoulds and shouldn’ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. This leads to guilt. One example: “I should be exercising more, spending more time with my family and billing more.”
Disqualifying the positive: Dismissing positive experiences or accomplishments by insisting they don’t count. For example, you win a difficult case and tell yourself, “I just got lucky.”
Unproductive and unhelpful thoughts: Problematic thoughts that do not contain logical thinking errors. These thoughts may be true, or they may be value statements that are neither true nor false. However, dwelling on them makes you feel more anxious and may interfere with your performance. “The judge might ask me a question that I don’t know the answer to.”
WORKING WITH THE INNER CRITIC
By starting to recognize and naming these thought patterns, we can begin to work with the inner critic. Also, we can engage in deliberate practices to relax the thinking mind and see thoughts for what they are—simply a passing mental phenomenon.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, you learn to challenge thoughts. Think of it like putting the inner critic on the witness stand and cross-examining it. How do you know that thought is true? What evidence do you have that the thought is true? What if the opposite were true? Is there another interpretation of the situation?
Having a hobby is also a wonderful way to rewire the brain. Hobbies can be a way of unplugging from the demands of work, engaging your creativity and finding calm. We can use hobbies as a way to examine the inner narrative
Lauren Rad, a lawyer at Ferguson Case Orr Paterson in Ventura, California, who learned to knit as a 1L at Harvard Law School just as final exams approached, says, “Learning to knit, making mistakes while knitting and fixing those mistakes is a way to learn that mistakes in other areas of life are usually fixable, too.
“As you become more comfortable making and fixing mistakes, the inner critic is less able to convince you that you’re stupid for making one, or that a single mistake is the end of the world because you know from experience that’s not true.”
Through mindfulness practice, we can learn to take a friendlier stance toward ourselves. We also can see that these thoughts are just old mental conditioning, and we can start to see patterns: When X happens, I always think Y. When A happens, I always do B. This way of understanding ourselves and our thoughts can be sanity preserving.
You can hear an audio version of this meditation at jeenacho.com/wellbeing.
Try this exercise in self-compassion meditation
- Find a comfortable seated position. Close your eyes.
- Take some deep breaths, breathing in and out through the nose.
- Bring to mind someone you care about.
- Notice how it feels to think of this person.
- Repeat the following phrases quietly in your mind:
- May I be happy.
- May I be healthy.
- May I know ease and joy.
- May I be free from suffering.
- Continue to repeat these phrases while thinking of this person who has unconditional regard for you.
- When you’re ready, open your eyes.
Jeena Cho consults with Am Law 200 firms, focusing on actionable strategies for stress management, resiliency training, mindfulness and meditation. She is the co-author of The Anxious Lawyer: An 8-Week Guide to a Joyful and Satisfying Law Practice Through Mindfulness and Meditation. Cho practices bankruptcy law with her husband at the JC Law Group in San Francisco.
This article was published in the March 2018 issue of the ABA Journal with the title "Voices in My Head: Learning to quiet the inner critic and its impossible demands."