Uncovering the ‘Monster In Our Mind’

Teacher critiquing a child's artwork

We’re all lucky enough to know the inner critic, but what some maybe don’t consider is where it originated. We tend to accept the past and move on. If you spill some milk, for example, you’re unlikely to spend much time reviewing the lead up to you spilling said milk and pinpointing the exact moment where it all changed and you inevitably shifted your trajectory from not spilling, to spilling milk, are you? I doubt it. What you’ll likely do is grab some kitchen roll, clean it up, and go about your day, potentially more fractious than before depending to what extent the saying, “Don’t cry over spilled milk” applies to you.

I don’t want to trivialise the topic with that example, but it’s a good illustration of our sometimes “past is the past” attitude which can be an ally or an enemy. We all know when it comes to our inner critic there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s really personal to us and while my research into the inner critic was a small anonymous surveyit gave some interesting insights:

1.    When do people first notice their critic? 

The answers varied drastically from joining the primary school football team or taking academic exams, all the way into embarking on motherhood.

2.    How does it emerge? 

While its emergence varies, how it does so seems relatively consistent. It creeps up on us when we’re introduced to an unfamiliar situation.

We’re conditioned to compare our first time doing something with someone doing it for their 100th. This (unfair) comparison leads us to be critical of ourselves — because we aren’t as good (yet! Just be patient).

3.    When does the inner critic intensify? 

My results suggest our critic is loudest when we’re:

  • thrown into situations where we don’t feel sufficiently qualified;
  • around intimidating people (particularly professionally); or
  • excessively introspecting.


4.    How does the inner critic present itself?

By asking how your inner critic shows up, my research revealed this isn’t something we often consider. Yet failure to understand if it shows up as an emotion, a voice or a separate character exemplifies our passivity towards it and our default of accepting its self-defeating thoughts.

Most described their critic as an emotion — stealing positivity and amplifying other emotions (such as rage or doubt), leading to self-sabotage.

Just as we might associate seeing a puppy with happiness, we associate new situations with emotions — often automatically dictated by our inner critic. Simply unpicking this could be liberating, enabling us to replace the emotion our critic assigns to a new situation with more constructive thoughts.

5.    Does the inner critic miss anyone?

According to these results, no. While it expresses itself differently for us all, the critic is there. With societal pressures, certain life phases and unhelpful phrases (like ‘practice makes perfect’ when perfection is forever illusive), all helping to fuel it.       

So, that’s my five key insights from the research but before I go, I wanted to share a personal story about the first time I encountered my inner critic.

I was five years old, drawing a sunflower in art class. My challenge was making all the petals the same size. It consumed my little mind as I tried to measure how many fingers wide each petal should be, but one always came up larger than the rest. It was so annoying! I felt like I was failing and worried my friends didn’t seem to have this problem or, if they did, they didn’t care.

We worked on our sunflowers for a week. So as not to fall behind, I moved to colouring in my asymmetric petals, thinking I’d find a fix while colouring (I admire my Picasso-like aspiration, but as I’m sure you can guess, those petals never did look the same size).

Kneeling by my desk, my teacher seemed genuinely impressed by my creation, admiring the yellow and orange colour combo of my petals. Yet I couldn’t accept her praise. All I kept thinking was ‘why is she lying to me? My drawing is awful. No sunflower looks like this. I can never be an artist.’

Reflecting on this now I see this situation is a microcosm for my inner critic’s invasion on my mindset. I’m deliberately separating my critic here from me because I prefer to think of it as something I have, rather than it being an inherent part of me. It makes me laugh now, to think of this haphazardly sketched sunflower coloured like a tipped over bowl of mac and cheese having my sensitive five-year-old self-worth in its grasp.

While understanding my inner critic is still relatively new to me, I’ve exponentially developed my rejection of it since participating in Susan’s Make Your Mark for Students programme with Coachsters.  

Since then, having become most curious about this ‘monster in our mind’, I’ve also found a new method to help me tame my critic when it’s triggered by new situations. If that’s of interest to you, please do connect with me and I’ll happily share it with you!

Article by Founding Coachster, Emily Dow

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