A long time ago, when most of our species were living in caves, survival was generally more difficult than it is today. So, responding to the almost constant threat of death at the teeth of wild animals, the human brain made some intelligent adjustments. It began to prioritise negative judgements, because they kept us alive longer. Let’s imagine, for example, that your troglodyte ancestor stepped out of the cave one morning to stretch his legs, and saw a brown shape behind a nearby bush. If he thought that the shape was a rock, but it turned out to be a sabre-toothed tiger, it would likely be the last mistake he ever made. But, if he thought the shape was a tiger and it turned out to be a rock, he might be a bit embarrassed, but he could make the same mistake a hundred times and not suffer any major consequences. Which is why humans developed the negativity bias: the brain’s tendency to react more strongly to negative stimuli, or even the expectation of negative stimuli. It’s why the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for managing the fight-or-flight response – dedicates two thirds of its neurons to negative experiences. And it accounts for why we are so adept at fearing the worst, despite the lack of concrete evidence for doing so. In Mark Twain’s words, ‘I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.’
For millennia, this programming did an amazing job of preserving human life, but as civilized life has become safer and more predictable, it is no longer as necessary. Yet, the negativity bias prevails, as does the voice of the negativity bias: the inner critic. The inner critic’s job is to talk you out of risk and threat, even if that threat is only failure or embarrassment rather than death. We all know it because we all have one. It’s the voice that tells you that you’re crazy to apply for that new job post, or start a new business, or move to a new country. It’s the voice that tells you that you’re not intelligent enough, qualified enough or brave enough. And it’s powerful. As Ilene Gregorian, mindfulness trainer for US Special Forces, says, ‘You can take yourself down with your thoughts faster than any enemy can.’
Overcoming the inner critic and its seeds of self-doubt is one of the biggest challenges on the path to self-development, and one of the earliest you’ll encounter. Though it can be subtle, it usually kicks in as soon as you try to shift from the status quo and is a big contributor to a resistance to change. Many strategies for dealing with it are combative and rely on willpower to defeat the repetitive self-assassination (ignore that voice in your head!). But this is often a superficial approach that fails to address the underlying causes, because even though we all have an inner critic, the degree to which it affects our lives varies from person to person, and time to time. It peaks when we are feeling unconfident and is quietest when we feel success, and is a function of the unique psycho-emotional matrix of every individual. So, what can be done about it? Here are 3 suggestions:
Yes, you’ve heard this one before, because everyone seems to be punting the virtues of meditation. And that’s because it works. The more research is done on meditation – especially mindfulness-based meditation – the more evidence there is for its multitudinous benefits. Among them is a deeper familiarity with the habitual processes of the mind. Through even 10 minutes of consistent daily mindfulness practice, you will become acquainted with the seemingly endless internal chatter that fills your mind, as well as the quiet space that holds it. You will be able to identify the voice of the inner critic and view it as an object of your awareness, allowing you to see it for what it is: a limited survival guide trying to keep you safe, rather than a speaker of the truth. Creating this distance and perspective during meditation grants progressively stronger ability to do the same in the normal run of your day, allowing you to make more intelligent choices. To get started in meditation, join the worldwide community, download the free app and use the guided meditations at Insight Timer, or sign up for Headspace’s fantastically accessible meditation program.
Ask for help
One of the problems with the inner critic is that it is so difficult to catch in action. It could be the primary reason you are blocked in trying to transform a particular aspect of your life, but you might not be aware of it. A conversation across the kitchen table with a friend or partner could make you feel better and see the way you’ve been sabotaging yourself, but if you’re feeling genuinely stuck you might need to enlist some professional help. This is the service provided by most coaches and mentors, though for stalled growth due to longstanding psychological difficulties it is advisable to see a therapist too. Overcoming your own internal monologue requires insight and awareness, as well as action-oriented plans and practices – coaching can help with both.
When things are challenging and stress is high, our inner critic is usually in full flow, making it very clear why the world is bad and everything is going to go wrong. At such times, compassion may seem like a strange attitude to prescribe, but it is the antidote to an over-activated negativity bias. The 2016 State of The Heart Report – a global EQ study of 100,000 people in 126 countries in different professional sectors, revealed that emotional intelligence, empathy and compassion are on the decline. A significant factor in these findings is the global rise in stress levels. It makes intuitive sense that the more stressed we are, the less compassionate we are. But this relationship also works in reverse: the more compassionate we are, the less stressed and anxious we feel. Compassion, particularly self-compassion, can be trained, and allows us to integrate anxiety or stress while remaining more open to new experience. In practical terms, this means acknowledging the inner critic and accepting it, while still being positively engaged in your life. As a start, use Dr Kristin Neff’s 5-minute self-compassion break to connect with this powerful approach.