S1E14 Self Criticism

All of us have a self-critic inside, whether we like it or not. Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete use sarcasm and humor as they talk about the role of the brain's "inner critic." They discuss how mindfulness and Buddhism address self-criticism, and identify the role the inner critic plays in psychological suffering. Dr. Rubin and Dr. Pete also discuss how behaviorism understands the self-critical voice, and present steps to begin to quiet it just a little bit.




Nikki: So I think everybody is probably pretty familiar with the experience of self-criticism, unfortunately. Would you agree with that Pete?

Pete: No, I don't ever criticize myself.

Nikki: Never. I've never heard you say anything.

Pete: No, we are all critical.

Nikki: We are all critical.

Pete: I think a lot of us are our worst enemy. Right?

Nikki: Yeah, absolutely. And what always really makes me sad is that a lot of times people believe that this critical voice that we all have, is helpful. I hear that from patients a lot, ‘like, “I don't want to let get…”

Pete: So say more about that, how do they find it to be helpful?

Nikki: Well, I guess I'll start by saying, a common phrase that's used when referring self-criticism is the inner critic. If you google the inner critic, there's a lot of writing about that. And I also want to say, everybody has an inner critic. So Pete and I are joking here, we all have it, I have it, Pete has it, everybody does. And a lot of times people believe that when they're hard on themselves, they judge themselves negatively, that it gets them on their A game basically, it gets them to do things. And the unfortunate kernel of truth in that, is that for some people in the short term, it does get them to do things. I'm going to use a sports metaphor here, that I'm sure Pete would probably use as well, which is, think of if you ever had a coach or a teacher, who the teacher that yelled at you a lot, or the coach that was shouting at you, you probably complied in the short term. But if you can think back to, Pete, coaches you've had like that, what are the long-term consequences of having that voice in your ear all the time?

Pete: Doesn't feel good. And CBT, I think we look at that as depression, as a big piece of it. I was thinking of Aaron Beck, and I think a lot of his research initially, like in the early 80s, looked at self-dependency and this autonomy related to these negative thoughts and the self-critic as part of depression. I’m sure you can articulate that a lot better than I do.

Nikki: No, actually not, it’s been so long. Some [inaudible-2:27] But that negative self-talk, there was a lot of early research around that, and how that was tied to feeling depressed which makes sense, the more unkind or even cruel, you are to yourself, you're going to feel down so going back to thinking about coaches, you had that were…

Pete: Well, makes you feel like you're deficient, like that you're missing something or that you haven't done something you're supposed to be doing, or not good enough to do it.

Nikki: Yeah, and what's so interesting is that if you think about that, if being hard on yourself or on others in the short term, ‘works’, like it's getting you or someone else to comply. It's very short sighted. Because ultimately, the problem Pete’s highlighting is that you feel deficient, like you don't feel good enough, you're also going to have a lot of emotional distress, you're going to feel down, you're going to feel sometimes shame, maybe guilt, anxiety, about doing it right. We know that when our emotions get bigger and bigger, the term being dysregulated. Emotion dysregulation interrupts cognitive processing.

Pete: It sure does.

Nikki: So if we're then feeling like all of these uncomfortable dysregulated emotions, and then we get foggy in how we think it's actually a lot harder to then keep doing behaviour effectively.

Pete: One of the things I keep thinking about is the developmental aspect of this, because I don't typically go into an extensive developmental process. I mean, I do, the first session is always about everything. But then typically in cognitive therapy, especially third wave, were just like, ‘let's deal with what we have now worked towards acceptance’. But I am wondering, developmentally, I think the self-critic does develop from some of the messages we received from a really early age. Because I think of my mom, my mom has three boys and so we mess with her. She's got some tough skin these days. But I joke with her, and I'm just like, “Oh, Mom, you're always really good with the compliments”,

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: Or some validation or some recognition, because those moments do help taper the self-critic. Or at least you tried to learn a better relationship with the self-critic; the more you're getting validation, maybe from a developmental prospect.

Nikki: Yeah, absolutely. So growing up, if you have caregivers, other adults in your life that are able to step in and say like, “you're okay, you're allowed to struggle, making mistakes is okay”. That head does help to then begin to more internalized that more compassionate voice to practice that. Unfortunately, and this is the bummer, it's not going to eliminate that inner critic voice. Because that, and this is getting into geeky evolutionary stuff here, and judgments, that voice is hardwired into us, human brains are designed to evaluate, we're constantly evaluating what's good, what's bad, what's right, what's wrong. And look, the advantage to that is that judgments are quick information. It's like I say, I always tell patients, “look, I’d love to travel back in time, 40,000 years ago. If you're out looking for berries, and there's a rustling in the bushes, and you don't know what it is, and you're quick assumption, quick judgment, probably a saber toothed tiger, that was really helpful”. But then in 2021 we're recording this, if you're, I don't know, doing a podcast with your dear friend, and your mind's like, “I don't know, did I just say something weird?”

Pete: Who's listening? I sound stupid.

Nikki: Yeah, ‘Who’s listening? I sound stupid’, that quick assumption doesn't work so well. And so people do need to understand that this is built into our wiring. And we don't have to give it as much power as often, as it often has over us.

Pete: And I think maybe for people that are listening with kids. I think this is where I focus on my nieces, I think I have such a shrink language, because not every parent is able to be like, “I can see that you're really frustrated right now. And so I can't help you when you're screaming. So if you can calm down a little bit and use your words, I'm going to be able to help you find your Mickey Mouse or that you can”. And I do wish, I don't wish actually, I think my parents had it perfect. But it could have been nice to have a little bit of that growing up. Just throwing that out there.

Nikki: Mom, if you're listening, still saying though.

Pete: I just put it on her phone.

Nikki: Well, I like that example, if a parent is saying to a child, “it's okay, if we can take a moment when I hear you're screaming. Can we come back to this”, we can actually talk to our inner critic in the same way that. I always like to sort of help people externalize the inner critic, so sometimes I make a joke.

Pete: Yeah, that’s good.

Nikki: Yeah, I'll say like, “do you hear your inner critic like in your own voice?” And most people will be like, “yeah”, and I'm like, “Okay, well, it's not you talking, it's this critic, it’s the inner critic.”

Pete: Who do you use?

Nikki: First, I like to say, “It’s actually your inner critic”, and I'll say, “We’ll come up with some kind of cartoon or something”.

Pete: I can’t wait to tell you who I use.

Nikki: So I’ll say, “but right now they're wearing”, like if I was talking to you Pete, I'd be like, “well your inner critics wearing a peach shaped costume, and using one of those voice converters to make them sound like you”.

Pete: Hiding

Nikki: Hiding, right. So we've got to help take the mask off and go like, “oh, okay buddy”. Like, “I see who you are”. So who do use?

Pete: I use Homer Simpson.

Nikki: Oh, that's amazing.

Pete: Because I feel like almost everybody knows what it is these days?

Nikki: Yes.

Pete: It's a diffusion technique.

Nikki: Yeah, it is a diffusion. So diffusion, for our listeners, is a term cognitive diffusion, is basically unsticking from thoughts. So you get some distance of mindfulness technique. I tend to use Mickey Mouse.

Pete; that’s a good one too.

Nikki: That's one of the voices I can do. It's one of the few voices.

Pete: No, you can’t, will you?

Nikki: Oh yeah, sure. So if your inner critic was saying to you, “that's stupid”, it would be like, “that’s stupid.”

Pete: I can’t do Homer Simpson, so don’t ask me.

Nikki: We can say, “don't”.

Pete: “Don't,” yeah.

Nikki: Everyone's like, “Oh, please don't say”. That’s the sound of my voice work.   

Pete: Well, I like your voice work. But I like what you said about the A game because it's interesting that I think a lot of athletes do think that. I remember, the self-critic during a race, during practice. Even as I just took on this new project of, ‘Can I do this’, like it's everywhere.

Nikki: It's everywhere. And so we have to just start by radically accepting that it is a voice that's going to show up. It's a part of our brains; it's that, the inner critic lives in our brains, we can't surgically remove it. And we get to choose the relationship that we have with it, we can choose to interact with it in a different way. This self-compassion comes in, and obviously we talked about self-compassion in episode eight when we discussed compassion in general. So, for listeners that are interested in in learning more, the work of Kristin Neff, Dr. Kristin Neff, she's currently in the field, kind of like the preeminent researcher on self-compassion, which can be mentioned also Christopher Germer, Paul Gilbert's compassion in general. But self-compassion is behaviour of, as Kristin Neff defines it, that includes speaking to yourself in a kind way, radically accepting that you made a mistake or something happened you didn't like, and then recognizing a common humanity that we're all struggling. And I think the common humanity piece here, too, is recognizing we all are criticizing ourselves.

Pete: Everybody.

Nikki: Everybody, we're all stuck in that.

Pete: Sometimes I'll say like, “Shakira, how do you think she feels when she's getting on stage?” Even the most confident person will have… I don't know her personally, wish I did.

Nikki: We’re the same height.

Pete: But, knowing high performers and having worked with a variety of very successful people, they all have it, World Series, the NBA Finals, everyone's going to have a thought of, “Can I do this? Am I gonna win?”

Nikki: Right, and so you get to choose whether or not you… I'll say like, “give it the stage, or take the microphone away”. And we don't rip the microphone out of its hands, we can't fight the inner critic with more criticism, it's like we're not going to get into a shouting match. Another thing I’d also like to imagine is like, everybody's gone to a wedding where there's like, I don't know, distant cousin or uncle who's talking too long during the speech and saying some inappropriate stuff. But they're not about the guy or whatever. And so it's like I say, treat the inner critic that way, where it's like, “oh, okay”, like, “alright”, and just gently reach over and take the microphone away. You're just going to gently reach over and refocus back on the moment. And so no matter how loud it's yelling at you and it's hard. Sometimes our inner critic’s really loud. I mean, have you had that experience, where it’s like so loud?

Pete: Can I throw us a curveball?

Nikki: Yeah, throw us a curveball, because I don't treat eating disorders. But I guess what I've been wondering is like the body dysmorphia, and there's got to be someone listening that has struggled with how they look, because we all do, and you know that that's one of the major issues of eating disorders is a ton of research that shows that when they have the conceptualization of their body, it's completely distorted.

Nikki: Yeah, and I would say I also don't treat eating disorders or specialize in them. And this is where down the line; we're going to have Dr. Danielle,

Pete: A specialist.

Nikki: Dr. Danielle Keenan-Miller is going to come talk to us about this, she’s excellent. But yeah, I mean, absolutely. That is one version of the inner critic, can be on body image. And to be frank, and this does come up frequently in my work. Even if you don't struggle with an eating disorder, we all have negative body image thoughts. This just comes back to, this is hardwired.

Pete: Is there anyone who doesn't know?

Nikki: No, I mean, I don't think there is, because the inner critic is constantly evaluating.

Pete: Because even the people that are on social media. So we could bring that up, because social media is probably fostering the negativity around the self-critic. Honestly, social media is probably turning up the volume of the size of the self-critic.

Nikki: Oh, I'm sure it is. Because you know what, this is also important to say, because the inner critic is tied to perfectionism, a lot of times and social media is, and I say this all the time, Pete knows this. I have a lot of opinions on social media, and there are very helpful things about it, and they're also very unhelpful things. The very unhelpful thing is that it's a cultivated fantasy that people are presenting to the world. And so when you look at a glossy picture that says everything's amazing and wonderful, that's going to activate the inner critic like, “well, I know my life's not like that, I'm messing up,”

Pete: A lot of the times, it’s like new moms, where they’re like, they feel depressed, or they're sleep deprived, and then like they hate their new child. And they feel, self-critical goes crazy of like, “how do I not feel this joy?” And it's like, “because you're not sleeping.”

Nikki: That's right, and that's actually one of the first things I recommend to people is like, get off social media, because the inner critic is going to be there anyway. Take a break from social media, because we don't need extra things to turn the volume up.

Pete: Beat ourselves up, we don't need the help.

Nikki: No, we don't need help with that. So, I think it's important to actually, and it might sound funny, but we have to be compassionate to the inner critic.

Pete: When you say compassion, what else are other strategies you feel like that help lower the volume on the self-critic?

Nikki: I mean, obviously self-compassion really is the main one, but I think that it's hard; self-compassion is not an easy behaviour. It takes time, especially if the inner critics really loud. So this is a part of self-compassion. I start with mindfulness; I start the diffusion techniques that you're talking about. Like, “Can we just get a little space from these sticky loud thoughts?” So, if it's like super loud in your ear, it's like, “well, can you just notice like that that's a thought and refocus back on the moment”. Is that what you do as well?

Pete: Yeah, definitely mindfulness piece of it. I think social media, I use the screen time a lot with folks now, just to really limit their use. And it usually blows their mind, because a lot of us don't look at this screen time.

Nikki: Oh, well, now if you have an iPhone, it alerts you.

Pete: But you can shut that off. And I have a lot of clients that shut it off. And, I think when you actually see those numbers, the amount of time it's,

Nikki: Aversive,

Pete: It’s aversive

Nikki: It’s aversive, so yeah.

Pete: Thank you.

Nikki: Behavioural term here.

Pete: Aversive, meaning that account, it doesn't reinforce, it eliminates the behaviour.

Nikki: Well, it’s punishing.

Pete: It's punishing, it's punishing the behaviour to reduce it. So that as you see these hours going up, you're likely to at least commit to trying to make them go down. So that's probably one of the biggest strategies that I've used. And then, I think we do that a lot, of just like letting the thoughts float on clouds in the sky, it's a big part of the Zen world to kind of think of how Buddhism looks at this, it's not even a thing. It's just like, you just accepted the self-critic is there, and then we commit towards trying to build a relationship with it. And that's just part of our suffering.

Nikki: Right, absolutely. And, that part of interacting with it in a different way, that's building a relationship with it. I think what I would want listeners to really; maybe start with his understanding that, and people are so surprised when I say this, the inner critic, actually thinks it's helping you a lot of times. Because if we go back to this notion of, it's going to get you on your A game. It thinks that if it's hard on you, that it's going to help you do better and be better,

Pete: ‘I'll make you tougher’.

Nikki: Yeah, ‘I'm going to make you tougher’. And sometimes it also even comes from a place of fear. Like, it's afraid, “if I mess up, if I don't do it right, if I'm not perfect, then I'm going to be shamed”, or, “I'm going to get in trouble”, or “I'm not going to be successful”. So if we can actually start by understanding that the inner critic and it's extremely unhelpful and misinformed way, is trying to help us, I think that can bring some more compassion to it so that we're not shouting back at it. It's kind of; again, back to like the uncle that's going on too long. It's a wedding, we're like, “oh, like he means well, and that's not appropriate. I'm just going to gently take the mic away,”

Pete: And maybe practicing, that's also like a little bit of gratitude can be sprinkled in there where again, that's one of those challenges that we're embracing and saying like, “you know what, I'm okay with myself critic, and I'm not going to give that self-critic too much volume”.

Nikki: Yeah, you're going to notice that there, you’re going to notice that the volume is always going to be turned on, that that dial is broken. You can't just mute it. And you can learn to turn the volume down and take the mic away.

Nikki: This has been When East Meets West. I'm Dr. Nikki Rubin.

Pete: And I'm Dr. Pete Economou. Be present. Be brave.

Pete: This has been When East Meets West all material is based on opinion and educational training of doctors Pete Economou, and Nikki Rubin.

Nikki: Content is for informational and educational purposes only.