The Inner Critic Deserves Some Respect

Your perfectionism-thriving inner critic doesn’t deserve to be on centre stage. Learn how to approach this inner voice with respect, understand its motivation and change the script of your inner dialog.
Tara Cousineau, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, meditation teacher and author.
Tara Cousineau, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, meditation teacher and author.

Have you ever noticed a nagging inner voice? The one that tells you what you should (or should not) be doing? Or maybe this voice admonishes you with, “Who do you think you are?” Or “What makes you so special?” Or else the narrative is motivational and propels you toward some goal. But when you reach it, you believe your effort or achievement is not enough. The goal posts keep moving.

You may be a perfectionist. I am. At least I’m a recovering one.  

It’s tricky though. You may wonder: What is the difference between perfectionism and striving for excellence? After all, you want to do your best, appreciate quality work, or want fine things.  And, yes, you want to “make it” in this world. After all, hard work pays off.

That’s all well and good. But at what cost?

There Are Two Kinds Of Perfectionism

As with most things there is a continuum, or an upside and a downside, to perfectionism. Healthy perfectionism is an appreciation for high quality and meeting goals, a love of learning and pride in accomplishments. This is associated with positive feelings, such as inspiration, happiness, joy, pride and positive self-regard. You may have an internal sense of working very hard and yet you feel energized and balanced. Failure may be a nuisance but it doesn’t destroy you. You keep at it or you redirect. There is psychological flexibility and a growth mindset.

In contrast, unhealthy perfectionism, especially the variety tied into meeting others’ expectations, is associated with negative emotions and poor mental health. Most worrisome is “socially prescribed perfectionism,” the feeling and unrelenting need to meet the expectations or demands of other people. This striving is driven by external forces, from social media, cultural ideals, peers, or is conditioned by unrealistic or stringent standards from our upbringing or education. The researcher and author Brené Brown calls this “hustling for worthiness.”

Unhealthy Perfectionism Is On The Rise

Consider the rating and ranking culture we now live in. It’s hard not to fall into the perfectionism trap. Failure is felt as a personal injury and feeling of shame. It can be hard to recover. Moreover, social psychology research indicates that unhealthy perfectionism is on the rise—and it’s not good for us.

Unhealthy perfectionism is exhausting. Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection:

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best.  

Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth.  

Perfectionism is not self-improvement.


Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule-following, people-pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, we adopt this dangerous and debilitating belief system:  I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.

And perhaps my favorite point:

Healthy striving is self-focused—How can I improve? 

Perfectionism is other-focused—What will they think?

It’s also important to be curious about the emotions related to perfectionism. Are they pleasant or unpleasant? How much fear and anxiety is rooted in believing that you are never doing enough or not worthy enough? What internal narratives fuel self-criticism and negative emotions?

Read more: Learn about the different types of negative self-talk and how to identify and overcome their triggers.

What’s Your Story?

One of the first things I invite you to notice is the negative mind loop. After all, each of us has a chorus of naysayers and judges constantly pointing out every perceived weakness or flaw. Sometimes the voice tells you to quit before even getting started. Yes, that imposter syndrome can keep you playing small. This can be ruinous if you close off your gifts, talents, interests or passions to yourself and the world.

Sometimes perfectionists will refrain from taking risks out of fear of failure or else drive themselves to workaholism, causing enormous stress and unnecessary suffering.

Name Your Inner Critic

Observing the inner dialog is one step in extracting oneself from self-flagellation. When you tune into your inner narrative, often there is surprise, if not shock, at how demeaning or demanding these voices are. (Tune in for 10 minutes and write down the words or stream of consciousness.)

We’re all pretty good scriptwriters, actors, producers and directors of our own mental movies. It’s pretty impressive, really. It’s quite a skill set albeit for the wrong use. Here’s the thing: We can recruit our imagination for our benefit or for harm. 

In my work as a psychologist it has been useful, and actually fun, to encourage people to name their inner critic. I even have a third chair in my office for it to join us. My willing clients  are very creative. For instance:

One young woman realized her inner voice was like the character “Monica”, on the show Friends… pretty tightly wound up about every detail. Her inner Monica would pipe up whenever she felt out of control with work, and she’d find every excuse to tidy up or fix something before she could get started.

Another man realized that his compulsion to join every opportunity or networking event in order to “optimize his resume” was really about a fear of missing that one key experience that just might hit the jackpot, such as getting that coveted internship or job at an investment firm. He was chronically exhausted. He called his inner critic FOMO.

One of my favorites is from a medical student who realized that her perfectionism, which caused her a paralyzing anxiety, including an inability to socialize or have any fun, was “robbing her of joy.” She called her inner critic “Mooch.”

Think about it, whether it’s an inner bully, a Judge Judy or a Nagging Ned, what might the voice be protecting you from? It’s probably the usual (and very human) suspects: failure, rejection or shame.

Change The Script

These negative or uncomfortable emotions are valuable cues. They serve as a signal and as an invitation to notice and befriend it. You may begin to silence it or at least by turning down the volume. You can assure it that “Hey, you’ve got this,” or “I’m going to try out something different this time.” You can practice being less harsh, and even kind, when facing failure, rejection or shame. When it comes to making mistakes or past regrets arise, you can try failing forward with self-compassion. Over time you’ll learn that you are stronger than you think you are. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying: “When you lose, don’t lose the lesson.”

There is resistance, I assure you, in embracing failure. That’s why — in addition to cultivating resilience, it is essential to have a soft heart. 

How? As you may suspect, we also harbor a kind and gentle voice. We need to give this voice more air time. In fact, it deserves a principal role in our mental theater. As with learning anything new, this requires practice to develop a counter narrative.

Practice Self-Kindness & Self-Compassion

You can create messages of kindness to meditate on and repeat, which calms your body and nurtures goodwill toward yourself. It’s essential to care for or “coach” the parts of yourself that are scared, vulnerable and critical, as if these unwanted aspects are friends in need. Treat yourself like you would a loved one, friend or buddy.

Rooted in the Mindful Self-Compassion method by Germer and Neff, the instructions for creating these mini-scripts are simple:

  1. Be clear. 
  2. Be authentic and true to your experience.
  3. Use a kind tone.

Whenever you need bolstering, you can craft a message by asking yourself: “What do I need to feel calm in my body?” or “How can I bring caring (or kindness or grit or courage) to this moment?” 

The answers are typically universal human needs: belonging, connection, encouragement, love, patience, protection, respect, tolerance, validation, and well-being. Here are some self-kindness kickstarters:

I am strong. I’ve got this.

I hold myself gently.

I love myself just as I am.

I trust in myself.

I am here for me, I am here for you.

I am enough.

Even though this feels hard, I will be kind toward myself.

I am beginning to feel love and kindness expand.

I will be okay.

This [fear] will pass.

In each lesson of her course “Overcome Perfectionism Through Self-Compassion”, Tara Cousineau explores a skill that can support you in understanding perfectionism with “kindsight.” The 10-day journey helps you reshape your relationship with perfectionism. Listen to day one now:

  1. Lesson 1: Healthy vs. Unhealthy Perfectionism Tara Cousineau, PhD

The Inner Critic Doesn’t Play The Principal Role

Your self-compassion statements can change over time. It is wise to try them on for size, even if at first a statement may not fit or feel awkward. In this case, a wise inner voice might say, “This is how you take care of yourself. It may take some getting used to!”

While the inner critic deserves acknowledgement it doesn’t belong on center stage. It has a bit part to play once you notice the motivation it has in stopping you from being hurt or rejected. These inner critical characters do not like to be demoted to a cameo appearance, so beware of push back. 

The wise voice, however, deserves center stage. The wise voice also doesn’t want you to be in pain or distress but it has a different approach than the inner critic. It helps you take in the goodness of who you really are and treat yourself with care and respect. Allow it to have airtime throughout the day.  

After all, practice makes progress.

Read more: Discover the six keys of self-compassion and learn how to practice self-love every day.

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