What Is the “Inner Critic” in Psychology? (+ Its 5 Effects)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Chatter" by Ethan Kross. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is meant by the term “inner critic”? Why do people believe their inner critic?

In psychology, the inner critic is the part of your psyche that criticizes, discourages, and puts your down. It is the voice in your head that constantly chastises you, fixates on negative memories, and worries excessively about negative scenarios.

Let’s explore how over time, your inner critic can harm your success, happiness, and health.

Effect 1: Increasingly Negative Feelings

In popular psychology, the inner critic has become a popular concept. It refers to the part of you that grumbles, “You’re a failure” after you make a mistake or do something silly.

According to neuroscientist and psychologist Ethan Kross, your inner critic prompts a vicious cycle in your brain that makes you feel worse. Let’s break down the steps in this cycle:

Step 1: Critical self-talk stresses you out or worsens your existing stress.

Step 2: Your brain activates a threat response. Your hypothalamus, a region in your brain, interprets your stress as a threat. To prepare your body to fight this perceived threat, the hypothalamus activates a threat response similar to the one you experience when facing a physical threat. This response sends hormones into your bloodstream that speed up your heartbeat, raise your blood pressure, and increase your energy levels.

Step 3: Your brain’s threat response makes you feel worse, which amplifies your negative self-talk. Your internal critic reflects your increasingly negative feelings by becoming increasingly cynical.

How to Interrupt a Cycle of Negative Self-Talk

Some psychologists claim that you can interrupt this cycle of negative self-talk through self-compassion: consciously engaging in gentle, kind self-talk. While Kross shares a variety of strategies for quieting your self-talk (which we’ll explore later), self-compassion isn’t a strategy he touches on. 
To interrupt your negative self-talk with self-compassion, use any of the following strategies:

Take deep breaths. Research reveals that deep breathing reduces your body’s threat response. 

Question your internal critic’s negative words. First, write down your stream of negative self-talk. Then, evaluate what you wrote down by asking how true each statement is. This technique helps you identify negative self-talk that’s overly critical or exaggerated.

Summon honest, optimistic thoughts to “talk back to” your negative self-talk. For instance, imagine that a publisher rejected your manuscript. You may think, “I’ll never be a writer.” To combat this, summon a more honest, optimistic thought: “A lot of writers face rejections early in their career. I’ll keep sending my work to publishers—maybe there’s a publisher out there who would be thrilled to publish my work.”

Effect 2: Reduced Access to Your Skills  

Negative self-talk not only makes you feel worse—it also makes you perform worse. Kross explains that when your internal critic plagues your mind, you lose access to some of your skills. Specifically, you can lose access to automatic skills stored in your muscle memory (such as driving a car, dancing, or reading). 

To understand why negative self-talk has this effect, we have to understand your brain’s executive functions. These are the jobs your brain performs to guide you through your day, such as shifting your attention to a new task and holding information temporarily in your mind. Kross explains that when you’re immersed in negative self-talk, your brain—which has limited capacity—lacks enough energy to fully perform its executive functions. 

(Shortform note: If negative self-talk reduces your access to your skills, as Kross claims, is the opposite also true—that positive self-talk makes you more skillful? Research suggests that the answer is yes. For instance, a recent study found that basketball players who engage in positive self-talk make more free throw shots compared to players who don’t. Researchers theorize that positive self-talk increases a player’s ability to pay close attention to their shot. Since directing and sustaining your attention is one of your brain’s executive functions, this research suggests that positive self-talk makes you more skillful via your executive functions.)

Effect 3: Social Isolation 

Third, Kross argues that your negative self-talk harms your social relationships and makes you feel isolated. He describes two ways in which this happens:

1) You behave aggressively. Kross cites research revealing that people who repeatedly verbalize their negative self-talk are more likely to act aggressively. Negative self-talk multiplies our frustration, and we unfairly direct it toward others. (Shortform note: Acting aggressively may do more than harm your social relationships: In many countries, certain forms of aggression, like violence or intimidation, can have legal consequences.)

2) You frustrate and repel others. When you repeatedly share your negative self-talk with others (whether verbally or in writing), people may grow frustrated with your negativity and start avoiding you. 

(Shortform note: Other experts identify more subtle, insidious ways that your negative self-talk can harm your relationships. For instance, your internal critic may critique your choices, such as your choice of a romantic partner. You may worry excessively that you have poor judgment and chose a partner who’s not right for you. Furthermore, your negative self-talk may inundate you with thoughts that you’re unlovable. Both of these types of self-talk make it harder to commit to and experience intimacy with your partner. This in turn may lead to the effect Kross outlines here: your partner feeling frustrated and repelled by your lack of commitment.)

Effect 4: Poor Mental Health

Kress contends that negative self-talk also degrades your long-term mental health. He explains that people who deal with depression and anxiety often have an overactive internal critic. 

(Shortform note: Research demonstrates the links between negative self-talk, mental health issues, and social isolation. Studies reveal that for some people with anxiety and depression, negative self-talk can cause them to self-isolate; for others, it can cause them to be overly negative, which drives others away. Both outcomes reduce a person’s access to a mental health support network. Later, we’ll explore Kross’s strategies for deepening your connections and access to your support network as a way to reduce your negative self-talk.)

Effect 5: Poor Physical Health

Lastly, Kross provides evidence that negative self-talk also harms your physical health. When you can’t switch off your internal critic, your hypothalamus activates a threat response, quickening your heartbeat and releasing stress hormones. If your negative self-talk persists for too long, this physical threat response does as well. This causes problems related to chronic stress, such as heart problems and insomnia.

(Shortform note: Kross discusses the negative effects of self-talk on your physical health, but he doesn’t discuss ways to manage symptoms of chronic stress. Experts recommend the following treatments: 1) improving your physical well-being (such as through exercise, getting plenty of sleep, and healthy eating); 2) improving your mental well-being (such as through mindfulness meditation and engaging in leisure activities); and 3) reducing stressors by learning strategies for time management and realistic goal-setting.)

What Is the “Inner Critic” in Psychology? (+ Its 5 Effects)

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  • How negative self-talk interferes with your happiness, health, and success
  • Research-based strategies for managing negative self-talk
  • Four actionable tips for quieting your internal cynic

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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