Does this sound familiar? We’ve all heard that snarky little voice in our head, tearing us down and criticizing us for scolding the kids or forgetting a friend’s birthday. But left unchecked, that negative voice – our inner critic – can take over our lives, leaving us in a tornado of self-doubt.
Of course, self-reflection is an important aspect of our spiritual lives. No one is perfect, and we all fail more often than we’d like. Repentance and confession help bring us closer to God. But there’s a world of difference between realizing we’ve slipped up (or failed spectacularly!), and being held hostage to a continual, destructive internal voice. So how can we learn to tame our inner critic and live our lives in the fullness of God’s love for us?
Negative self-talk is all about guilt and condemnation. When we listen to that negative voice, we feel discouraged, perhaps believing that we’ll never be able to break free and move on. We’re on a quest for perfection and anything less is a total failure. At its worst, this kind of thinking can lead to despair and depression.
Maybe these messages have come from an abusive parent or partner. Even the most confident person will believe they are worthless if they’re told that continually.
An important step to defeating our inner critic is to learn to recognize the voice. When a negative phrase pops into your head, take a moment to check for the telltale signs of self-condemnation. Words like ought, should, and must are featured prominently in critical self-talk. “I ought to pray and read my Bible more.” Fatalistic comments, such as, “I never get things right,” are another form of self-criticism. And leaping to swift judgments, like “I could never achieve that,” are also self-defeating.
You’ll probably find you have key areas where you’re vulnerable to your inner critic. Perhaps you’re unhappy with your body? Maybe you struggle with spiritual discipline? And we all have particular habits we wish we didn’t, such as losing our temper or spending too much.
I’m often attacked by my mean inner critic, but over the years I’ve learned some helpful strategies to fight back. I remember that God’s love for me is infinite and doesn’t depend on whether I’m doing well or messing things up completely. I reinforce God’s unconditional love with these four practices:
Listening to music
Uplifting worship music is one way to tame your inner critic. One of my favorite songs contains the line: “When I give up, He still loves me as much as when I’m doing the best I can” (“Being Myself in Jesus,” Graham Kendrick).
Picking up a good book
I read encouraging books that remind me that I’m precious to God, even when I’ve completely blown it, such as “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning and “What’s so Amazing About Grace?” by Philip Yancey. God’s love for me doesn’t depend on how well I think I’m doing but on God’s grace.
Reading the Bible
The Bible is a powerful weapon when rebuffing your inner critic. Search for specific scriptures that speak positively into your situation, then post them around your home (sticky notes on your mirror, tuck them in your Bible, or create a beautiful bookmark).
When I’m stricken with guilt over something I’ve done, I remember St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “So whoever is in Christ is a new creation.” When my jeans are too small, it’s encouraging to remember that Samuel was told: “God does not see as a mortal, who sees the appearance. The Lord looks into the heart.” And one of my true favorites is Saint Paul’s prayer that we “May have the strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.”
When I feel as though I’ll never measure up to God’s ideal, this prayer reminds me that God’s love for me is truly infinite, despite my faults. When I struggle with self-worth, and others seem to be succeeding in their spiritual walk where I’m failing, I remember how the Gospels are full of examples where Jesus treated outcasts with love and compassion, even in the face of condemnation from the spiritual authorities of the day.
Reframing negative self-talk
Another helpful hint is to consciously replace self-critical comments with a more positive alternative. Instead of saying “I could never do that,” change the narrative to “What would I need to change so I could do that?” If I need a lesson in how to be kind to myself, I consider whether I’d ever make that comment to someone else. I would never dream of accusing a friend with the words, “You’re always so stupid!” So why would I allow my inner critic to say it to me?
I’m a work in progress, and I’ll continue to be one for the rest of my life. But knowing that God loves me unconditionally is helping me learn to love myself. Not how I think I should be, but exactly as I am. And that’s a start.