The inner critic: how to silence the negative thoughts that emerge in solitude

Kamran Ahmed

Solitude can be painful. The silence, the loneliness, the absence of mental stimulation from social interaction – and for many, enduring time alone with your thoughts.

If you’re struggling with this during the lockdown period, ironically you’re not alone. One study from psychologists at Virginia and Harvard universities found that many would rather give themselves an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. One reason why people find it so hard is their inner critic – that annoying voice in your head that chastises you and plays on your insecurities.

Everyone has one, but its dominance varies from person to person. I came to the realisation that my inner critic was louder than I wanted it to be while living alone for the first time (it’s probably why I had avoided living alone for so long in the first place).

Faced with its repeated assaults on my self-esteem, I decided it was time to take this villain on using a technique from my training to become a psychiatrist – cognitive behavioural therapy. Simple and effective, CBT teaches you to rationalise the negative thoughts that can make you feel down or anxious.

These troublesome negative thoughts are often derived from an unhelpful “core belief”, usually formed by your early experiences. Maybe you tried for the school football team but didn’t make the cut? Inner critic: “You’re a failure.” Maybe you were bullied at school or your parents were quick to criticise? Inner critic: “Nobody likes you.”

Your dastardly inner critic fires negative thoughts at you to persuade you that your core beliefs are facts. But thoughts are not facts, they are just ideas and like all ideas they need to be tested.

So whenever I was attacked with one of my own unhelpful core beliefs or any of its derivative negative thoughts, I started weighing up the evidence for and against them. With time and effort, I started to realise that my inner critic was spouting nonsense.

I’m a lot more comfortable with time alone now that I’ve discredited this voice. It still tries to feed me misinformation, of course, much like a conspiracy theorist on social media saying the coronavirus is a hoax or a consequence of 5G. I don’t entertain those views because they are not based on evidence, so why should I believe my inner critic?

So, what are your unhelpful core beliefs? If you want to silence your inner critic, start writing down the evidence for and against the negative things it says to you – then, you can see objective proof of their invalidity. When the inner critic uses a mishap to try and convince you of your shortcomings, look for other possible explanations.

It can be hard to see the positives when you’re stuck in a negative mindset, but with practice you can always find evidence against your inner critic’s views because they are so blinkered. Sure you have failed at some things, everyone has, but you have definitely succeeded at plenty of others.

Eventually you will have disproved your inner critic so much you will see it as a drunk relative at a family gathering, rambling on but not worth listening to. You will also realise that as any situation can be seen from different perspectives, why not choose the most helpful one?

There is, of course, room for positive change in all of us, but it should come from ourselves and not our inner critic, which is more interested in self-flagellation than self-improvement. If you can get a handle on this while in lockdown and learn how to rationalise your negative thoughts, it could make the whole experience easier. Your inner critic is holding you back in life by filling you with self-doubt, so overcoming it might just be the most useful thing you have ever done.