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Have you ever noticed your inner critic?
Inner critic: What kind of stupid question is that?!
My inner critic tends to speak up a lot. In fact, for many years I never noticed this critical voice in my head, even as it told me how useless I am, how much I'm failing, how everyone secretly doesn't like me...
I was so used to the constant stream of negative thoughts that I thought it was unavoidable.
Even when everything seemed to be going well, my inner critic would pipe up with words of doom, warning me that something terrible was going to happen. And that it was probably my fault.
It's no wonder I ended up living with terrible anxiety.
Inner critic: It's hardly MY fault you're too lame to take a little criticism. Sort yourself out!
I was scared of everything and nothing, all at the same time. I was afraid of panic attacks. I was convinced there must be something wrong with me. Sometimes it seemed like a phobia I understood – like being trapped somewhere. At other times I felt anxious about existing at all.
The anxiety got so bad I couldn't see a way out. I thought I'd broken something in myself, and that I was stuck with anxiety forever.
Luckily, that wasn't true.
There were many steps that helped me to get on top of the anxiety. One of the first was noticing the existence of my inner critic.
Inner critic: YOU'RE IGNORING ME TODAY THOUGH, AREN'T YOU? HYPOCRITE!
After paying more attention to my thoughts I began to notice how many of them were negative. Even when these thoughts were true, they weren't helpful.
I started to think of this negative stream as my 'inner critic'. Labelling these thoughts in this way helped me to tune them out when they showed up: "Oh, that's just my inner critic again."
(Of course, it's not always easy to tune out thoughts, and I failed a lot – which gave the inner critic something else to criticise! But with perseverance I got better at it.)
Relating to the Inner Critic Long-term
You might think that the best way to relate to the inner critic is to fight back, or to tell them to shut up, or to argue. But actually those ideas don't help very much.
After all, the inner critic is part of me – if I go to war with them, I'm just going to war against myself.
Instead, developing a better relationship with our inner critic seems to help.
Befriending the inner critic seems like such a terrible idea. After all, almost everything they say is unhelpful: "You suck... no-one likes you... why are you even bothering to try."
If a friend behaved like that to you, you'd probably reconsider whether or not they were a good friend.
But when I looked into why the inner critic said what they said, I realised it was usually trying to protect me. They were afraid that if I tried something difficult, I would fail, and that this would be bad for me.
My inner critic was trying to help me, but they're not smart-
Inner critic: Hey!
- and they only have one skill: criticism! So they just criticise... over-and-over again, because they don't know how to do anything else.
In real life when someone is trying to help but doesn't really know how, we usually are grateful - but we would also ignore their advice.
Applying this to my relationship with my inner critic helped a lot. Instead of getting frustrated whenever they spoke up, I thanked them for it and moved on. This way I didn't get angry with myself, or listen too much to their negativity.
Saying "thanks inner critic. I get that you're trying to help, but I don't need that help right now," is much more loving approach than getting into an internal war.
(Of course this is difficult too... love often requires more effort than fighting.)
Anxiety is complicated, and sadly there usually isn't just one magic wand we can wave to fix it.
But perhaps being grateful to your inner critic, and remembering that they're just a part of you that wants you to succeed, can help you to both be more loving to yourself and to ignore the negative thoughts of your inner critic.
Neil Hughes is the writer of 'Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life', a comedy book about anxiety.