Food & The Inner Critic: Self-Compassion Instead of Negativity

Sonja Overhiser | A Couple Cooks

This post is part of our Healthy & Whole series to inspire a lifelong passion for home cooking and a sustainably healthy lifestyle. See the entire series here.

You’ve heard it before: that nagging voice in your head, inserting little jabs: You’re such a screw up. You said you’d eat healthy this week and now you’ve blown it. Might as well give up trying. My guess is at times, you’ve heard similar jabs about your work, your intelligence, your body, your face, your personality, your clothes — pretty much everything about you.

Meet: your inner critic. It’s that critical voice in your head that judges and demeans you, making you feel bad, wrong, inadequate, worthless, and guilty. Unchecked, it can lead to problems like low self-esteem, disorders, and depression.

I’ve struggled with a very loud inner critic for years. It drowns out positive messages and instead tells me I shouldn’t have eaten that chocolate bar, my nose is too big, I’m an uncaring friend, my recipes are dreadful, and my writing is unengaging. But guess what: according to experts, we all have an inner critic. The fact that the inner critic is a thing in itself makes me relieved. Nearly every human on the planet struggles with inner negativity towards themselves. I don’t know about you, but I find that comforting.

So what does this have to do with food and health? Everything, I would argue. I believe that for many, the inner critic is a massive obstacle to the ability to incorporate nutritious foods into our diet and maintain a positive relationship with food. Imagine all of the negative messages the inner critic might try on someone looking to make a change to a healthy lifestyle (which you likely have heard yourself). It’s no wonder we sneak into the kitchen for ice cream then criticize ourselves into a guilty mess, miss working out one night and stop it all together, or bomb making a healthy meal and resolve we can’t cook.

There are many theories on how to combat the inner critic, but what I’d first like to emphasize is if you are wrestling with inner negativity, you are not alone. We all struggle with an inner critic that seeks to paralyze and destroy instead of build up and encourage! The most widely accepted methods for addressing this inner voice can be summarized in two simple steps:

  • Awareness. Simply be aware that the inner critic exists and start to hear that voice for what it is.
  • Self-compassion. Listen to the inner critic and determine whether the message you’ve heard is true. If it’s a lie, replace it with a positive statement of truth about yourself.

It sounds deceptively simple, but I’ve found this method to work incredibly well in practice. I use a buddy system with my husband Alex, who has become a pro at calling out the lies of the inner critic and helping me to replace them with positive statements about myself, my work, and my ability to make healthy choices.

While I don’t know many of you reading this personally, I do know this: you are valuable and loved–no matter what you look like, what your personality is, how smart you are, or what decisions you’ve made. And you can make healthy choices, even if yesterday you ate too much ice cream or obsessively ate chips or skipped your daily exercise. There is no need for perfection. Strive to do your best today, and if you fail, there is room tomorrow to try again. To me, those words are like a sigh of relief — they give me room to be human. And replacing the lies of the inner critic with positive, self-affirming words were a crucial step for me on the journey towards health.

How about you? Do you have an inner critic? What gets in the way of a healthy approach to food? We’d love to hear from you!

More on the Inner Critic (used as references)
Bust Your Inner Critic – 8 Simple Tools (Tara Mohr)
Silencing the Inner Critic – The Power of Self-Compassion (GoodTherapy.org)
Critical Inner Voice (PsychAlive.org)
Why We Need to Have Compassion for Our Inner Critic (Dr. Kristin Neff)
More Questions About the Inner Critic (Psychology Today)
The Inner Critic: Accepting Ourselves (Kali Munro)

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About the Authors

Sonja Overhiser

Cookbook Author and writer

Sonja Overhiser is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best healthy cookbooks of 2018. She’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the food blog A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Sonja seeks to inspire adventurous eating to make the world a better place one bite at a time.

Alex Overhiser

Cookbook Author and photographer

Alex Overhiser is an acclaimed food photographer and author based in Indianapolis. He’s host of the food podcast Small Bites and founder of the recipe website A Couple Cooks. Featured from the TODAY Show to Bon Appetit, Alex is author of Pretty Simple Cooking, named one of the best vegetarian cookbooks by Epicurious.

28 Comments

  • Reply
    Lisa
    September 30, 2015 at 11:40 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. I also struggle with a loud inner critic. This was exactly what I needed to read this evening. Thanks!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 1, 2015 at 10:42 am

      Wow, I’m SO glad this caught you at an opportune moment! Thanks for writing, and let us know if you need any additional critic busting affirmation :)

  • Reply
    Tori
    October 1, 2015 at 5:17 am

    This is such an inspiring and down to earth post, thanks for sharing! I’d find it very hard to believe anyone who said that they didn’t have an inner critic, I know I have always struggled like you. I find that getting my mind off of me and thinking about others is one of things that helps me the most.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 1, 2015 at 10:41 am

      You are so welcome, and thanks for commenting! It is so encouraging to know that we’re all working on coping together :)

  • Reply
    Feestzaal
    October 1, 2015 at 8:44 am

    Hi Sonja,
    Thanks for sharing your experience about embracing health instead of negativity. Nice Article!!

  • Reply
    Kerry
    October 1, 2015 at 10:31 am

    Thank you for this wonderful post! I struggle with a very loud and outlandishly opinionated inner critic (she rolled her eyes at that alliteration). I’ve learned it can be a major effort to hush her down and choose to accept that I’m trying my best every day, but it is worth fighting for.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 1, 2015 at 10:39 am

      Yes! One of the articles I read also suggested training your inner critic to have more constructive criticism — thought that was an interesting take as well! Also, please let your inner critic know that I thoroughly enjoyed your alliteration. :) Thanks for the note!

  • Reply
    LC
    October 1, 2015 at 12:22 pm

    I have followed your blog for a while now and each post hits closer and closer to home. This one in particular. Thank you for taking the time to discuss your inner demons and in so creating a space that is open to conversation and growth. I appreciate it to no end and I look forward to learning more from you.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 1, 2015 at 1:44 pm

      Thank you so much for this kind comment! That you find this space open for conversation and growth is huge, since it’s the environment we try to create, both virtually and in “real life”. Thank you so much!

  • Reply
    Kathryn @ The Scratch Artist
    October 1, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Hi Sonja,
    After seeing your Instagram account last night I popped over to read your food + guilt post and then I saw this post in my feed this afternoon. I love reading your Healthy + Whole Series. One of the intentions I have when creating content for my site is to engage people in exactly the discussion you have posted here today. My method is by sharing my inner world with readers. I learn best from seeing what others are going through (sounds like you do too). Like you I have found awareness of the critic extremely valuable. Instead of going down the rabbit hole every time I hear the negative voice, I can now hear it from a different perspective. As in, there I go again thinking everything I do/am is trash. At that point I just have to let the tape play out…and I don’t have to let it take hold of me the way it did when I was younger. Thank you for creating this series and for sharing yourself here as honestly as you do. It makes a difference.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 1, 2015 at 10:34 pm

      Thank you so much, Kathryn – what you said means a lot! I took a look at your site and it looks lovely; I love the open, personal vibe you’ve created! It sounds like you have a great coping mechanism for the inner critic — and I agree, I feel like awareness is 90% of the battle. Thank you so much for reading and enjoying the Healthy + Whole series!

  • Reply
    Rachel
    October 1, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    Such an important conversation! Thank you for sharing this. My inner critic, for one, is a loudmouth, and I am encouraged to hear your strategies for recognizing and dealing with this little monster. Keep up the good work, and your nose is beautiful!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 1, 2015 at 10:35 pm

      Haha, why thank you! Your nose comment made me giggle today. :) I wish you the best of luck with your critic too! xo

  • Reply
    Katrina
    October 1, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    YES! This totally resonates. I dug up an old blog post about it – http://katyat34.typepad.com/blog/2011/09/my-inner-critic-carries-a-megaphone.html

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 1, 2015 at 10:36 pm

      Wow, what a post! Thank you for being so raw and open. It’s interesting how writing it out can help to expose the lies behind that little voice — did you find that as you wrote it? Thanks for sending this over. xo

  • Reply
    Elizabeth
    October 1, 2015 at 9:10 pm

    Sonja, thank you for this incredibly inspiring, kind and helpful post. Like many who have chimed in–I too struggle with an inner critic; one that has been especially vocal this week! It can feel so isolating to deal with inner negative thinking. By offering this up for conversation, you’ve taken some of the power away from those hard, and often shameful, thoughts. It is so appreciated.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 1, 2015 at 10:41 pm

      Thank you, Elizabeth! It truly means so much to know this resonated at the right time for you. I’ve been thinking about writing about it for quite a while, and I appreciate you commenting. It’s funny how bringing the issue out into conversation can help…and how it’s so easy to forget and fall into isolation, as you’ve mentioned!

  • Reply
    Taylor
    October 1, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    This is a really great article! We can be so hard on ourselves. I wish everyone could hear words like this.

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 1, 2015 at 10:43 pm

      Thank you, Taylor! I agree — it’s a shame human nature can’t have more self-compassion, right?!

  • Reply
    Katie @ Whole Nourishment
    October 2, 2015 at 3:54 am

    This is one of your best posts Sonja! You’re so right, this is a huge topic for all of us. It wasn’t until I had an ah-ha moment realizing that I am *not* my thoughts – my thoughts don’t define me, they’re simply a perception of reality (usually the wrong perception), not reality itself. And to know that I have a choice over how much power I give my thoughts, or that inner critic, is motivating. Happiness and contentment is often a choice as much as it is a feeling, isn’t it?! :)

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 5, 2015 at 9:50 pm

      Katie, you are too kind! Thank you for your constant words of encouragement. Strongly agree about choosing contentment — and not just a choice, but a daily one at that! Thanks again for walking along in this journey…we both love your insights and everything you contribute to the conversation on wellness!

  • Reply
    Ashley
    October 2, 2015 at 9:49 am

    You are such a light in this world and you both bring so much to the ever-growing blog world. This topic is almost completely un-talked about but it’s so incredibly important. I think another HUGE inner critic message is making yourself believe you’re the only one who feels like they’ve failed at something or like something is only hard for you, and that everyone else seems to be doing just fine! But by opening up about topics like this we see that everyone has this inner critic and we can all find a little comfort and peace in that, and in turn help each other through it or at least know/feel we’re not alone. xo!!!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 5, 2015 at 9:56 pm

      What sweet words–thank you, Ashley! You are too kind. Yes, the inner critic is so good at isolating us into a corner where thinking we’re the only ones struggling. What’s funny is how I fall for it (almost) every time! Looking forward to chatting about this more. xo

  • Reply
    Erika
    October 2, 2015 at 10:38 am

    This is something with which I’ve really been struggling with a lot lately. It’s so easy to forget to control that inner critic when you need to control it most. This post came at the most perfect time. Last week was a pretty rough battle with my inner critic. As a graduate student, I’ve been dealing with a lot of test anxiety and allowing the fear of disappointing my professors, parents, friends, etc. to control how I feel about everything else in my life.

    This post is so wonderful because often it feels like I’m the only one dealing with this inner critic when I see only the good, happy parts of my friends’ lives on social media. I really appreciate your honesty and bravery in sharing your experiences with your inner critic. I think it’s really important for young women to understand that it’s normal and that others are dealing with the same inner battles, instead of thinking everyone, but you, has a perfect life.

    One thing I’ve learned to do when I start feeling overwhelmed by my inner critic is to repeat to myself (until I believe it) “This does not define me!”

    Thank you again for writing so openly.!!

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 5, 2015 at 10:03 pm

      You are so welcome and thank you for the thoughtful response, Erika! Yes, it does become difficult to remember that there’s a lot of struggle out there when faced with beautiful Instagram images, and it’s easy to make assumptions that others have “perfect” lives. Oh, if a perfect life existed! :/ Thanks for being open and sharing about your struggles and fear of disappointment in school — that’s a whole separate topic that would be interesting to tackle sometime as well. Best of luck in your studies — we’re rooting for you!

  • Reply
    Sarah | Well and Full
    October 2, 2015 at 5:47 pm

    This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I had this realization the other day that the way I talk to myself is absolutely cruel. I mean, I would NEVER speak to someone else the way I talk to myself, in my own head. We all have an inner monologue, and mine’s just a diatribe against myself, constantly. But I genuinely don’t even realize it. I’m so used to it, that I don’t even question when I say, “get out of bed you lazy loser” or something like that :( . It seems so obvious writing it, but self-negativity is the norm for me. I’m trying to get better though. And I really appreciate you bringing this to light :)

    • Reply
      Sonja
      October 5, 2015 at 10:08 pm

      Ugh, I know! In my readings about the inner critic it said that the reason we have it is basically to “shame” ourselves into good behavior before others do. Interesting, but why couldn’t that voice use positive reinforcement? haha Would have been nice to have learned about this earlier in life, right? (For me at least!) Thanks for writing. xo

  • Reply
    Jessica @ Jessica in the Kitchen
    September 5, 2016 at 12:50 am

    This is such a great article. Thank you so much – it really helped, especially since that voice was very present today despite my efforts to shut it down like 5 times. After reading about this, it reminds of “don’t try to turn it off, change the channel” and not trying to merely shut down the thought, but to analyse it and insert the truth.

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