Back in 1992, a certain New York real estate mogul told a reporter from New York magazine that you have to treat women “like shit.” That was a perfect summary of his philosophy, but it may be an even better descriptor for the way many women treat themselves—or, rather, how they’re treated by a persistent, harping, critical voice in their head. That critical voice, as it happens, is a fixture in the minds of an astonishing number of women, myself included.
You’ll never be good enough, the voice often whispered to me, making it difficult to focus on my work. Sooner or later, I began to wonder how this voice-that-won’t-stop got inside my head and into the minds of so many other women I’d talked to. It turns out that such an “inner critic,” as it’s called, has everything to do with what women hear around them all the time, including the sorts of messages spewed by that real-estate-mogul-turned-president. It’s a phenomenon that matters a great deal at this political moment and should get far more attention than it does—but I’ll get to that in a minute.
Trust me when I say that I derive no pleasure from quoting our current president, but in this case I shouldn’t avoid it. He’s a veritable fountainhead of the sort of unsavory and unsettling messages that women encounter as they go about their regular lives. To take but one example from an apparently limitless source, Donald Trump has a penchant for lambasting women who don’t look like models. (The horror!) When New York Times columnist Gail Collins wrote critically of his finances, for instance, he clipped the article, circled her picture, and mailed it to her along with a note that said, “The face of a dog!” Decent he may not be, but he does give unambiguous voice to the (usually more subtle) ways in which women are judged for their looks and often dismissed as incompetent because of them.
This is a big deal because we humans naturally absorb our environment and often inwardly rehash stuff we hear around us. In other words, what we take in from our surroundings influences our “inner speech,” the conversations we have with ourselves in the silence of our minds. According to psychology professor Charles Fernyhough, author of the acclaimed book The Voices Within, our inner speech is shaped by the social worlds we inhabit. “Other people’s words get into our heads,” he explains. We absorb an assortment of verbal cues from others and those cues turn out to influence the way we talk privately to ourselves.
This unconscious process of sponging up messages from our environment explains a whole lot about why women develop such wicked inner critics.
Men, too, can suffer from inner criticism, though it appears to affect women more profoundly. While researchers can’t directly measure the negativity of people’s private thoughts, they can measure self-regard and evidence shows that women persistently sell themselves short, while men tend to overestimate themselves. Starting at a young age, people instinctively absorb the words of family members, peers, teachers, television shows, and Facebook posts; everything, in short, that’s around them. In the process, girls and women tend to glean certain messages about their gender and themselves. Then they develop that inner critic that sounds so convincingly like what they’ve been hearing.
“Why Would They Love You?”
“Your thighs are ugly and they color all of you ugly,” said the inner critic to a white woman who counsels adolescents, one of dozens of women I queried about their experience with this interior voice. “You put on so much weight and that’’s why he’s leaving you,” the critic said to an African-American woman busy juggling work and school. “Your hair is just not right and your feet are too ugly for sandals,” it said to a woman who came out as gay only after living most of her life as a straight person.
Such voices reflect the negativity regularly directed at women in the everyday world—negativity that spotlights our supposed shortcomings, like Trump’s “face of a dog” comment. Yet even as women absorb perpetual disapproval regarding how we look and constantly worry about our appearance, the inner critic also faults us for spending so much time dwelling on something so trivial. “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just accept yourself?” it said to a tenure-track professor. “You pretend you don’t care about your looks but actually you do care and you care so much it’s pathetic,” it said to…well, me.
Trump lambasts women who don’t look like models, yet he also attacks ones who do, as when he feuded with former corporate defense attorney and Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. Finding her questioning disagreeable at the first Republican debate, where she served as one of the moderators, he took to Twitter to use her looks against her, diligently retweeting people who called her a “bimbo.”
That’s the thing about being considered an attractive female: people tend to assume that you must not be smart or competent—another kind of bind that worms its way into women’s heads. “No one will take you seriously as long as you look like that,” said the critic in the mind of an ambitious twenty-something who had been told years before by her sixth-grade teacher that she ought to dress conservatively to compensate for her big breasts. “Don’t shine too much,” said the critic to a smart, attractive woman who holds a director-level position at a national environmental organization.
So women learn that they’re in trouble if they either look too good or too plain according to prevailing standards, and that’s just one of several unmanageable measures that almost invariably end up embedded in their inner monologues. Here’s another: women tend to be put down and dismissed for being either assertive or candid (even as men are regularly rewarded for both of those qualities). On the other hand, according to the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University, women who exhibit stereotypically “feminine” attributes like friendliness and compassion aren’t viewed as leaders and have trouble getting promoted.
Internalizing this no-win situation, women expend an ungodly amount of energy trying to formulate just the right personality. A survey conducted by MSNBC and Elle magazine found that women worry about coming off as “too confident and aggressive for fear of being labeled bitchy. But they also don’t want to be wishy-washy or risk being called indecisive or emotional.” That bind often manifests itself as an inner critic that finds them inadequate in every way. “You will never truly fit in,” said a voice inside the head of a Latina communications professional.
In the event that women do break through that specter of self-doubt and vocalize their opinions, they tend to get smacked down for it—by voices without and within. During a Republican primary debate in which all the candidates continuously interrupted and talked over one another, Donald Trump singled out Carly Fiorina, the lone female on stage, asking the audience, “Why does she keep interrupting everybody?” Naturally, he didn’t fault his male competitors for doing the same thing, just the woman among them. Ten and a half months later, after he’d advanced to the general election, facing Hillary Clinton in their first debate, he thought nothing of interrupting her on 51 separate occasions, including 25 times in the first 26 minutes, an astonishing oratorical feat.
This may make Trump sound like a uniquely egregious blowhard, but his behavior turns out to be quite illustrative, even if in an exaggerated way and on a really big stage, of a common double standard. Social science research has, for example, found that teachers tend to permit boys to answer questions out of turn. But the same behavior from girls is often met with a scolding.
Girls observe and absorb such double standards, as well as the criticism they receive for speaking up. Then they police themselves. As adults in professional settings, women talk a lot less than men when they’re outnumbered by the opposite sex—75 percent less, according to a team of researchers from Princeton and Brigham Young universities. And if they do dare say something, they tend to hear an inner voice telling them that they sound dumb.
“God, I just said such a stupid thing,” a campaign director at a national advocacy organization thought to herself. “You don’t want to come off as an angry black woman, do you?” said the inner critic to an executive recruiter. To a nationally recognized artist: “You sound like a dumb girl.” To a Ph.D. with a successful career in higher education, “I shouldn’t have talked so much.” And to a thirty-something paralegal: “Your boss thinks you’re an idiot, and it’s because you are one.” You can imagine how much she speaks up.
In an attempt to outrun such criticism and those voices echoing in their heads, many women wear themselves out striving for perfection. As one researcher summarized the situation, ambitious women “exist by putting out maximum energy at all times, trying to do everything and do it well. It is not enough that they attempt to be outstanding in their work; their perfection complex also causes them to strive for a Jane Fonda body, a house that could be on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, and perfect children.” They think they’re only okay if they’re flawless—and in the end often come to believe that they’re unlovable. (Depression, as it happens, is more common among women.)
“If other people really knew you, they wouldn’t love you,” said the inner critic to a newly married woman. “You should just accept that you’re going to be alone for the rest of your life,” it said to an Asian-American woman in her thirties. To a writer and teacher who volunteers her time helping the mentally distressed, the critic, speaking of her friends, said, “Why would they love you?”
Calling Out the Inner Critic
If all of this sounds like a major downer, there’s some upbeat news buried in it. After I spent months informally surveying women about that voice in our heads, a surprising thing happened. While it was painful to hear the ruthless things we regularly think about ourselves, I found an overwhelming commonality among us as well. At first I had just wanted to understand the critic in my own head. What I discovered was a practically identical voice ricocheting around in nearly all the women I knew. And that taught me that there isn’t something wrong with any one of us, a realization that gave me a powerful feeling of solidarity with all those other women in (and not in) my life.
I also started confronting my own inner critic. Surprisingly enough, my efforts were remarkably successful. A simple approach—countering its negative declarations with positive ones of my own—proved to be a potent antidote. I’m not talking about anything fancy. “I’m doing a pretty damn good job,” I started saying to myself as a rejoinder to that critic. After a while, that positive declaration became a knee-jerk response and provided an exhilarating upgrade on the old negative tune.
All of this has implications for our present poisonous political climate. It’s easy enough to feel hopeless, given our no-longer-so-new president and his unnerving administration, yet these findings about the inner critic suggest that some powerful forms of resistance to the world Donald Trump represents are accessible close to home. In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes that part of activism—maybe a big part of it—involves embodying the values you’re trying to promote. “If your activism is already democratic, peaceful, creative,” she writes, “then in one small corner of the world these things have triumphed.”
In the case of the inner critic, the corner of the world in question is the interior terrain of your own mind. There, it’s entirely possible to call out the critic’s refrain as grade-A bullshit—and then proceed accordingly.