‘The critical voices in our own heads are far more vicious than what we might hear from the outside. Our “inside critics” have intimate knowledge of us and can zero in on our weakest spots.’ – Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy (SARK)
This is an update building on the foundation of an article I wrote in 2019 on managing your inner critic. Informed by the work of Dr Kristen Neff, and through an additional two years’ work with clients, this represents my further thinking on how best to deal with the Inner Critic (IC).
Everyone, including experienced and successful leaders experiences self-doubt which often manifests as critical self-talk. It is not unusual for most of us to have a voice telling us we’re ‘not good enough,’ or ‘we shouldn’t do this or that because we will fail in some way’. Hence managing it is a valuable skill. Imagine how useful it will be to turn down the volume on self-doubt and quieten that negative self-talk!
- Would you like to quieten your inner critic?
- Want to be more resourceful in leading yourself and others?
What is the Inner Critic (IC)?
In a nutshell, it is that voice in our head that expresses self-doubt. It is often a strand of thought that says we are not good enough and it may be one of many critical thoughts or voices we have – some may even be conflicting. And, as numerous scholars have pointed out, the IC can also be an expression of our safety instinct to keep us “safe” from emotional threat and in our comfort zone.
Let me share a few recent examples of how this shows up. A client comes to coaching as she is looking to transition into a new field. She has over 30 years of experience, achievement and successes and claims that “she has 30 year of experience and nothing to show for it.” Another client, with a doctorate and post-doctorate in epidemiology, when asked to list her top 3 strengths, can’t think of one. And yet another, an experienced academic, wants to develop and run her own course but is terrified by that nagging voice that tells her to “not rock the boat” after all she doesn’t know if she can do this. Despite developing and running courses for others for over 25 years.
There is some work to do around managing our inner critics!
Critic, by any other name
We all have inner critics. It goes by many names – critical self-talk, our gremlins, self-doubt, the devil at our shoulder, our saboteur, inner judge (in a very judgemental sense!), limiting beliefs, ego, critical parent, – or even ‘Nagging Nelly’. Call it what you will – it causes us problems and prevents us from feeling good and being our best selves.
However, you are not the critical voice. You are the person aware of the critical voice. The critic is one voice in you – which may have become the dominant voice. You are just hearing the voice. The critic is not the core of you. The core of you is the you of your aspirations, of your inner wisdom.
The IC is concerned about keeping you safe. It doesn’t care if you are fulfilled and self-actualised. If you listen to the IC, you will likely take fewer risks, and risk not making the contributions in life you would like to.
The foundational tool for dealing with the IC is to recognise the IC and name it for what it is.
What does the IC look/sound like?
- Harsh, rude, mean: Often this is a voice that you would not express to others i.e. “What’s wrong with you?!” “Why are you so x (stupid, lazy, uninteresting…)”.
- Either/or: You are super or a loser; fat or skinny, right or wrong. You are a great daughter or a terrible one. Usually, no room for gray.
- The voice of reason: The voice can appear as the voice of reason trying to protect your best interests. “If you put your name forward for this promotion you will look overconfident, you don’t have enough experience and you should wait for a while”.
- Comparisons: “Look at what she’s doing/accomplished, writing…what is wrong with you – why haven’t you done that?” Remember that comparison is the thief of joy.
- “You aren’t ready yet”: “You are not ready yet you need another degree, another 10 years experience and another 5 years in the field/HQ…”
- “You are not good at math/leadership/engineering/negotiating”: this often shows up in domains typically considered masculine.
- Body-perfectionism: dissatisfaction, criticism, hatred.
- Broken record: an automatic and constant voice that keeps telling you that you are not enough.
- Irrational but persistent: we may know it is not rational but it has power over us.
- Meta-judge: It judges you for having the critique that you already have i.e.: “I know I am not ready for this promotion” which is then amplified by a further judgement about this critique “Why do I keep putting myself down, I am really useless for thinking like this, of course I don’t deserve this promotion.”
- Inspired by people in your life: the voice may echo someone in your life i.e.: that of a mother, a stern professor, a challenging boss and/or cultural norms about women, mothers, professional, leader, etc.
Ignorance isn’t bliss
Some people try to ignore their inner critic; but they often find that the voice gets louder, or recurs more often, so this isn’t a great solution. That critical self-talk may seem automatic, unconscious and out of your control; but you can manage your inner critic.
In ‘When Your Toughest Conversations Are the Ones You Have with Yourself’, Erica Ariel Fox says, “leaders whose gravitas runs deep don’t run away from this struggle. The ones who make it to the top learn to deal with the universal voice of self-doubt head on.”
So what can you do?
Tips to manage your inner critic
Demonstrate self-leadership in the following ways – to address, challenge, or silence that inner critic.
1. Acknowledge it
Notice when it’s happening. Erica Ariel Fox (Harvard Business Review) says:,
“The negative voice in your head wants something. It wants to be heard. It needs something, too: a bit of compassion and friendly reassurance. When you provide these, the conversations with yourself start to go a lot better. Instead of silencing or denying that inner voice, respond to it.”
Noticing and naming the voice can be a powerful way to acknowledge its presence and diminish its power.
2. Recognise its protective intention and say thank you
If you recognize your IC as a protective instinct, what is your IC trying to protect you from? Sometimes that critical voice is just like an anxious child who needs reassurance. For one client, her IC kicked into high gear when she was about to start her own podcast with chatter such as “ what do YOU have to say? Who are YOU to be speaking about this issue/have a podcast” what if no one listens? After some exploration in our coaching sessions it was clear that her IC was concerned about her sharing her voice in such a visible way and what that could mean. Recognising this and assuring your IC that “youv’ve got this” is one way to turn down the noise.
3. Lead with values
Another powerful strategy is to replace your IC commentary with one of your core values. For example, if your IC is telling you that you need to continue to prepare and refine the content for an upcoming presentation (i.e., is urging you to fall into the trap of over-preparation) and one of your values is creativity, ask yourself: “how would I be approaching this process if I started from a place of creativity? What would I be doing differently?
4. Box it up/send away/Turn down the volume
Sometimes it helps to acknowledge when the IC is showing up: “You could have handled that better!” “I don’t think you should change jobs now,” and give yourself permission not to engage. Instead to either box up any negative feedback and put it aside or another useful image is to think of turning down the volume on a negative voice.
These are just a few ways to manage your inner critic. Stay tuned for my next piece that shares more tips and tools for managing your inner critic.
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