Critical voices and managing your inner critic

‘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)

Are you your own worst critic? Even great leaders are sometimes troubled by their own critical self-talk. Many people are so self-critical that they doubt themselves and their abilities. This can even lead to ‘imposter syndrome’ – whereby people believe they are not as capable as they seem and are fearful of being ‘found out’ as imposters. No matter how successful they are, or how much people admire them, they still tell themselves they’re ‘not good enough,’ or berate themselves for self-perceived inadequacies. From time to time, we all experience some critical inner monologue – but managing it is a valuable skill. Imagine how useful it will be to eradicate self-doubt and quieten that negative self-talk! To that end, I want to explore this phenomenon and give you some tips on managing your inner critic.

The critical inner voice

I was once coaching a confident, capable CEO of a development organisation, who was very reluctant to admit that she had a series of inner critics operating inside her head. She had never told anyone about this before, because she thought it might sound ‘crazy’ – or at the very least, she felt it was a massive chink in her armour: a weakness in her leadership.

My client was slightly relieved when I told her that this is perfectly natural: our thoughts sound like voices, and of course, we all have thoughts. But she wasn’t convinced these were her own thoughts, since they seemed to be out of her conscious control, and they caused her problems. For much of the time, she heard a negative running commentary on her life, criticising her appearance, behaviour, words and performance. “Surely that’s not natural!” she exclaimed.

She would handle a meeting or a presentation well, receiving praise from her Board and appreciation from her managers, but this external validation meant nothing to her. Inside her head, she was still saying, “That was rubbish. You’re incompetent. You could have handled that better. You didn’t prepare enough. You should have done this, that, the other…”. My client had some work to do around managing her inner critics.


gremlin - inner critic

Critic, by any other name

We all have this inner critic, to some extent. 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, monkey mind, lower self – or even ‘Nagging Nelly’. Call it what you will – it causes us problems and prevents us from feeling good and being our best selves.

Managing your inner critic and managing those thoughts and feelings will be invaluable to you.

Whose voice is it, anyway?

Who is saying these things inside your head? Most people will say, ‘Me’. But who does it remind you of? Is it someone from your past?

Sometimes the critical voice reminds you of your father, your mother, a particular teacher, a bully, or a previous boss… But whoever it is, you are allowing them to live rent-free inside your head, often giving you no value and preventing you from being happy, confident or moving forward in strength.

Maybe people in our past had their own problems and felt the need to criticise us as a way of exerting power and control. But sometimes we take on these beliefs as our own, and they limit us. Recognising this is the first step to doing something about it. This is a key step towards managing your inner critic.

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.”

minnie mouse - change the voice of your inner critic

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.”

2. Soothe it.

Sometimes that critical voice is just like an anxious child who needs reassurance. OK, so maybe you could have put more preparation into that presentation – but telling your inner critic ‘It’s fine. I know my stuff and have enough experience to deal with it on the hoof’ can quieten that critical voice.

3. Learn from it.

It’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes, your inner critic has a fair point, so you might even want to agree with it – but do not dwell on the negativity or let it get you down. Your inner critic can even be helpful to you. In ‘How to Manage Your Inner Critic’ (HBR), Susan David says,

‘Your inner critic has evolved to help you set and meet high expectations. If you’re open to it (which is not the same as believing everything it tells you) then you can learn from it. Like a good coach, your inner critic reminds you that knowledge and capability are important. Ask it: “How will you help me achieve success in the task ahead?”’

If it’s so critical – seek its advice for the future and learn from it. We can all use constructive feedback.

4. Ask it to reformulate.

One way to engage with that critical voice is to thank it for showing up, ask it to sit down, and then ask it to reformulate their comments in a more constructive way otherwise you won’t be able to hear them. Suggest that they get back to you when they have transformed their critique into constructive feedback.

If you find that your inner critic argues back, and you end up in conflict with yourself at length, try something different.

5. Change the voice.

These are a few techniques from Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP). They might sound a bit strange, but seriously, try them. They work.

  • Turn the volume down on the critical voice or negative self-talk. Imagine you have a dial to turn, or a sliding volume control. Picture yourself turning down the volume of that voice, so it gets lower and lower, until you can’t hear it at all.
  • Send the voice far away. We often sense the voice as being very close – inside our head, at our ear, or on our shoulder. Imagine you take that voice and float it away like a cloud, or shoot it far away, like a bullet – as far away as possible. Send it to another universe if you like – where it won’t bother you.  
  • If you notice that critical voice (that maybe reminds you of a stern parent) – change the sound of the voice. For example, make it squeaky, like Minnie Mouse, or someone who’s been sucking in helium. Make it so ridiculous that you can’t take it seriously.

6. Practise mindfulness.

Instead of worrying about what you’ve done or said in the past – or getting anxious about something in the future, fill your mind and all your senses with only what is in the present moment. Get completely absorbed in what you’re doing now – whether that’s concentrating on work, meditating, or enjoying a walk.

7. Manage your inner critic.

These are just a few ways to manage your inner critic. Of course there are many more. What is important to remember is that taking action to address these gremlins is a first step in the right direction whether you set out to challenge, soothe, learn from, reframe, discard, or change those critical voices…all as part of positively and proactively managing what you pay attention to.

If you feel you would benefit from some coaching, for you or your staff, please get in touch.

If you would like to, please download my coaching programme brochure – Women’s Leadership Coaching – For Women in Development – specifically designed for women working in global development.

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