You are not alone.
For most of your journey through life you have carried a stowaway. It’s the voice inside your head. The one that criticises, judges and keeps you small. Do you know the one I mean? Let me get you better acquainted with your “inner critic.” I believe it’s the reason many of us don’t fulfil our potential. For me, it’s also the root of imposter syndrome, the idea that you are unworthy of your success.
Five years ago I was in Hamburg working with an international tech company when, unexpectedly, I was asked to go on stage and speak in front of 300 sales directors. I was gripped by a gale force terror. Adrenaline came pumping through and a little voice whispered, “you don’t deserve to be here, your place is in some training room in Peterborough. Now you’re going to fail on the big stage in front of one of the most important audiences you’ll ever meet. You’ll never work again… ars*h***.”
Gives you an idea of the kind of voice I’ve been carrying around!! After that I became really interested in the inner critic, a concept used in popular psychology and psychotherapy to refer to a “sub-personality” that judges and demeans us.
So, what is it? How do we know what our critics and creative critical faculties are? And how do you stop it?
The inner critic is born out of an evolutionary process that uses lessons from the past to inform the future. So, the key part is to bring it out of the shadow and into the light. The inner critic sounds different to your normal critical thinking. It is very black and white, repetitive and, as the writer Tara Mohr has written, “it is harsher and meaner. It says things that you would not normally say to someone you love.” Typical inner critics say “no way this is going to work” and “who are you to think you can create anything?”
As I coach senior leaders I often encounter their unhelpful inner critics. The voice seems to have evolved because of things they’ve been told or assumptions they made after difficult experiences. So one client I worked with had internalised her parents’ voice saying “be careful.” Another client had given a poor presentation at university so her inner critic now makes the assumption “people don’t want to listen to you.”
In Hamburg that speech on stage was a huge risk because I stood to lose status and fail. Failure in our tribal past could mean ostracisation. So, we are hard-wired to be careful. My inner critic was desperate to get me off that stage.
So, we have the internalised policeman in your head that stops you expressing yourself freely and confidently. It is also very much linked to your personality. Some inner critics worry about being disliked, others worry about making mistakes. So, whilst your inner critic may be trying to protect us from being hurt, in reality it reinforces our feelings of shame and guilt, sabotages intimate relationships and leads to self-destructive behaviour. It needs to be put on a leash.
Here are a few tips for dealing with the inner critic:
• Acknowledge the voice and the feeling. The key to all habit change and self-awareness is recognising the voice and the feeling. Many of us have got so used to our stowaway that we think it’s real. Catch the voice in motion, recognise the feeling especially in the body (stomach, chest etc.) and learn to recognise your inner critic. Keep asking that question “is this something I would say to someone I loved?” Recognise when it is meaner or harsher. Start to think about the experiences that created this voice. Start to unravel its power over you.
• Journal and evaluate the risk. The inner critic is firmly rooted in the emotional centres of the brain, an area that can be unreliable when evaluating complex risks (but excellent if you’re being chased by a dog!) Write down what the risk is and notice when the inner critic is exaggerating, deleting, distorting or catastrophising. Saying the opposite to your inner critic is rarely effective. The inner critic sees a risk and you need to think about that risk and bring in some objectivity. A good question to ask here is “is my inner critic helping me or hurting me?” If your inner critic is sapping your confidence, then build awareness around that. Recognise it, learn from it but do not allow it to stop you growing. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
• Build an inner coach. With the details from your journal, build a voice that truly recognises the facts, what you are good at and what you’ve succeeded at. Build the voice of reason to counter balance your fears.
• Meditation or mindfulness practice is considered one effective strategy for dealing with the negative effects of critical thoughts. It helps you spot the inner critic and take away its power.
• Get feedback so you know that you are doing well and have earned your place at the table.
In Hamburg, I actually went on to that stage and performed one of the best speeches I’ve ever given. So, there you are, what does my inner critic know? I’m not an ars***** and actually there is nothing wrong with Peterborough!
For those interested in Imposter Syndrome, click on this link where it will be able to show you the degree to which you suffer from it.