How to Understand Your Inner Critic and Turn It into a Tool for Success
We're told to "conquer it," "silence it," and even "make friends with it," but before we do any of that, our inner critic must be understood.
As someone who has lived with an anxiety disorder my entire life, I've gotten to know my inner critic pretty well. If you're unfamiliar with the term, the inner critic personifies our self-critical thinking. It's that voice that tries to convince us that we are unworthy frauds destined to fail.
Listening to our inner critic, and succumbing to the impostor syndrome it fuels, is like putting on a suit of armor. When we tell ourselves we will fail, it isn't as much of a blow if we actually do. We're protected from disappointment or surprise. The problem is that wearing that armor is also heavy.
One study published in the Journal of Business and Psychology showed that employees who experienced impostor syndrome to a more significant degree had lower job satisfaction and were less likely to contribute to their organization beyond their primary role. These represent clear barriers to career advancement.
It’s clear that our inner critic can do some harm, but to begin addressing it, we first need to understand where it came from and what it’s trying to do for us.
Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, advocates fierce self-compassion and has researched how our self-talk impacts our lives. Neff explains the inner critic in such an elegant way. She says that the inner critic is the fight part of the fight-or-flight response turned inward.
In moments where our critic shows up, our brain processes our pursuits and ambitions as threats and tries to shut down those impulses. The amygdala takes over our emotional state. Unfortunately, it processes the fear of public speaking like it processes the fear of a bear chasing us. All it can do is desperately try to push us back into our comfort zone and reduce risk at any cost. Of course, we can't grow, advance, and learn when we stay within our comfort zones.
Now that we better understand our inner critic and what it's trying to do for us, we can see it as a "check engine light" rather than an emergency. When it begins to list all the ways we will embarrass ourselves, and why we don't belong, we can choose to pause. And in the space of that pause, we can decide whether or not we are facing a true threat and what to do about it.
The next time your inner critic starts shutting you down, try this:
1) Pause and take a breath.
2) Ask yourself, “What is the reason I’m feeling this way?”
3) Based on your answer, determine concrete actions to feel more in control.
This sequence of steps will allow you to acknowledge your self-protection mechanisms for what they are. And when we name things, we can address them and move forward with more confidence and clarity about what's in our control.
To clarify this, let's explore a common experience I hear from many of my coaching clients.
Imagine you participate in big monthly meetings with colleagues and managers from your organization. Whenever you walk through the doorway to this meeting, impostor syndrome seems to rear its head. You freeze up and can’t seem to form a coherent thought. Your inner critic starts to creep in, telling you things like “you don’t belong in this room” and “everything you say makes you sound stupid.”
Begin by taking a breath. Recognize that your inner critic, harmful as it can be, is trying to protect you. The problem is that it's responding as though a wild animal is chasing you when you're just trying to participate in a meeting.
Next, ask yourself what about the situation or environment is triggering you and what you can do differently to feel safer next month. For instance:
Are you worried you won't have an answer to a question?
You might consider doing extra preparation to enter the space more confidently. You could also consider bringing a subject matter expert with you. Remember, it’s often okay not to have every answer in the moment and to let people know you will get back to them with additional details.
Are you feeling like an outsider in a room full of “in-group” people?
Perhaps invite a colleague to coffee to make an ally and start to humanize the people in the room. Relationship building can build your sense of belonging and increase psychological safety.
Are you questioning your worth as a contributor?
Take time to remind yourself of your experience, qualifications, and all you bring to the table. Consider your role in the conversation, remembering that you don't have to know/be everything; you just have to play your part.
I hope that understanding this deeper work around your inner critic empowers you to do more than just silence it. Instead, you can use it as a tool, signaling when you need to take steps to show up as your best and most confident self!
And if you are interested in engaging in more conversations about this and other leadership development and career advancement topics, join me in the Leading Humans group -- a free, weekly discussion forum that meets virtually on Zoom.