For as long as I can remember, I have dealt with an inner critic, the voice of self-doubt. It was always ready to pounce and quick to make sweeping generalizations about me or tell me I wasn’t ready for something big. And it never, ever forgot a mistake—one failure could wipe out a hundred successes. When I would express these doubts to trusted friends and mentors, assurances of my talents and abilities would pour in. I argued with them that my critical voice was actually the voice of reason, and I knew better than they did. After all, the inner voice was loud, persistent, and seemed to make a lot of sense.
I was stumped until I read Tara Mohr’s Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead. (PSA—It’s for men, too.) She devotes a section of the book to identifying and dealing with the inner critic. The purpose of the inner critic is protection from failure and criticism. You can’t get hurt if you don’t try, after all. Aha! My inner critic had a mission.
If the inner critic’s purpose is to safeguard me, isn’t it true that sometimes that voice is correct? For example, maybe I’m not actually ready for that next big thing, and I need to slow down and take stock of where I am. How do I distinguish between reality and the inner critic? Mohr gives a long list of characteristics of the inner critic versus realistic thinking, but I’ll highlight two that were particularly salient for me. First, an inner critic is dismissive of actual evidence when a question is raised, but realistic thinking is curious and seeks out proof. This is why listening to my inner critic made it easy for me to shrug off accolades from those close to me. Second, an inner critic encourages narrow rumination on the question or problem, whereas realistic thinking pursues possible options and creative solutions. If you would like to go after a stretch promotion, for example, the inner critic might focus on gaps in your experience, whispering in your ear that you’ll never be right for that job. However, realistic thinking might allow you to take stock of your transferable skills or, if there are gaps, to brainstorm options for further professional development.
Identifying the voice of the inner critic is an important first step, but then what in the world do you do with it? Even before reading Mohr’s book, I was often able to recognize and name my self-doubt and realize that it did not always reflect reality. However, mounting an argumentative battle against it seemed to result in defeat, and I would leave with additional scars. Expending the energy to fight the critic emotionally depleted me, and it didn’t work anyway, at least in the long-term. Much like a looping song, I was able to hit pause occasionally, but at some point, the inner critic tapped the play button and resumed the same old tune.
The pivotal point for me was reflecting and putting into practice Mohr’s counterintuitive advice for handling the critic: make friends with it.
Rather than viewing my inner critic with contempt and anger, I tried to approach it with understanding, compassion, and, dare I say it, empathy. The sheer act of cultivating this mindset took away some of its power. For example, before a particularly high-stakes presentation, I was able to identify the voice of my inner critic and reassure it that I appreciated that its purpose was to protect me, but I could handle the situation. The first several times, I actually spoke to my inner critic out loud. (I recommend closing your door for this!) I don’t have to do this anymore because the voice has gotten softer and less frequent, and I find it gets easier to show up more authentically because I’m not fighting the inner critic’s voice.
The next time you find yourself struggling with self-doubt, ask yourself if you are hearing the voice of reason or the murmurings of an inner critic. If it is the critic, recognize that it has a purpose and approach it with care and empathy. Diminishing the power of the critical voice allows you to push yourself beyond your comfort zone and attempt new endeavors that you previously thought were beyond your reach.
At Milestone Leadership, we offer a range of services and products to help you tame your inner critic and become more attuned to the voice of reason. That’s just one way we create leaders worth following.
Carla Swearingen, Ph.D.
Associate – Milestone Leadership