Most of us are brought up believing that threats come from the outside – perhaps in our immediate environment, and perhaps even further out than that. We remain unaware of the threats that can emanate from an unexpected source – inside ourselves.
A smart and ambitious executive finds herself disengaging in meetings that are dragging on or feel circular in the conversation. As a senior leader, she's expected to contribute at all times, and has valuable insights to offer. However, at these particular points in meetings, the voice in her head tell her that she can't speak up as people may think she's arrogant. She tells herself "Who am I to challenge the flow of this meeting? What right do I have to speak out?"
This is her inner critic having her play small and judging her for actions she's considering taking. Welcome to the world of the enemy within. We all have these internal voices – usually several of them, each coming out in different circumstances. Our thoughts greatly influence how we feel and behave so having some insight into the unhelpful internal patterns is important.
So what is the inner critical voice?
It is a set of destructive internal thoughts that prevent us from often acting in our own best interest. This inner monologue can sound like "you should", "why didn't you" and "what's wrong with you".
Most of the narrative often expresses criticism, frustration or disproval of our own actions. We would be unlikely to be so harsh to our colleagues or friends, and yet we have no issue talking to ourselves in such a way.
The inner critic has a job – to protect us. It's the part of us that acts from fear. The inner critic is a chameleon – it sounds like many different things (can sound scared, angry, judgmental, very rational, like a procrastinator, and so on) and will partner with any other part of you that is feeling afraid.
Let's be clear. A little self-criticism is healthy. It can be a positive and creative process of reflecting and contemplating on a matter. When this self-criticism is out of balance, the impact is to undermine our ability to make a decision, or increase our stress or anxiety.
It is also important to put criticism in a social context. Criticism is a cultural norm that is reasoned to motivate behaviour. Criticism is aimed at highlighting the gaps between current and required behaviour/outcomes in order to close those gaps. From a young age, others criticise us in order to influence our behaviour. However, overtime we can internalise this criticism.
The inner critic is smart and makes a great ally if you stop being hooked by the fears and judgments it is steeped in and look for the observations and fears underneath.
Here's what you can do to recognise and work with your inner critic:
- First, notice when this inner voice gets triggered. Look for themes around the circumstances. Be clear on the usual words being used. The word 'should' is a great sign that the inner critic is active.
- Look for the truth behind what is being stated by the inner critic. What's the useful information here, without being hooked into the fear and scaremongering that the inner critic specialises in?
- Look for other ways of responding to the situation. There are always other options.
- Choose how you want to respond. We are always at choice in our lives, even when it feels that is not the case.
At the very heart of managing our inner critics is compassion. You cannot get rid of the inner critic. You can only strive to be in a better relationship with this part of yourself. By knowing that the inner voice is indeed your own inner critic, you can be at choice to respond and to take back control of how you choose to live your life.