My clients and workshop participants often ask: how do I make my inner critic go away? How do I quieten that voice? How do I stop feeling like an imposter?
Well, here is the paradox of this work: making it go away is not the answer. First, it's unlikely to listen, but also - whatever we suppress tends to grow stronger and louder.
To get to the bottom of this, let's first look at what the inner critic is.
[It can also go by different names: inner critic, inner judge, imposter voice, saboteur, or, to use Freudian language, the superego.]
My favourite definition comes from one of my teachers, a coach and a therapist Simon Cavicchia.
He says that the inner critic is that part of our psyche that is sensitive to the quality of the connection that we have with others.
It's that part that stems from parental messages about how we need to be in this world to be accepted and safe - smart, attractive, well mannered, educated, strong... [Your own inner critic will fill the blanks I'm sure].
And although those messages come from important figures in our life to start with, we internalise t
hem over time and they become a part of us.
Many of us will have enough of those “shoulds” for a few inner critic personas. Many of my clients discover they have a whole team of critics, often with contradictory opinions. In fact, the illustration that I made to go with this article is a creative expression of my own committee of critics.
As we get older the messages might change, we pick more "shoulds" from our society, but the way in which the critic (or critics) operates stays pretty much the same.
It has communication skills of a toddler and is quick to issue blanket statements like "you're stupid" or "nobody likes you". You won't hear it say "hey, it wasn't your greatest moment - what can you learn from this?"
And at a primal level that structure is there to keep us safe.
As humans we have a need for belonging and our brain keeps optimising for our connection to others all the time.
And no wonder we're so sensitive to rejection - for our ancestors being part of a group was essential to survival. The world has evolved but our brains have not yet caught on.
That voice can be so engrained in the way in which we see the world.
We can become so fused with it that it can be hard to recognise it for what it is.
Many of my clients will admit that their inner critic motivates them to get things done. The question then becomes - do we treat it like a horse that we automatically harness to the coach of high performance?
Take a moment to think about it - can you tell the difference between the inner critic taking over and when you're working from the position of a healthy sense of self? [See my previous article in this series for more about that]
So rather than push it away, my invitation to you is to the opposite of that:
How can we give that critical voice a seat at the table and listen to what it has to say without letting it run the show?
How can we soothe that rampant toddler? Maybe dance and play with it like we would with a scared child as opposed to quieten it by force?
How to acknowledge the underlying fear but don't let it be the deciding argument?
What is the message that your inner critic has for you?
Your inner critic, or the inner voice whispering that you are an imposter will be unique to you and very different from other people’s.
In my client session we spend time unpacking it first, and only once we have done that, we can consider meaningful reframes and strategies.
Take my client, Cathy (not her real name). She is a high performing director, and an exceptionally busy one.
She is great at what she does and passionate about her work which makes her compelled to agree when others ask her for help.
Unsurprisingly, this is a recipe for overwhelm and exhaustion.
We explored her urge to say "yes". What came up was the desire to feel needed, be well respected and show her expertise.
But as we peeled off more layers of the onion, Cathy admitted that her inner critic was the loudest whenever she was about to say “no”.
She was afraid of damaging her relationships.
After all, her leaders praised her for being a reliable team player. But what became clear is that saying “yes” too much was hurting her chances of being promoted to the next level of leadership.
The behaviours that got her promoted last time (to an excellent but delivery-oriented Director) were not the same ones that will take her to more senior leadership that is about inspiring, motivating, and influencing.
But before we got to strategies for addressing that, we gave Cathy and her inner critic a chance to name those worries.
That's an important step because change doesn't happen through coercive attempts to become who we are not.
Change can be paradoxical - it can only happen when we first become in touch with who we are, what is driving us, what we are thinking and feeling. That self-awareness can help us make new choices.
And that gave Cathy a chance to address those deep-seated worries and finally start showing up like the leader she aspired to and was capable of being.
A thought to take away...
In summary, our inner critic is a unsophisticated strategy of the reptilian parts of our brain to protect us from social disconnection. Its methods are rather disappointing but classifying it as pure evil and wanting it to go away is not the right strategy.
A better one is to give that part of you some space for expression, without letting it call the shots.
And the sweet spot for sustainable change is when we combine those insights with experimentation and building real skills.
Let me pick this theme up in the next article about skills that create confidence.
Curious to delve a bit deeper?
I support my clients through 1-to-1 coaching sessions and / or workshops on understanding the inner critic and the imposter experience.
If you like the idea of working with a coach or inviting me to talk to your team, please emails me at email@example.com