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BEFRIENDING YOUR INNER CRITIC

A step-by-step guide to improving self-talk and strengthening resilience

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"My life has been filled with terrible misfortune; most of which never happened".

 

Michel de Montaigne

 

I hope you smiled when reading the above quote. Smiling at our human peculiarities gives us a chance to work with them with a lighter heart. And a lighter heart will be useful as we travel into the land of inner critics. Another name for which is negative self-talk. Another: self-limiting beliefs. Whatever you call the door you’re about to open, they all lead to the same room. Of disempowering and anxious energy.

 

Having conducted over 1000 coaching sessions with clients in many walks of life, from different cultures and various types and levels of organisations, I can witness that we all share one habit: we talk to ourselves. And it is these inner dialogues that either empower or disempower us on our life's journeys. Some of these dialogues focus on worst-case scenarios we are afraid of - most of which we make up, or predict.

 

As Gabor Maté writes in "The Myth of Normal", being overly anxious about a potentially unpleasant outcome is often us trying to predict that the past would happen again. Some of which may. And some of which may not. In sessions with clients, it can be often confirmed that it is indeed made up by posing this one question: "How do you know this is true?" And about 9 out of 10 times, we sit with clients in the extended moment of realisation that it is their hypothesis, rather than the truth.

 

This alone can be a simple, but powerful shift. Because a hypothesis lives in a more energetic state than something that is seen as absolute. Because a hypothesis can be tested. But often we never get to even testing it, because we are held back in the land of "terrible misfortunes, most of which will never happen". The space of not trying. Or trying hesitantly, just to confirm that "I knew I wouldn't succeed". A space that takes SO MUCH energy to stay there as we fuel our internal conflict between two very powerful forces: the voice of "I want to be more"and the voice of "Don't you dare to risk".

 

It is this latter voice that some refer to as the inner critic. Or self-criticism. Or self-doubt. Which in reality is the voice of your inner protector, wrapped in overly careful or overly critical language (or whatever language you internalised). But more on them being protectors as we travel through these concepts.

 

My corporate clients often refer to this energy as the imposter syndrome, accompanied by thoughts like:

 

"I really want to apply for this promotion but there are so many other great candidates that I probably won't make it, so I won't REALLY try."​

"Don't speak up in a meeting, because you will come across as (stupid, foolish, not an expert, etc.)..."

"Why would you go into the dream profession - there are so many such specialists out there already?"

"I knew this (e.g. going to a networking event) wouldn't work out, what was I thinking.... better not try again".

"Maybe I am just not made for ........................................... (fill in the blank)".

On the opposite spectrum, sometimes your inner critic gets you to work and work and work, whispering to you that in order to be worthwhile as a person, you have to achieve a certain result. An inner concept that says "If you don't achieve X, you are worthless". So you may find yourself actually doing a lot, but not because you want to create something meaningful in this world - because your worth has been entangled with achieving.

 

These are all real conversations we have with ourselves in moments of doubt or during disappointments. The self-talk that can, if allowed to take over our mental space, discourage us from embracing mistakes. From trying, sometimes again, and again. And yes, again... Self-talk that makes us feel belittled, rather than empowered. Self-talk that affects how long it takes for us to recover and to what extent. That negatively impacts our resilience. Resilience - being a skill, or a muscle, which you will need if you ever want to create things that are meaningful to you (and often meaningless to others!).

Resilience as a natural ability

 

Imagine a basketball player giving up after their first 20 shots didn't make it into the basket? Or saying to themselves "I should give up basketball" after a losing season? Or a child giving up learning how to walk after 20 'unsuccessful' attempts? Sounds unnatural, doesn't it? But as adults, we can accumulate life experiences* that make it harder for us to keep the attitude of “let’s keep going”. Which results in a self-limiting build-up we carry.

*Actually, it is more the interpretations of such experiences that have an ongoing impact on us. So we collect unhelpful interpretations attached to such experiences - see "Learned optimism" in "Further reading".

Inner critics and resilience: inverse relationship

You see, the more we have managed to keep our innate resilience, the more ways in which we can bounce (or crawl) back after disappointments. However, the more the inner critic(s) get hold of the unpleasurable experiences and become your dominant interpretation drivers, the less likely you are to try, and therefore, to eventually succeed. Simply put, the stronger our inner critical voices are, the less resilient we are. Resilience is about recovering after a set back (or, as your inner critic may call it, a failure). If your critic happens to be a very active energy and particularly mean, you may even call yourself a failure... as opposed to calling the event, or your performance in that event, a temporary setback, which is thinking in a different energetic realm.

 

This is one common mistake our inner critics make (hence the flaw in thinking this way): collapsing together failing at something with being a failure and then predicting that as truth going forward. It's like having a car accident and calling yourself "a driving failure" rather than having failed once at driving safely. Or, if you're working on being a comedian, calling yourself a comical failure rather than having a joke that "failed" (or didn't land, or wasn't timed right, or wasn't delivered with the right intonation, or to the right audience, or with the right amount of set up/ build up / preparation). Or being an organisational leader and collapsing together the failure of a strategy you initiated with yourself being a failing leader.

​A typical flaw of inner critics is collapsing temporary setbacks with failing, or, in their harshest version, with being a failure.

 

To emphasise, resilience is not about never failing, because whenever we try something we haven't done before, our odds of failing increase naturally. It is about how fast and to what extent we are able to recover after disappointments. Because when we know how to recover, we are open to experimenting, taking risks and adjusting forward as needed.

Variations of inner critics: from obvious self-deprecation to subtle overprotection

Some of us carry critics with very judgemental energy, for example, "You are stupid and they will find out". If you grew up with harsher voices of your caretakers or important figures, this is what you’re likely to carry inside of you, having internalised it. Others criticise themselves in a more “diplomatic” way, and may sound like "Do you really want this? Things are stable, why risk..."? If important figures in our lives pointed to our flaws in a more subtle manner, this would be the tonality. But underneath is still a message of "You won't be able to handle risks or unfavourable results, so let's stay safe instead". At other times it doesn't even feel like we self-criticise, but we may notice ourselves simply not making the moves we want to.

 

Using a car analogy again, think of self-criticism as a mechanism that stops you from driving forward. An obvious harsh self-criticism would be like smashing your car (your identity) with a baseball bat. With a more subtle inner critic, you may find a part of yourself pressing the brake pedal with just enough force that you don't move toward your goals. Or it takes you a lot of effort to keep moving forward. What all inner critics, or such demotivating defence mechanisms, do have in common, is that they hold you back, slow you down, or make it harder than needed, to work towards your aspirations.

 

So what are they? They are mechanisms in our psyche that help us maintain our identity while keeping us away from pain. Whatever the cost. The reason why it’s a good idea to call these mechanisms 'them' or to say 'parts', or to imagine them as ‘brakes’ is because upon some examination we quickly find out that there are also other parts in us, or other mechanisms, if you prefer this language, other aspirations, other energies, other chemical reactions, that also co-exist. Calling this energy something helps us to transition from being driven by it, to now seeing it as something we can be in a relationship with and influence. Or, as Harvard professor and one of the leading voices in adult development research Robert Kegan (1994) names it: going from being subjected to it to seeing it as an object. Doing this gives space to explore what else is there and helps us to move towards balancing out the energy of “Why it's not going to work” with “How can I make it work?”. It also helps us weaken any strong identification with have with this way of thinking and feeling.

 

Back to the quote: "Misfortunes that never happened". It's important to note that our inner brakes are active because misfortunes did happen to us, so our defences received confirmation that we need them. But it is also true that they happened in the past. The trick is that critics/defences/brakes have an anxious, fearful energy, and anxiety is thinking that the past will happen again in the future (see "The Myth of Normal" by Gabor Maté in "Further reading").

We create agreements with parts of ourselves to keep us from experiencing pain again, often at the cost of self-expression.

Now what?

Well, now that we have set the scene - let’s get to work. This material being a step-by-step guide, I invite you to pick an area to work through in your life as you go through this text. I highly recommend doing so before you read further as you can then work through some of it, rather than read about it. Like doing all the steps of a sun salutation routine in yoga to experience it, rather than just reading about it.

You may find useful the shortened worksheet I prepared as a way to capture all your thoughts in once place as you go through the text.

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A shortened PDF to capture your thoughts in one place

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Your goal

Pick something you’ve been wanting to do and are struggling with (or postponing, or stressing about):

 

..............................................................................................................................................................

 

Self-limiting thought

My main thought holding me back / stressing me is:

..............................................................................................................................................................

 

If you have written it - you are already starting the mental plasticity workout: seeing our 'mental model' written, rather than having it circle in our heads, is a step towards seeing potential flaws in it and ways to update it (D. Meadows, Thinking in Systems).

I usually combine the following two strategies to work through inner resistance, both with myself and with my clients. Strategy 1 is about re-balancing energy between the different parts, like between the brake and the acceleration pedals in a car. This approach resides more towards the logical scale.

Strategy 2 is getting the critical energy to work along towards your goals, rather than rebel against them. This approach will have you do more creative inner work. I suggest you try both and see what works best for you.

 

 

Strategy 1: Rebalance your energy

Let’s recognise that whatever you want to achieve sometimes may not work out. That car accidents do happen. That some planted seeds never become trees. There are valid reasons why things have a chance of not turning out the way you want. And… there are also ways to tilt odds in your favour. So let’s honour both possibilities and give each equal space. This strategy is about re-distributing your thinking and executive energy between "Why it's not going to work" and "How to make it work" type of thinking . From “Let’s keep your foot always on a brake” to Let’s be ready to brake when needed”. If you’re a fan of fables rather than analogies, the fable of two wolves holds a similar point:

A grandson asks his grandfather:

"Grandpa, which wolf is going to get bigger, the good wolf or the bad wolf?"

The grandfather answers: "Whichever one you feed most".

 

Make sure you feed the right wolf. Give your inner dreamer an equal opportunity via energy, attention, time and effort as do to your inner doubter.

Exercise: balance disempowering self-talk with empowering

“Why it's not going to work” (disempowering)

<--- balance out with --->

“How to make it work” (empowering)

 

“How to keep myself safe?”'

<--- balance out with --->

“What can I risk in order to move towards my aspirations?”

 

For example, If a disempowering thought is "Don’t try this idea because it may not work and cost everyone time", you can try re-balancing it with "How can I contract with everyone that this is an experiment which may lead to a better outcome, and it may not?”

 

Write your main disempowering thought from before and give it a go at balancing it out with an empowering thought or a question:

 

................................................................................................................

<--- balance out with --->

.................................................................................................................

 

You may need to try a few versions before you discover one that works for you. I'd recommend approaching this like trying on clothes. You will know when you've found one that speaks to you. Once you've found it - take it for a test drive and see what progress you make.

 

Before you read on.... this may actually be enough work for today or even for the next few weeks. This could be your 'sun salutation' routine (think yoga again) that you can practice until you become good enough at it to get you moving forward.


“Why it's not going to work” 
(disempowering)

<--- balance out with --->

“How can I make it work”
(empowering)
 

Strategy 2: Create an inner alliance

I love this strategy because it is about making inner critics official members of your team rather than trying to get rid of them. Because they already ARE part of your team: your psyche assigned them roles to protect you. Protection that you may no longer need in the same format it was created. Also, when they re-align with your common goal, their energy will be directed towards that goal, rather than against it.

 

 

Step 1. Recognise and acknowledge the intention of inner critics

First, it is important to recognise that these built up defences, whether harsh or subtle, are trying to protect you. Even phrases like "You're stupid, don't say anything" are designed to protect you from being called stupid again by people whose opinion matters to you. All the variations of our defences are protecting us from losing face, risking failure, feeling less than, not fitting in, facing rejection... all leading to one place: pain. When we recognise this, we make it safe for our critics to come to the negotiation table with their weapons put down. We need to find a way to appreciate the intention behind the protection, even if you are not pleased with what such protection costs you. These defences served you at some point, which is why you kept them. So let's appreciate them first for what they are trying to do, to this day...

 

Step 2. Name HOW your inner critic protects you

Now let's name how your inner critic actually protects you. Or the role they assigned themselves. If, for example, the major theme is "Don't take risks", the role that the critic has taken on could be named as “your private security”, or “secret service", or “the handbrake”, because their only job is to protect you from getting hurt. Now, you wouldn't want to ask that same part in you to plan a party, would you? Or for the handbrake to choose music for the drive ahead. Because, if left completely to their own devices, the party will most likely be held in a bunker or the drive will be without music just to minimise any potential detractors from safety. For some, "Don't try this, you may hurt yourself" could remind you of an over-cautions grandma who says to the child "Don't go on that bicycle because you may fall and hurt yourself". She has a very valid point because you ARE likely to fall and get hurt. But if you don't find a way to be ok with that, that "bicycle" (article / presentation / job) will just sit there in the corner.

 

Reflect on the following points below:

WHAT my inner critic actually protects me from (shame, disappointment, pain, looking like a loser, being ridiculed again, being discovered as not knowing it all, etc.): ……………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

HOW this protection shows up: (e.g. I don’t speak up, I don’t set audacious goals, I find other ‘interesting’ things to do instead of one that really matters, I make others feel smaller, so that I feel bigger compared to them, etc.): ……………………………………………………

 

NAME your critic with a more accurate title. A title that reflects the appreciation for the job they have been doing all along, with their speciality and their limitations. Be playful, be loving and be honest while you team up with the critic to find a more accurate name or title for their energy.

 

Updated name/title for my inner critic/protector: .........................................................................

(e.g. “Let’s not ride the bicycle because you may fall and hurt yourself” can become your ‘Anxious grandma’ or “Don’t speak in meetings because you may look stupid” can become “Mr WannaBeSmart” or simply “Mr/Miss Handbrake” or even "My ego protector").

 

Step 3. Agree where the critic/protector is NOT helping you

When that part of us senses being appreciated (and please appreciate it as this part of you HAS been working hard on making sure you don't experience pain again), explore together with it where it does an incredible job at keeping you safe, but potentially a lousy job at helping you be fulfilled from working towards your goal. Do this not from a place of judgement (that would be an inner critic criticising an inner critic!), but from a place of appreciation and observation. Once again, don't rush to the next step until you feel that 'the critic' sees both its usefulness and accepts its limits. You will feel a sense of ease in your body when you are there. Some of your previously tightened muscles may release. This could take you a few minutes, a few days, or a few weeks. How you feel when you are in these inner conversations is a great sign of how close (or far) you are to the area of mutual acceptance.

 

WHERE inner critic/protector (use updated name …………….................……. ) is not helping: ……………………………………………………………………………………...........................……

 

Step 4: Agree on the common (and often higher) goal

What’s better than staying so safe in the car that you don’t even drive it? Obviously, when you do get into a car, the destination makes it worth the risk you’re usually willing to take. So, what is your destination (or the journey itself) that will be worth it for you?

I recommend working together with your inner critic/protector and aligning on the following two aspects:

 

1) WHAT is your destination (say, promotion, improved relationship, project, starting a new career, a health-related goal, etc.) and

 

2) HOW you want to travel there.

I want to stress the importance of HOW. Say, your destination is to be an ocean swimmer throughout the year. Or a writer. Or a better presenter. If you don't enjoy the HOW (your inner critic berates you for missing a day, or a week), if you don't appreciate making 3 shots out of 10, you are likely to experience unnecessary stress, pain and disappointment and will probably drop the goal much quicker than if you would find joy in the practice of getting there or, sometimes, just showing up and giving it whatever you have.

 

Examples:

Let's say your WHAT is "make work meetings more fun".

Your HOW could be: find ways to laugh at my attempts to make it fun when it doesn't work. Or find fun/joy in my own failings. Or make it fun for everyone to (sometimes) fail.

 

Your WHAT: becoming an ocean swimmer (or start writing).

Your HOW could be: I will be kind to myself and curious even, and especially, on days when I may show up to the ocean and just look at it rather than swim in it (or replace ‘swim’ with ‘write’).

 

Craft your own variations (and please, don’t aim for perfect, aim for first drafts to get the energy moving):

 

Your WHAT: ............................................................................................................................

Your HOW: ............................................................................................................................

Having an active inner critic is like driving a car with a handbrake on. You get two energies competing with one another: one wants to go forward, the other - to remain still.

Step 5: Redirect the critic’s efforts to tasks aligned with the goal. Establish agreements

Now it would be unwise to ask your brake pedal not to be the brake. Or to ask a presidential security guard to have fun instead of looking after safety. Similar with our defences. They are there to keep our identity safe. But we can re-establish what it means to be safe while going forward. What we need to do is get your risk assessor to look after risks, but limit their areas of authority. For example, your inner security can take care of all safety precautions to the detail that they need, but they will not be tasked with planning your entire presentation.

 

Here is another way of thinking about this, if ‘talking to parts’ seems too silly to you. In systems-thinking language, you would call this over-cautious part of you a subsystem. And in any system, whenever a subsystem's goal (e.x. to protect at all costs by avoiding pain) differs from an overall policy (create a project), resistance to the policy will take place. You may have seen this in organisations. We, humans, are also complex systems. In the words of Donella Meadows, the way to reduce this inner resistance is to align all subsystems to work towards a common goal. This means getting that over-cautious part of you to make it safe to go towards your goal. Like the brake in a car, without which you wouldn't want to drive, we need to make sure it is given space and permission, plus authority, to be applied when needed and with the speed and force that is appropriate for the situation.

 

Remind your inner critic that they are there to protect you so that you DO have an impact you want to have in this world. Not to protect you so much that you don’t have an impact. That you don't drive the car you were given.

Updated task for your 'reforming critic'

How can the critic/protector be satisfied with 'looking out for you' while you work towards your goals? Co-create together a new task for the next 2 weeks. Be specific.

 

Critic/protector (updated name: ......................................... ) agrees to only focus on:

....................................................................................................................................................

 

What does the critic agree not to do?

...................................................................................................................................................

The driver in me agrees to do the following: ...................................................................................................................................................

 

Check-in whether the critic/protector has accepted the above. Ask yourself, “On a scale of 0-10, how much are you willing to give this task a go in the next two weeks?” If it’s anything below 5, go back into the conversation with the critic and find a way to make them willing to work with you. Otherwise, you haven’t created a strong enough agreement. And it will go back to the old ways. Get support from another human if needed, as others have unique vantage points when they witness our self-walk. 

One way to lower resistance is to promise the critic to go back to the ‘old’ safe if the updated task will turn out to be complete rubbish, while you both continue to look for other ways to update it and keep going forward. Another is to promise them that you will find a way to recover / to look after yourself if you do get hurt. And to keep whichever promise you make to yourself.

 

Step 6: Execute the play. Be patient

There is a difference between understanding and implementation. You may understand how to NOT over press the brake in a car, but it may take you time to practice going from sudden jolts to smoother brakes, when needed. It takes time to unlearn a habit WHILE learning a new one.

 

Step 7: Take a time-out to debrief the results. Re-contract if needed. Repeat until a new habit is formed

Check-in with yourself after 2 weeks.

What worked? ....................................................................................................................................

What could've been done better? ...................................................................................................

What will you do the same, or differently, for the next two weeks: ...................................................

Check in again after 4 weeks. And after 6 weeks.

Tips:

  • Important to give that part / habit of yours time to readjust

  • Try not to criticise the critic for taking longer than you may want

  • Support that part of you in supporting you toward your goal

Going forward

For now, we are asking the critic to be a specialist in their area and not interfere with moving towards your goal. Like getting a part in you that is worried about safety to ONLY look after the safety of a car: braking when needed, wearing seatbelts, not driving under the influence. Performing the safety checks, when needed. But it does not decide on the music. Nor does it choose which route to take (unless safety concerns are real). Ideally, over time these inner protectors will start working TOGETHER with your inner visionary towards common goals. Like having quality brakes allowing you to drive faster, because you trust them to do their job, when needed. This is my vision for you: to trust those parts of yourself to protect you, when needed, while also trusting the driver in you to take you on incredible journeys.

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Additional materials

Below are some resources if you want to explore the topic of inner work from different angles. I will update this section as I run into additional useful material.

 

  • "The Untethered Soul" by Michael Singer. This book was the first introduction to self-talk that captured my attention, with the new-at-the-time notion of having an explicit choice to improve it.

  • "Self-talk - what is it and why is it important?" by HealthDirect. On negative self-talk from a clinical mental health perspective as well as additional tips.

  • "In Over Our Heads" by Robert Kegan. On seeing 'through' something (like negative self-talk) to seeing it as something. Making the "subject to object" move in our adult development.

  • "The Myth of Normal" by Gabor Maté. On how our environment shapes our personalities (combination of natural expressions and adaptations to life), on suppressed self-expression much more.

  • Gabor Maté on Tim Ferriss's podcast. On how we all have developed perfect adaptations to the past we have been through: https://tim.blog/2022/09/07/dr-gabor-mate-myth-of-normal/

  • "Thinking in Systems" by Donella H. Meadows (Author), Diana Wright (Editor). On exploring the world through a systems' lens. And on sub-systems resisting change, if they are not aligned with the common goal.

  • "Learned Optimism" by Martin Seligman. On different styles of interpreting the same events. And how that impacts whether we try again. Has lots of studies and a few self-assessments.

  • Richard Swartz (Author of "No bad parts") on Rich Roll’s podcast. About not making parts of ourselves into exiles and re-contracting: https://www.richroll.com/podcast/richard-schwartz-761/

  • "The body keeps the score" by Bessel Van Der Kolk. On how unprocessed traumatic events take place in our present lives. Has a vivid example of a child processing an external traumatic event (9/11) to move on with their life.

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Anton's interactive workshop was very helpful to reflect on my own inner critics. The hands-on worksheet and one-on-one discussions with peers helped me to unwrap some hidden thoughts and feelings and provided good guidance on how to deal with them in the future.

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 Manager Responsibility and Sustainability, University of St. Gallen

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