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Confidence and your inner critic

One major player in our confidence, including leadership confidence, is our inner critic. That voice inside us that questions everything we do, makes us doubt ourselves and often is the thing that keeps us up at night. Many people talk about silencing our inner critic and turning it off. I believe that done in the right (and healthy) way, our inner critic can serve us. But only when we have learnt to fully trust ourselves.

For many of us, one of the biggest barriers to boosting our confidence is learning how to control that nagging voice that questions our choices, our actions and hits replay on events that have already happened. 

That voice follows us every day, playing on our doubts and accentuating our impostor syndrome. It tells us to give up. The voice assures us that one incident is just about the worst thing that anyone could possibly have done in that situation. And when we listen, encourages us to give up and live like a hermit.

We’ve all got this inner voice, the ‘inner critic’ as it is commonly known. And we are told it isn’t helpful. Which in general I agree with. We are told to silence it, to stop listening. Somehow we are just supposed to turn it off.

Here’s the thing: turning it off is far from simple. But if we begin to understand it, we can get control, as well as insight into who we are and where our impostor syndrome is rearing its ugly head. In my opinion, understanding our inner critic (note, that doesn’t mean giving in to it!) can help us excel and be better at our jobs and be better friends, partners, parents, chidren, leaders and colleagues.

Don’t give in to your inner critic, but listen to it, adjust and understand who you are better.

Where does our inner critic come from?

Human nature means we are individuals, self-directed, driven by something, but also able to reflect on our experiences and learn every day from all our previous events. As we all know, learning from experience is key to personal growth. The growth mindset, which can be so incredibly powerful in enabling us to not just succeed, but to flourish and accomplish the most astonishing things in life, relies on constant learning from past experiences and picking ourselves up after difficult situations. That inner voice is an essential part of all of this. But when that voice is entirely critical, the ‘inner critic’ can derail our progress.

Psychologist Robert Firestone refers to the ‘critical inner voice’ as the anti-self, perpetuating negative thought processes, leading to self-destruction. It often comes from painful early life experiences and hurtful attitudes that as we grow up, become part of who we are, governing our thoughts towards ourselves and others. We all know that it is ‘not nice’ to judge other people, but we all do it. And our inner critic is just that judgement we irrationally hand out reflected back on ourselves. 

Identifying your inner critic

The first step in controlling your negative self-talk is to identify and then understand it.

Look for where you judge other people, particularly when you first meet someone. What type of things do you instinctively notice and create negativity around that on some level you know isn’t right. These are likely to be topics that you will have negative self talk about yourself. Such as ‘they don’t work hard enough’, ‘they don’t dress right for work’, ‘they are lazy’. If you don’t have real evidence for these judgements, and on some level you feel guilty about the feeling you have towards them, they are also likely to be something you turn on yourself. But unlike that guilt you feel when you think about it in other people, you don’t have that ability to quickly notice you are being unreasonable when we are thinking about ourselves.

Also watch for when you replay a situation or event in your mind. One replay may be considered a learning experience, but multiple replays, staying awake at night with worry, or cringing every time you think about something is not serving you.

Once you’ve identified where your inner voice is pushing you in a negative direction, what can you do about?

Understanding and controlling your inner critic.

To breakthrough the negativity and bad influence of our inner critic, try these steps:

  1. Acknowledge and write the thoughts down. Use pen and paper if you can, as the act of writing helps control the thought rather than having it run away.
  2. Understand what you are really saying to yourself. Recognise that this isn’t a real point of view or actual reality, but based on life experiences and attitudes directed at you. Separate our those life experiences. Identify what is left. Is there really anything you can learn from this? Can this help you pinpoint something contributing to impostor syndrome? Do you have impostor syndrome?
  3. If there is anything you are struggling to let go of rephrase the thought into the second person. So rather than ‘I haven’t achieved enough this week’ try ‘You haven’t achieved enough this week’. This helps to disassociate yourself from this and helps you see the self-judgement for what it is: irrational and unfair judgement.
  4. Be your own best friend. This is a great tactic for any source of worry, which often manifests in our inner critic rearing its ugly head. What would you say if your best friend was telling you about this situation? What is the worst-case scenario (realistically, not world war, or that the sun won’t come up tomorrow!)?
  5. Don’t act on your inner critic. Ensure any actions are from listening to a valid lesson rather than irrationality. Our inner talk can serve us. There are genuine lessons in life. We may wish we had done something differently, spoken differently, handled a situation in a better way. Those are lessons that can help us grow. Once you have separated out the legitimate from the nervous, negative self-talk, figure out what you can do to improve. This is the step that most of the time we don’t take. For example, if you feel that you work too slowly or not hard or long enough, the eventual outcome might be that there is an opportunity to cut down on busy work that you don’t need to do, identify areas that you need to delegate more effectively, or look at productivity tactics. But very very rarely is the right answer to work more! And it is never that you are stupid!

But if in any doubt, don’t act on the directives of your inner critic, as if you haven’t managed to emotionally distance yourself from the feelings, you aren’t going to be acting in your best interest.

Boosting your leadership and management skills by understanding the inner critic in others

Once you have begun to understand the power of your inner critic and how to control it, you can use this knowledge to help you get more from your team. Remember that every person you meet also has an inner critic. Idiosyncrasies may be a manifestation of impostor syndrome or an inner critic that isn’t controlled. Someone who always criticises may be insecure in some way. Someone else who always speaks at full speed may be concerned about whether their contribution is useful and worried about speaking up. Aim to grow your team by identifying growth opportunities now you understand the power the inner critic has on an individual. Rather than ignore, there is an opportunity to empathically explore this with an individual.

Gently does it of course! So proceed with caution. But if you help someone control their own negativity, they will not only be more effective and productive but also loyal.

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