7 steps to befriending your inner critic
“We are what we think about all day long.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
“When there is no enemy within, the enemy without can do you no harm.” African proverb
When you reflect back on today has there been a time when you have spoken to yourself in a way that has given you pause? Or have you done something that you wish you had not, and then silently scolded yourself? Or maybe you started something only to hear your inner voice list a myriad of reasons as to why now is not the right time for whatever you have started. If so, then you have heard your inner critic at work, doing its job to protect you.
The inner critic exists in all minds to varying degrees. Created to help us build closeness in our relationships by being a tool for self reflection, the critic instead can act against our better interests by voicing reasons why we have not measured up to some unseen self imposed standard, turning us inwards and building distance rather than the closeness we need and desire.
Our inner critic applies our critical thinking. This skill is not an ability that we can turn on or off. Like any skill, with use it strengthens. If we hold a job in management, law, technology, auditing, quality, engineering, strategy or any other role where problems are investigated and solved, we build our critical thinking skills and with them the intensity of our inner critic.
Seven steps to befriending your inner critic
There is a Buddhist story about a young warrior girl who is forced into a battle with the immortal, Fear. She is terrified that she will die so she approaches Fear bows deeply and asks how she may conquer it. Fear, softened by her respect advises that she will only suffer if she acts on what Fear says. If she does not act upon its words it has no power. She can listen to Fear’s words – they will not destroy her – it is only if she acts on Fear’s instructions will she be in danger.
Our inner voice harnesses our fear. It tells us what can go wrong at some time in the future in order to protect us. Like the Fear in this story, it never goes away, and its power is in the action we take from its noise. If we don’t take action, it cannot hurt us.
Here are seven steps that can be applied to soften this fear, and quieten this inner voice we all have. (I do this work in a journal and suggest you do too).
(1) Listen to the words being said.
The voice speaks for a reason. It wants to be heard. So listen. It will keep clambering until it gets your attention. If you try to repress it, it will come back louder and stronger.
When you listen, be curious: What are the words used? Is the tone harsh or gentle? Are you attaching blame to self or others? Would you use these words or tone with a friend? Don’t buy into the words. Don’t turn them into a broken record. Hear them once. That is all that is needed.
(2) Label the feeling.
Name the emotion that is present with the words. There will be fear and maybe another emotion. Is it anger at oneself? Is it disgust? Is it something else? The critic will talk to you many times a day. Each time it does, label the emotion/s that is present. By labelling, we begin to recognise that life is an ever moving feast of emotions that arise and pass away. By becoming aware of the temporary nature of even our deepest emotions we more easily traverse our internal storms, so the practise you do here is valuable elsewhere too.
(3) Move your attention into the body (and bring yourself into the present).
Describe the emotion as it sits in the body. Is it in your chest area? Your neck? Your shoulder? Your legs? Is it in more than one place? Does it have a colour? Is the colour intense or muted? Does the emotion feel warm? Is it cool? Is it sharp? Is it numbing? As you watch it, what is happening to it? Is it spreading? Is it contracting? Is it changing in intensity? You may find it useful to say: This is how fear (or other emotion) feels. Do this often and over time you will build up a picture of the various ways your emotions work through your body.
Stop for a moment: Take 4 slow deep breaths. Breath deep into the stomach. Feel the emotion again. Has it changed in any way?
(4) Find the motivation: Why is the inner voice talking?
Through steps 1-3 your inner voice will have lost some of its emotional power . You have bought it back from the future into the present. Now the emotion has cooled a little, its time to find out what your voice is trying to tell you. Remember, your voice is there to help you navigate life and keep you safe. Its purpose is not to do you harm. Ask it directly: What are you trying to tell me? Why will being afraid, angry or whatever be useful to me? And ask it for a list of the past experiences it is accessing to give you its commentary. Find out the standards it is applying. Is it seeking ‘perfection’ or your ‘best’ or another level?
Have a proper conversation. Explore at depth and be curious. Keep the conversation going until you understand what your voice is saying.
(5) Thank your inner critic for its suggestions.
Speak gently to it, and thank it for its help, in the same way as you would talk to your dearest friend. This friend, your critic, has taken the time to think of your best interests, so thank it for doing so.
(6) Recognise that you will be okay, whatever may come
Tell your inner critic that ‘its okay’. That no matter what is going to happen you will be able to handle it. Of course things may not go perfectly, but will you die? Unlikely. So gently confirm that everything will be okay. Yes, vocalise these words. Its amazing the power of this simple phrase.
(7) Take action.
From your interrogation work out what needs to be done and take the action necessary. If you have set yourself the standard of perfection, the first step is to drop your standard to “doing your best” and put in place actions to assure this.
Recently I was struggling with procrastination. My voice was telling me I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, that was to write fast coherent articles. I was creating a future in my mind where my articles were laughed at and my reputation torn to shreds. Thus I was spending a lot of time walking by the river and reading a seemingly endless quantity of dissertations and books. This was causing me to work late into the night.
When I applied these 7 steps I learned three things (1) that my inner voice wanted me to rest. I had been in hospital several days before and I was not fully recuperated. It told me that the walking was pacing my energy, making me get up and go outside and clear my mind; (2) What I thought was rubbish in my many drafts my voice told me was a necessary step in coalescing my ideas. And my need was assimilation – not reading heaps of theory. Again the walking was allowing me to think about what I was saying from a distance; and (3) I learned that the voice was speaking clearly but I was not hearing it. Instead I was giving it scant proper attention and becoming unhappy.
When I stopped and applied these 7 steps, I was taken out of a frightening future and into the present moment where I found my inner voice was indeed guiding me skilfully. That I was working longer than I wanted was because I mistook the time I needed and was succumbing to safety in theory. The steps bought me back into balance and showed me I was slower than I wanted to be, not incompetent.
The inner critic is a friend who wants to help craft us a future filled with success and joy.Fear can arise if we let our voice take us on a future journey without restraint. Given that the future is uncertain any options our inner critic offers are difficult to refute. Anything is possible when dealing with the unknown.
It is strengthened whenever we apply critical thinking. Whether it is a help or hindrance depends on how well we interrogate its message and how gentle we are in our response to it. If we speak gently, in time it will return the compliment, and speak gently to us too.
To manage the critic we first need to reduce its emotional power by coming into the present moment. Once in the present moment, (which we achieve by observing our words and our body), we can uncover why the critic is making such noise and identify the experience it is using as a baseline. Our challenge then is to uncover the veracity of its arguments and from there determine any actions to take.
Every time we push ourselves beyond our comfort zone our inner critic will raise its voice in order to protect us. We need to listen. Research as proven again and again that repressing the voice makes it louder and more strident, turning us further and further inwards, eating up our confidence and dampening relationships. Thus please treat the voice with respect. It is trying to help. Let it.
When the young warrior entered the arena she knew her chances of survival were slim. Had she tried to fight or ignore Fear she would not have heard its words of wisdom and likely succumbed to the danger.
Instead, by befriending Fear she learnt how to live alongside it.
Jennifer is a strategy implementation coach who helps leaders turn their strategies into results.
She assists executives and business owners to achieve goals such as improved profit, productivity, leadership skills, business value. Her services are Business and Executive Coaching, Group Facilitation and advising on Board Governance. Her straight forward process and Mindshop Toolbox help leaders achieve results without delay.
To find out how she can help you, call +61 439 520 182 or email.