If you’re reading this post then I’m guessing you have a relationship with self-critical thinking that you would like to explore and challenge? When you came across this post was there a voice in the background saying, “Oh, so you think you’re up to this do you?” If so let me assure you, ‘Yes, you absolutely are!’ it’s time to set to and challenge your self-critical thinking
As a personal coach dealing with the impact of self-critical thoughts is something that crops up, at some point, with virtually every person I work with. I also know, from personal experience, how mean and limiting that voice can be when we listen to it and give it air time. It says things to about us that we wouldn’t dream of saying to our closest friends. We can find ourselves not only listening to it but also believing it and acting on what it says.
Maybe in the past people have told you that you need to be more confident, as if confidence is something you can go out and buy. So, here’s the thing, what if, instead of trying to become more confident, you focus your energy on rethinking your relationship with self-criticism? Standing up to your inner critic and starting to challenge and question what it says?
How would that feel? I wonder what impact that might have on the way you live your life? Are you curious to find out?
In a series of linked posts you will find some exercises to support you in this work.
What is an inner critic?
The inner critic has a number of names and is known also as the saboteur or gremlin. These are the names given to the negative and self-destructive thoughts that we all experience to a greater or lesser degree. These thoughts have the ability to shape how we feel about ourselves, how we believe other people experience us and how we behave.
They are self-defeating, self-deprecating and impact negatively on our self-esteem. They become especially loud when we think about moving out of our comfort zone, stretching into new areas or taking on a new challenge and we will explore why this is the case a little later on.
You may have had the experience of getting really excited about applying for a new job or putting yourself forward to take on a new role and then as quickly as that thought enters your head it is followed by another one saying, ‘Hmm, maybe not. I don’t have enough experience’ or ‘I’m not good enough to do that’.
Some of us know our inner critic so well that it can feel like our modus operandi. We have come to accept and believe what it says, ‘you aren’t good enough’, ‘it’s best not to raise your head above the parapet’, ‘there’s no point in trying because you know it won’t work’.
We have a dream of working for ourselves and don’t follow it because we automatically think it will fail. We want to commit to a life style change but don’t because our inner critic tells us, ‘every time you’ve tried in the past it hasn’t worked so why waste your time’. Not a great place to be operating from is it?
Where does our self-critical thinking come from?
They often stem from things we have internalised as children. They may be things that we were told as we were growing up by our parents, family, friends, teachers and other significant people in our lives. ‘Good girls don’t do that’. ‘Don’t make a fuss’. ‘You’re not very good at ….’.
Another source of fuel for our inner critic are the societal messages we are bombarded with of the images and lifestyles we are meant to aspire to. We can find ourselves in a constant state of comparison, finding ourselves wanting.
Whilst the function of our inner critic may seem destructive it is actually driven by a desire to protect us from harm and keep us safe. This is the reason it becomes louder and more active when we think about stretching or challenging ourselves. Moving out of our comfort zone.
Think of it like a panic button being hit. We are about to leave the safety of the familiar and head out into the unknown. Our inner critic, in its own misguided way, wants to prevent this from happening. The familiar is a safe place to be, why rock the boat? Things could get dangerous out there, you might come to some kind of harm.
Can our inner critic be a source of motivation?
Some people feel that their inner critic is helpful as it provides motivation. For example, If I am writing a report or a proposal and my inner critic tells me that it isn’t good enough to submit isn’t that helping me to improve the report, motivating me to do better? Definitely not when spoken by our inner critic rather than being informed by realistic thinking.
This is an important distinction to understand so let’s look a little closer. When spoken by our inner critic it sounds like this, I afraid this isn’t good enough and I don’t want to look a fool. It makes us hang on to the report for longer than necessary engaging in endless polishing when it would have been better to have handed it in.
This source of motivation is founded on fear and anxiety: the fear of failure; the fear of not being good enough; the fear of being found out. Does this feel like a healthy way to live? It is a great way of not moving forward, ‘I need to read another book before I hand this in’, ‘I need to obtain another qualification before I am in a position to apply for that job’.
However, realistic thinking IS helpful. If we take the above example and you know that you have rushed the report off in a gap between meetings then it is helpful to pause and check in with the reality of the situation. To give some thought as to whether you have given the work the time and consideration it deserves.
What are we trying to achieve?
Before we go any further it’s important to understand that what you are aiming to do is to reduce the impact of your inner critic not to get rid of it. In essence you are working to redefine your relationship with it. By bringing some more realistic thinking into the equation. To, in effect, insert a pause in your thinking when you hear your inner critic to give you time to ask, ‘who is talking right now and is there truth in what is being said?’.
In doing this you are moving to a place of recognising the voice of your inner critic for what it is and starting to question and challenge what it says.
Imagine moving into a more adult conversation, one of not just taking those self-critical comments as true but of starting to challenging the assumptions and turn down the volume. Moving away from the harshness and into a more self-compassionate space. This is an ongoing work so don’t see it as a one off fix.
The posts that will follow are designed to support you in starting to challenge those self-critical thoughts. If you can’t wait and want to skip ahead you can download an Ebook Quietening Your Inner Critic I have written that contains a series of exercises to support you in this work.