Listening to your inner voice is often sage advice. But what happens when it tells you that you're not good enough or that you're going to fail so why bother trying? Our brains try to protect us from harm, but in so doing, we can limit ourselves from growing. Self-compassion, brain retraining, and a little bit of humor can turn a dreaded foe, our Inner Critic, into a friend.
We’ve all heard that inner voice telling us to “wait, stop, you don’t know what you’re doing." Even those we perceive to be the highest of achievers are not immune to the Imposter Syndrome, that phenomenon whereby we live in fear that everyone is going to find out we're a fake. John Steinbeck confessed, “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people." The seemingly unshakable Meryl Streep admits to feelings of self-doubt about her ability to act. If these folks have their inner critics telling them they're not good enough, what hope is there left for the rest of us?
The good news is you’re not alone. Psychologist Robert Firestone describes this Critical Inner Voice to be a pattern of thoughts that form an internalized and destructive dialogue that discourages us to act in our best interest. Many of these voices originate from our childhood and formative years where our parents told us ‘no’ to protect us from falling, or from our own unfounded uncertainties as we navigated an ever-complex world. If we do not learn to reframe these thoughts, they can become our default mode of thinking.
When you have a thought, and that thought is repeated, it can create an inner rule in your brain that impacts your actions. A positive thought can stimulate your brain’s reward centers, but a negative one can activate your fear response. These negative thoughts – even if they occur internally – can self-perpetuate. In other words, negative self-thinking activates your fear response, which drives you to behave defensively in order to protect yourself. This, in turn, limits your ability to learn and grow and manage this fear, which in turn leads to more negative self-talk, and... well, you get the picture.
Neuroplasticity suggests our brains can change in its structure and function depending on where we focus our attention. If we focus on the negative, we’ll keep our brains in a more constant state of stress and fear. In a recent New York Times article, Center for Healthy Minds Dr. Richard Davidson noted that self-criticism can “interfere with our productivity, and it can impact our bodies by stimulating inflammatory mechanisms that lead to chronic illness and accelerate aging.” But we aren’t beholden to this cycle. Liberating ourselves from our Inner Critic requires conscious changes in how we relate to it. Because we are in constant self-talk, how we interpret our experience has a profound impact on our subconscious which feeds our Inner Critic or fuels our Inner Champion.
What can we do to quiet that Inner Critic to find our true inner selves, that which believes in us with realism and hope?
1. Pay attention to your body.
Notice what sensations you have in your body when your Inner Critic is speaking. If you’re speaking in front of a large group, does your Inner Critic start to shout? Likely, those sensations won’t feel good. When your Inner Critic is speaking, your body might experience similar sensations as if you lost your best friend or your kindergarten teacher yelled at you for not cleaning up the markers "right." However, when your Inner Champion is speaking, your body likely experiences a sense of fulfillment and contentment. Feel like you’re “on and in the zone” when speaking in front of your kids’ soccer team? By paying attention to what your body is saying, you'll know which Inner Voice is speaking.
2. Show self-compassion.
As psychologist Kristin Neff notes, self-compassion requires a heck of a lot of courage to face ourselves with what is real, but to do so with awareness and kindness. We can be honest with our big golf handicap, but instead of berating our performance and giving up, we can view it with recognition of what doesn’t work and as an opportunity to grow. By being as kind to ourselves as we would be to a friend, we can better appreciate our shortcomings with gentleness; this way, we can act to improve ourselves rather than be paralyzed by fear of being “found out.” Self-compassion also reminds us we’re not alone – our feelings of inadequacies make us human.
3. Refocus and reframe.
Instead of spending energy trying to avoid “being found out,” redirect that energy to what is happening in the moment. For example, after a big promotion, instead of focusing on learning the ropes of your new role, we might focus on worrying that others will discover we "didn't deserve it" (even if we did). But when we refocus our thoughts to what matters, our attention shifts from “me” to "what might be the best way for me to show up for other?". How might you use your strength and talents to be of service? If your Inner Critic is telling you, “you can’t,” shift that perspective as if you’re talking to a friend. Think about how you might see a situation differently to remind yourself “you can".
4. Look for ways to fail.
The more we learn the feeling of failure and the feeling of recovering from failure, the more we build our resilience. Failing doesn’t feel that great, but it teaches us not to be complacent. Complacency actually lets our Inner Critic take over. When we step onto our edges and take risks, we embrace the possibility of failure, knowing it is temporary and a perfect teacher for us to truly grow and learn. Failing smartly can quiet that Inner Critic and empower the Inner Champion through the process, regardless of the outcome.
5. Befriend the fear.
Our Inner Critic doesn’t mean us harm. It has tried protecting us over the years from disappointment, shame, and hurt. Yet it also has prevented us from shining as brightly as we can. Instead of hiding behind our Inner Critic or trying to push it away unsuccessfully, we can acknowledge its presence and honor its misplaced attempt to "help," we can befriend it like a friend needing a long trip away and wish it well.
When we listen to our Inner Critic, we are in fact running away from our Inner Champion, our deepest self. As Marianne Williamson says,
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us….. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”