How to deal with fear and negativity from your inner critic
My inner critic and I have been such close companions for so many years now that I can’t even recall life before I was aware of its presence.
The voice of self-doubt and fear pipes up especially in my professional life, and prompts me to think or feel some variation of ‘I’m not good enough’. Usually it’s ‘I’m not smart enough’, ‘I’m not experienced enough’ or ‘Who am I to do/want that?’.
Your inner critic may pop up in other parts of your life - whether it’s shame about your appearance or body, insecurity in your relationships or social life, worry about your competence as a parent, or an instantaneous self-rebuke about how stupid you are whenever you make a trivial mistake.
For years I wrestled with this inner voice, frustrated that I was holding myself back from reaching my potential. Eventually, I tired of the destructive, chronic self-doubt and fear, and embarked on a quest to conquer my inner critic.
Below I share how you can recognise the voice of your inner critic, why it exists and five steps to reduce its impact in your career and life.
How to recognise your inner critic
You may be so used to living with the constant stream of critical and negative thoughts or background noise and chatter in your head that you don’t even recognise it as a separate voice anymore.
Or you may be aware of your inner critic, but wonder, “How do I know whether it’s my inner critic speaking or whether I’m just being realistic? Maybe the voice is telling the truth and I really don’t have the skills or the knowledge I need in this situation.”
Women's leadership expert Tara Mohr drew a helpful distinction between the inner critic and realistic thinking in her book Playing Big. Mohr described numerous characteristics of the inner critic, several of which especially resonated with me:
- Problem-focussed: The inner critic is fearful and focuses on areas of weakness or lack, rather than focussing on moving forward and finding solutions. Often, the inner critic dwells on the worst case scenario or creates an escalation of worry.
- Harsh, rude, mean or hysterical: Your inner critic speaks from a place of self-critique rather than support. It doesn’t speak to you kindly like you would to someone you love.
- Binary: Seeing the world in black and white (for example, the binary trap of ‘success’ vs. ‘failure’), the inner critic doesn’t understand nuances or shades of grey.
- Irrational but persistent: Even if you know that your inner critic blatantly ignores the evidence and speaks irrationally, it’s so repetitive and persistent it can wear you down. Like a broken record, it’s stuck playing the same old stories over and over for years and potentially even decades.
The voice may even sound like someone in your life – a parent, another family member, a teacher, a manager, a community leader or religious authority figure – someone from your past or present who has surreptitiously moved in as the resident critic in your head.
Why do we have inner critics?
You’ve probably heard of the ‘fight or flight’ reflex – a primal survival response that evolved to keep our ancestors alive and safe from predators thousands of years ago.
It’s triggered by your amygdalae (named for the Greek word for ‘almond’), two almond-shaped groups of neurons deep in the brain that are part of a threat detection system. Your amygdalae are always active in the background, paying attention to your surroundings and monitoring your environment for predictors of threat. According to psychologist Rick Hanson, the amygdala uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news.
“[The amygdala] sends that signal to the prefrontal cortex [the ‘rational thinking’ part of the brain], where decisions get made. The amygdala produces an alarm reaction and the prefrontal cortex is in charge of cancelling or corroborating the alarm.”
We’ve evolved to be vigilant and wired for a negativity bias. Our threat detection system wants to keep us safe and small. In the modern world, thankfully we don’t need to worry as much about being pounced on by a lion or eaten by a bear, so our amygdalae turn their attention from physical dangers to worrying about other ways we may get hurt – like making ourselves emotionally vulnerable, or taking risks to stretch ourselves in our careers.
Tara Mohr likens the inner critic to “a guard at the edge of your comfort zone”. She explains,
“As long as you don't venture forth out of that zone, the inner critic can leave you alone — like a guard taking a nap. Yet when you approach the edge of your comfort zone, test old beliefs, contemplate change or stretch into playing bigger, you wake the sleeping guard. The inner critic recites its lines in an attempt to get you to go back into the familiar zone of the status quo.”
Psychologist Dr Gay Hendricks uses a different analogy. He frames the problem as one of self-imposed ‘Upper Limits’. In his book The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, Hendricks theorises that each of us have an ‘inner thermostat setting’ that determines how good we allow ourselves to feel. This thermostat is usually programmed in early childhood.
When we hit our Upper Limit, we manufacture thoughts and behave in ways that make us feel bad and return us to a familiar state where we feel secure. We limit or block our enjoyment. Hendricks observes that the most common behaviour is worry, but other ways we may upper limit ourselves are blame and criticism (of others or yourself), deflection (such as not acknowledging compliments), arguments and getting sick.
Hendricks says that our Upper Limits are based on one of four fears or false beliefs:
- Feeling fundamentally flawed, and/or therefore likely to fail (so better to play it safe and stay small).
- Disloyalty and abandonment, believing that success requires breaking your family’s spoken or unspoken rules, being disloyal to your roots or leaving behind people from your past.
- Believing that more success makes you a bigger burden.
- The Crime of Outshining, believing that achieving full success would make someone else look or feel bad.
How to manage your inner critic
Here are 5 steps to stop your inner critic getting in the way of your career and your life.
1. Be aware
Notice when your inner critic pipes up. Don’t beat yourself up for having critical or negative thoughts, just gently raise your awareness of what your inner critic is saying to you. As Mohr says, “Recognizing the critic’s voice consciously is often enough to immediately snap us out of its trance.”
2. Separate yourself
Remember that you are not your inner critic. Your critic may have become the dominant voice in your head and you may even feel like it’s simply ‘who you are’, but it’s not you or your essence, and it certainly doesn’t represent the best part of you.
You can think of the negative thoughts as dark clouds or weather patterns moving across the sky – impermanent and always changing. Or graffiti on a wall: just because you see something ugly doesn’t mean that you are ugly. It’s the same with the critical thoughts in your head.
Charisma expert Olivia Fox Cabane suggests de-personalising the experience and observing it with detachment, as a scientist might: “How interesting, there are self-critical thoughts arising.” You can also create distance from your thoughts by telling yourself, “My mind says that...”. For example: “My mind says that I am not smart enough.”
You may find it helpful to imagine and name your inner critic as a character, perhaps one that’s a little absurd in its hyper-vigilance or excessive anxiety. It could be a character from a movie or a book, a celebrity, an animal, or you can create your own character or caricature.
You can even speak your inner critic’s thoughts out loud in a silly accent or ridiculous voice. This may sound absurd, but it will quickly create distance from that negative voice in your head and reduce its power!
When I first did this exercise I played with the idea of using Mike Wazowski – the little green monster with a single big eyeball and skinny limbs from the movie Monsters Inc. – to represent my inner critic. He’s energetic and egocentric, with an elevated sense of self-worth (he’s even been described as a psychopath by a psychologist). But he’s physically small so his bite is worse than his bark, and he’s also loyal and funny, which would enable me to take my inner critic less seriously.
My inner critic might actually sound more like Sadness from Inside Out though. Sadness is pessimistic but endearingly amusing in her own mopey and feet-dragging way.
You may even have multiple characters who live in your inner village, each with different concerns or motivations. Tara Mohr described her ensemble:
“...my inner critic has four major characters who I have named, “Perfectionista” (the voice of perfectionism), “Disastra” (the worst case scenario obsessive), “Preparissa” (the fearful over-preparer who believes more preparing = more success), and “People Pleaser” — enough said!”
3. Recognise the role your inner critic plays
Understand the motives of your inner critic – it’s just trying to do its job to keep you safe.
Differentiate when the protective function of your inner critic is helpful and when it is a hindrance. Identify the values and standards that your inner critic is using, and whether they are truly reflective of your own values and standards or have been adopted from elsewhere.
4. Befriend your inner critic
Ultimately, I’ve realised that managing your inner critic involves finding a way to make peace with it. It’s not about ‘conquering’ it after all, it’s about learning to accept and befriend it.
Don’t fight it or pretend it doesn’t exist, or your inner critic will fight back and find a way to make its presence known. Instead, respect how your inner critic is trying to help you, so that it can “start to relax more.”
A side note: It’s been suggested that you question the stories you tell yourself, asking your inner critic: “Is this 100% true? Is it true 100% of the time?”
This can be a valuable way to open yourself to alternative, more empowering perspectives.
However, I’ve had mixed results using these questions with my clients and in my own life. They can be less helpful in shifting deep-rooted fears as they can invite you to spend more time in your head trying to reason with your inner critic, which is often futile. The inner critic is fear-driven and emotional, so you can’t really ‘win’ an intellectual debate with it.
If you do use these questions, I’d suggest doing so with the intent to prompt reflection and curious self-inquiry, rather than engaging in an argument with your inner critic. It’s generally much easier and more effective to accept your inner critic’s role, reassure it and make a conscious decision to move forward.
5. Create space for more empowering or supportive thoughts
Recognise that just because you hear your inner critic doesn’t mean you have to obey what it says. You have multiple inner voices and you can choose which ones to take direction from. What is a more supportive, empowering belief that you could focus on, rather than buying into your inner critic’s negativity?
You could imagine your mental chatter as if it’s coming from a radio. Choose to turn the volume down or change the station.
When you notice your inner critic starting to fret or worry, one of Tara Mohr’s key strategies is to reassure it that you’re listening to its concerns and thank it for doing its job. Calmly and sincerely tell your inner critic, “Thank you, but I’ve got this.”
Alternatively, Mohr outlines a technique from The Coaches Training Institute to remove your inner critic from the scene: use a physical ritual to move your inner critic away from you into a different space. For example, you could mime putting it into a container like a box, or stand up and move your inner critic into a cupboard, a corner or a different room.
It can help, Mohr says, to “envision a nice place you are sending the inner critic, a place that will keep him or her busy for a while. Send your inner critic to the beach. Send her mountain climbing.” I like the idea of sending my inner critic on a holiday while also giving myself a reprieve! (I like the idea of going on a holiday myself and leaving my inner critic behind better, but anyway...)
Gay Hendricks recommends that when we notice ourselves reaching an Upper Limit, we consciously allow ourselves to make room in our awareness for abundance, love and success. He advises,
“Use the resources of your whole being, not just your mind. For example, feel more love in your chest and heart area. Savor the body feeling, as well as the mental satisfaction, of success and abundance.”
In The Big Leap, Hendricks says,
“If you focus for moment, you can always find some place in you that feels good right now. Your task is to give the expanding positive feeling your full attention. When you do, you will find that it expands with your attention. Let yourself enjoy it as long as you possibly can.”
Hendricks meditates on and repeats an ‘ultimate success mantra’ multiple times a day, to expand his capacity for feeling good and encourage the flow of positive energy: “I expand in abundance, success and love every day as I inspire those around me to do the same.” Hendricks suggests repeating the mantra aloud and pausing to allow resistance or insights to emerge. Before you (or your inner critic) dismiss the idea, why not give it a try and notice what comes up for you?
If you have friends or colleagues who want to reach their potential in their work or life, please share this post. It may help them make peace with their inner critic so they stop limiting themselves and start experiencing more joy and success.