Quiet Your Inner Critic

Of all the people with whom we communicate with each day, the one we speak to the most is ourselves. And all too often we are not kind. We say to ourselves things we would never say to anyone else. And we certainly wouldn’t be saying it so often. Yet, each day the barrage continues, and it takes a toll.

A result of this negative self-talk is a decrease in our ability to believe in ourselves. When something new comes up, we step back, sure if we take on this challenge, we will mess it up. Our inner critic blocks our path to leadership, adds to our stress, and it leads to feelings of overwhelm and burnout.

But how can we turn off, or at least turn down, the critic that lives inside us? It’s not as if we seek it out. It speaks up almost without us being aware of it. And there is the core of the answer. Being aware of your self-critic is the first step.

In a recent article on Edutopia, Kailyn Fullerton presents the following  7 Ways to Identify and Overcome Self-Criticism:

  1. Understand the negativity bias -Fullerton explains it’s natural. All animals are hard-wired to identify threats, humans included. Unfortunately, we do this even when the situation isn’t dire and as such, look for – and find – all the things going wrong at any given moment. By being aware of this bias, we can notice when it’s not serving us, when it’s not true, and even when others are doing it by having their focus solely on what they think is wrong.  
  2. Monitor your inner voice –What are those negative phrases that play in a loop in your head? Fullerton says these self-critical statements often repeat themselves and suggests identifying your “top ten.”  The “shoulda,” “coulda,” “woulda”s” are always up there, along with “I always,” and  “I never.” Absolutes in a statement are usually a warning. Putting this negative self talk to a “truth test” will help remind you see where the critic is lying.
  3. Set realistic expectations – Having high expectations isn’t a problem as long as you accept the learning and growing process that goes with it. Otherwise, you give your inner critic a space for those negative phrases (back to Monitor Your Inner Voice). Remember, too, that depending on the importance of the task, excellent and “good enough” can be sufficient. Learning takes time, and you can’t rush it.
  4. Create realistic goals – Don’t set yourself up for failure. Is what you want to do likely to happen given all the interruptions you face or do you need more time? Don’t forget the “A” in a SMART goal. If it’s not reasonably achievable, don’t make it goal however much you want to get it. Find a way to break it into something smaller. You can also try the W-O-O-P (Wish-Outcome-Obstacles-Plan) method for creating goals recommended by Fullerton which allows you to acknowledge the things that will get in your way and how to manage them..
  5. Find the helpers – Who can you turn to? Rather than beating yourself up or venting too often and sounding negative, look for supporters. Let those you have a good relationship with knew you are trying to find a solution to some challenges. If you don’t have a mentor, look for one or turn to library-related social media. Someone has already experienced this and will be glad to offer advice and support.
  6. Give yourself a break – If you criticize yourself, you can also be kind. Create a practice of self-compassion. Tell yourself supportive things. My favorite reminder is, “I have done tough stuff before and faced difficult challenges, I will do so again”. The advice is old but true, “Speak to yourself the way you would speak to someone else.” Acknowledge how difficult something is, recognize that this is part of the process, part of being human, and then say something kind to yourself. “I am taking on a big goal. I knew this would be hard but worth it. I am learning and getting closer to my goal every day.” It’s a worthwhile shift and you’ll feel your emotions and energy lift.
  7. Look for the good – Mute that inner critic by loading up with self-congratulatory thoughts.  This counteracts the negativity bias. Do it just for yourself. Make note of your successes. Savor compliments you get. Keep track of them. Create a Success Journal (this is the action that works for me). It’s so easy to overlook what went well. Moments of joy and positivity can make a difference.

Your inner critic is not going to become silent. Note that the title of the article was “Quiet Your Inner Critic” not eliminate it. As Fullerton says, your inner critic is natural and, sadly, well developed. Notice it, release it, find supportive truths, and be kind to yourself and others.

Talk (Kindly) To Me

Do you talk to yourself? Of course you do. But what are you saying? Of all the ways you communicate with people, how are you talking to yourself? For most of us, far too often, the words we say to ourselves are self-criticism. We would never think or say these things to anyone else, but we are fair targets for all our negative thoughts.

We are our worst critic, and we tend to believe every negative we say about ourselves. This barrage is a subtext for our day. Rarely are we conscious of how constantly we put ourselves down. In over emphasizing our weakness, we detract from our leadership.  It fuels our resistance to step out of our comfort zone. How can you move forward when you see so many places where you are inadequate?

This negative self-talk is often the basis for the Imposter Syndrome which convinces even successful people that they are not good enough for a particular task or opportunity. While you may not experience the worst examples of the syndrome, you are likely to find many of its typical thoughts are part of your self-talk.

Art Petty says Success as a Leader Demands Positive Self-Talk and explains what needs to be done. According to his post, we have about 6,000 thoughts a day. As the Pareto Principle anticipates, 80% of these thoughts are negative. That means we have nearly 50,000 self-criticizing thoughts every day. That’s a heavy load for anyone to carry. Petty proposes a 5-step process for “Active Reset:”

  1. Stop and acknowledge: You can’t change anything until you recognize its presence. The number of times you stop may come as a surprise, and you are likely to miss many. But, as James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Take the time to notice what you’ve been saying to yourself.
  2. Question: Now ask yourself, “Why am I thinking this way?” There’s usually a trigger that started the negative spiral. is that true? Chances are fear is the underlying factor. Was it fear of failure? Fear of the unknown? Maybe it’s fear of success – success can bring challenges that will take us out of our comfort zone, and that’s another fear. Once you’ve asked that, ask yourself, “What evidence to I have that supports the negative?” There’s probably not as much as you think – and there may be none.   
  3. Reframe:  Now that you have recognized the underlying cause, you can look at the situation more logically.  Have you succeeded at this or something similar in the past?  Is this related to another person? Petty suggests asking, “How can I reposition this situation and look for the opportunity?” It’s an empowering question.
  4. Act: Action is a positive response to negative self-talk. Having reframed the situation, you can do something about it. The action and result will become part of your toolbox – and stretch your comfort zone. When the issue arises again, it will less likely cause the negative self-talk, and you will take action more quickly.
  5. Reflect: Pause and consider what you have learned. Recognize the exercise as an opportunity for growth. Not only will you be more willing to analyze and change your negative thoughts, but it can help you be more empathetic with colleagues and students when their own negative self-talk is a barrier to their success.

Work on positive self-talk to balance the negatives. Cheer and celebrate your successes. Recognize your negative self-talk for what it is – a thought that can be changed. Leaders don’t only have positive self-talk, but they know how to deal with it. Once you hear your thoughts, you’ll hopefully be willing to be kinder to yourself.