Confronting Your Inner Critic

“Don’t feed the trolls” is an excellent phrase that reminds us to avoid the soul-destroying activity of fruitless online debates with obnoxious commenters. But not every troll lives outside our heads. Some have set up shop inside our heads and from there exert far more influence than they deserve. To borrow a phrase, this troll-like voice is our “inner critic”, and succeeding in spite of it is an obligation for those who wish to grow.

I said “to borrow a phrase”. The person I’m borrowing it from is Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message. One of my head-clearing activities (and we all need them) is to go for a walk and listen to a podcast. I recently heard an excellent interview of Tara on the HBR Ideacast podcast. You can listen to the episode here.

There is a difference between your inner critic and rational thinking.  Based upon those labels you can surmise that the inner critic is, by definition, irrational. More on that later.

Tara points out something I’ve thought a lot about, particularly in context with young people: our association with praise. As we transition from school to the work world, the gold stars and top grades recede into the background. Students who were perpetually celebrated as students arrive at work and have to connect with something deeper than praise for their motivation.  Perhaps one of my superpowers is the lack of praise I received as a student.

Anyhow, one of the primary obstacles we face as we work to detach ourselves from the need for praise is the inner critic. And your job isn’t to dismiss or ignore your inner critic, because he (or, as the case may be, she) is too loud. How can you recognize your inner critic?

Your inner critic is:
• Rooted in self-doubt
• Harsh
• Repetitive
• Binary

The inner critic is the voice that tells you “this will never work”, or “I’m in over my head and people are going to hate me”. You know the inner critic. It sucks your motivation and causes you to become tentative, to make decisions based upon fear. It is the voice of scarcity, not abundance.

Rational thinking might echo some themes from the inner critic, but is far more thoughtful and directed toward solutions. It says “I have a lot of learn, and need to create a plan”, or “I see some obstacles, but I also see how I can make this work”. Rational thinking isn’t excessively positive, but it is kind, thoughtful and forward-looking while the inner critic is none of those.

Last point for leaders….
Often we see capabilities in others that they can’t see in themselves. When confronted by the inner critic in someone else, it is often counter-intuitive to argue with it. Saying “no, you DO have the skills to step up into this bigger job” doesn’t get it done. Tara points out that since the inner critic is fear-based, it is wiley and able to morph into new arguments.

The better approach is to acknowledge to the person that “perhaps your inner critic is holding you back from realizing your mission” and talk about how the inner critic has been an obstacle in your own life. A good example from Tara: “I think you’re really capable, but I wonder if there is self-doubt at play that aren’t grounded in the facts”.

You likely won’t ever be rid of the inner critic, but you can overcome it if you acknowledge it for what it is.

Acknowledge it, but don’t give it veto power.

Good luck!