Bullied by the Voices in Your Head? 5 Ways to Tame Your Inner Critic
Do you have a bully living in your head who tells you all the ways you aren’t measuring up? It’s normal to be a little self-critical at times, but many of the self-imposed career challenges we face stem from an untamed inner critic. We can’t silence the negative voices completely, but here are 5 ways to live with them more peacefully.
As I finalize the edits on this month’s blog post, Nancy whispers in my ear that I should probably just scrap it and start over. In fact, why do I even bother? She tells me that I don’t have anything interesting to share, and no one will read it anyway.
If Nancy sounds like a real bully, you are correct. However, she isn't an actual person. Nancy is my inner critic. Named after a former (and hypercritical) boss, she is the voice in my head who reminds me I’m not up to par and will ultimately fail.
Nancy doesn’t mean to be cruel. She’s just doing her job – to keep me safe. My inner critic is trying to protect me from experiencing shame and rejection if I put myself out there and fall on my face.
Bullied by the Voices in Your Head?
Do you have a “Nancy” living in your head too? If you are human, you probably do. Blame it on evolution. That’s just how our brains are wired.
Our inner critic is associated with our amygdala, the primitive part of our brain that helped our distant ancestors stay alive. It served as a built-in threat detector to quickly identify and react to potential risks to our survival, like hungry lions who might eat us for dinner.
There are fewer perils to our physical safety in today's world, yet our inner critic still perceives danger everywhere, albeit the potential threats tend to be more psychological. Not from wild beasts but threats to our reputation and self-esteem.
How it Gets in Our Way
It’s normal to be a little self-critical at times, but many of the self-imposed career challenges women attorneys and leaders face stem from unchecked negative self-talk. It's also the root of several career-limiting behaviors and mindsets including, impostor syndrome, perfectionism, procrastination, and people-pleasing.
An untamed inner critic can leave us utterly drained and burned out as we try to measure up to the impossibly high standards it establishes in every aspect of our lives.
How to Tame Your Inner Critic
Does your inner critic show up as an uninvited guest? That’s to be expected, but you don't have to let it take up residence in your head. Here 5 ways to keep it at bay when it tries to overstay its welcome.
1. Give It a Name
Do you recognize the voice of your inner critic? Like my "Nancy," maybe yours rears its head only on occasion, like when you push yourself outside your comfort zone or do something that makes you feel particularly vulnerable. Or perhaps it's a constant chatter of worrying, ruminating, and catastrophizing that seems to follow you around most of your day.
It may feel a little silly at first, but personalizing your inner critic can help you see the negative voice in your head as something distinct from your thoughts. When my inner critic appears unannounced, I acknowledge her presence as "Hi Nancy" but don't let her take over.
2. Practice Mindfulness
Most of us get hijacked by our inner critic from time to time because we don’t realize what’s happening until it’s too late. Then we find ourselves knee-deep in a shame storm as we do a postmortem on how we messed up yet again.
It's normal to get caught up in a negative thinking loop, especially as your inner critic tries to take over. Yet your ability to stay present can help you stay in control.
Mindfulness - the practice of nonjudgmental awareness in the present moment – can help you break this reactive chain by allowing you to recognize when this is happening. It’s like giving you a pause button so you can slow things down and see the situation more objectively.
Mindfulness practice doesn't have to be complicated or time-consuming. I’ve been able to keep my inner critic relatively calm using this mindfulness app for just 10 minutes a day. But you can also practice mindfulness by simply noticing your feet on the ground or the weight of your body in the chair right before you are about to do something challenging.
3. Try Journaling
Like practicing mindfulness, journaling is another powerful and proven way to help you release negative thinking because it enables you to observe and process difficult emotions as they unfold. Think of it as having a conversation with your inner critic on paper.
Many of my clients who practice journaling are surprised by how frequently their inner critic inserts itself in their everyday thoughts. This also helps them see how their thoughts affect their behaviors.
The best way to start journaling is to do a complete "brain dump" to clear your mind. Stay open and try not to judge or censor your thoughts as you write. Be curious, and you might be enlightened by what your inner critic reveals to you.
4. Let Go of Perfectionism
When I first started publishing this blog series, Getting out of Your Own Way, I often felt paralyzed by my inner critic, who seemed to judge every word and sentence I wrote. While I love sharing my ideas for helping women attorneys and leaders become more self-empowered, I often felt drained by my relentless compulsion to make the article “perfect.”
Yet, I've been able to successfully publish an article every month over the past year and a half – 19 to be exact! Does this mean I've conquered my perfectionism? Not exactly. I still struggle with these tendencies, but I’m learning to let go of the unattainable standards and negative self-judgments that have previously kept me stuck.
I’ll admit this can feel very challenging at times. What has helped me the most is realizing the significant opportunity cost perfectionism requires. The time and energy it takes to ensure flawlessness just isn’t worth it and interferes with my ability to get more done. So while I still strive for excellence, I also discern where "good enough" really is good enough.
5. Don’t Believe Its Lies
When you make a mistake, what do you make it mean about yourself? If your inner critic is involved, chances are that what starts out as an isolated issue often gets blown out of proportion.
So if you miss a filing deadline, do you make it mean you’re a disorganized and incompetent attorney? In most cases, there is often a grain of truth in what your inner critic is telling you. But don’t believe its lies and make it mean something that's not true!
So while letting a filing deadline fall through the cracks might mean you need a better calendaring or docketing system, it doesn't necessarily mean you are a complete disaster and should reconsider your career as a lawyer.
Want to Tame Your Inner Critic?
We can’t silence our inner critic completely, but we can learn to live with it more peacefully.
A key to taming the bully in your head is recognizing its voice and challenging the story it's telling you. And a healthy dose of self-compassion doesn’t hurt either. Showing ourselves kindness is like kryptonite to our inner critic!
Are you ready to let go of the negative self-talk and empower yourself and your career?
If so, please reach out to me to learn how I can help. You are also welcome to schedule a 30-min consultation call with me to learn how coaching can help you "get out of your own way" so you can achieve your goals and realize your full potential.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, PCC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Facilitator
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