From striving to thriving: Freeing yourself from the inner critic
Do you ever feel like you are behind? That you need to be better, slicker, more impactful? Do you look at others who've succeeded in some way and think 'they must know more/be better than me to be nailing it like they are'?
Do you find that when you make progress, you still don’t feel proud or satisfied because you wish it had happened sooner, or you are focused on how far you still have to go before you’ve 'made it'?
This, and all versions of "I'm not good enough", are examples of your critical inner voice. This is the voice that has helped you get where you, has pushed you to work hard and has likely created many successes in your life. It’s also made you miserable at times, invited you to feel shame about what isn’t perfect, and sucked the joy out of what is good. This is the voice that has you constantly striving and, no matter what you do, never lets you thrive.
Your critical voice wants to keep you safe. It truly believes that only certain ways of being/acting in the world will ensure your safety and success - ways such as;
- fitting in with a certain group
- focusing on fixing imperfections
- pushing yourself
- pleasing other people
- following authority
- ignoring your own needs to meet those of others
These traits can be gifts, but they can also have great limitations.
Whilst your critical voice can push you to be stronger and more powerful, it can also have a damaging impact. It never allows you to feel satisfied, by always focusing on the next milestone to strive for. The constant pressure can make you look for ways to escape; perhaps you numb out with alcohol, sleep, sex, or even more work! Compulsive use of distractions quietens or blocks out the inner voice for a short while, but then it often returns louder than before and creates deeper anxiety. This is a pattern that then repeats and eats away at your confidence.
Data. Your inner critic responds well to facts. As your safety is its ultimate aim, presenting it with information about what you have done and how safe you are will reassure it that it doesn’t need to shout so loud. Life may not be exactly how you want it, however, you do have an abundance of information about how you are safe, the things you have done, the resources you have, the places you belong, the skills you have. This information relaxes the inner critic (a little). It needs assurance that it will be heard and understood - a basic need we all have. The good news is that once the pressure has eased to be perfect, the critic’s ideas can be useful feedback.
Thriving is about being who we are in the world: contributing, learning, growing, teaching, giving and receiving acknowledgement, and it feels good and nourishing.
So - how do we go from striving under the watchful eye of the inner critic to thriving?
Well, the critical voice likes data, so you give it some information about what you are doing and, in the process, you become nourished by your achievements and gain confidence from what you do (rather than anxious about what you are yet to do). Give yourself some credit!
- Step one - awareness. Become aware of your inner critic and the sorts of things it says to you. "You’re lazy", "you’re so embarrassing", "don’t speak - you’ll make a fool of yourself", "you should have done this already", etc. Identify your inner critic language by the things you say internally.
- Step two - compassion. It’s OK to have an inner critic! Beating yourself up for it would be counterproductive. Thank your internal critic for its care and sense of protection, and reassure it that you are OK - you’re a grown-up now.
- Step three - data. Note down what you have done that day. Every day you do good things - you get up and get to work on time, you contribute to meetings, you have ideas, you care for people, you take care of yourself. Resist the "yes but... (I could have done more)", and honour what you have done. Acknowledgement is powerful.
- Step four - close. Acknowledge/congratulate yourself on what you have done and close the day. This allows you to rest without still being in striving mode. You may have learnings from the data you have collected and you may create a list of things you want to do in future. If so, that’s great - write them down and trust yourself that you can take the right next steps tomorrow.
The process is simple and doesn’t involve pushing yourself. It involves acknowledgement of the facts of what you have done. It allows space to review your actions and choose your next ones. The key is to use the process with consistency; less than 10 minutes is all you need every day to turn the ship around from being in strive mode to thrive.
Top tip - if you still feel anxious, try a breathing practice before and after you walk yourself through the process.