How to deal with your noisy inner critic
Recently I went salsa dancing for the first time in a really long time, and I feel like I've found a missing piece of me. Salsa is something I have done on and off for the past 20 years and it's my happy place. Somewhere I can go and switch off and get swept up in the music and atmosphere. However, dance has also been a source of anxiety for me at times too. It's one of the places the voice of my inner critic, would often get quite loud and shouty, pointing out all the things I was doing wrong and reminding me that I'm not as good as those people over there.
This inner dialogue kept my confidence low and meant that I often did my utmost to avoid dancing with the really good people because I was scared they'd try and get me to do moves I didn't know and I'd end up looking stupid, feel embarrassed and they'd laugh at how rubbish I was.
To add insult to injury, if I did happen to dance with someone I held in high esteem, you can guarantee my heart would race, my palms would get sweaty, my legs would shake, my body would tense and everything I'd learned would go flying out the window, proving that I really was as rubbish as I'd thought.
So instead of losing myself in the heady mix of music, movement and connection, I'd spend my time feeling anxious and having an internal battle with myself that sucked all the joy out of my experience!
I so wanted to be better - to be one of the really good dancers and yet I would avoid doing the things that would help me improve because my inner critic kept telling me it was scary and I wasn't good enough.
That voice is still part of me today, however, thankfully I've got wise to her wily ways over the years and she no longer gets to make the decisions.
So in today's article, I thought I'd share with you what I've learned about my inner critic, including how to turn the volume down so it no longer keeps me small and stuck.
What is the inner critic?
Our inner critic is the voice of self-doubt - the internal chatter that tells us we are less than or not good enough - we don't know enough, haven't practised enough, aren't qualified enough, aren't confident enough, fit enough, attractive enough, slim enough, interesting enough etc. It takes your seeds of doubt and pours fertiliser on them!
For some of us this voice might be loudest around our careers, for others it may be our appearance and body image or our competence as parents or partners or both! It may even pipe up around those creative pursuits designed to bring us more joy, like salsa dancing!
Often it's a pick and mix of things that trigger it and many of us are so used to living with this internal narration that we might not even be consciously aware of it.
Our inner critic is our thoughts. It's like a little character inside us that is narrating all the mean, rude and limiting thoughts that pop into our heads minute by minute, hour by hour.
It often catastrophises all the things that could go wrong and is a black and white thinker (you're either brilliant or awful), and there's usually no room for shades of grey or anything in between.
The voice seemingly advocates for our best interests and what is realistic, to protect us from failure, disappointment and embarrassment. However, this is usually our fear of being overprotective and suffocating our dreams and desires.
It's like a broken record in the background of your head going on and on and on, and sometimes takes inspiration from other critical people in your life - a parent or siblings, teacher, boss or some other influential person in your life?
Maybe you are able to successfully distract yourself from it for a little while by keeping super busy or avoiding the things that trigger it. But just when you start to relax, it's back, blathering on and comparing you to all these people that are so much more [insert thing] than you.
The thing about self-doubt is that it corrodes our confidence and self-esteem. It stops us from going for the things we want and the opportunities that would bring the most joy and fulfilment.
Embracing the discomfort
You'll find that your inner critic is loudest when you feel most vulnerable, which is often when you are on the edge of your comfort zone starting to stretch yourself towards something new that is important and meaningful to you. The louder it gets, the closer you are to doing the new scary thing...
And this is the issue. Because more often than not, when the inner critic gets loud and shouty, we think that something is wrong and it's a sign we shouldn't do the thing because it's scary and we aren't good enough yet. So we end up backtracking or unconsciously sabotaging it in some way.
I do quite a lot of coaching in organisations and I've had numerous clients come to me wanting to work on their confidence because they've recently changed positions or taken on new responsibilities.
They have gone from something they were very comfortable and competent with and now feel a bit like a fish out of water, which is completely normal because no one ever feels comfortable or competent doing something new!
Whilst our comfort zones are warm, cosy and a lovely place to be, nothing magical, exciting or life-changing happens there. Those things happen when we reach the edge of our comfort zone and start to stretch ourselves.
As anyone who has ever tried yoga for the first time will tell you, stretching is not comfortable! However, everything you truly want is on the other side of this discomfort...
This is why paying too much attention to your inner critic will hold you back and keep you small, stuck and miserable.
If nothing changes, nothing changes!
The cost of self-doubt
Some people tend to view the inner critic as the voice of tough love. In a slightly sadistic way, it seems to motivate them to push themselves harder, do more and make themselves better.
So it makes sense that we may feel reluctant to change things. However, there are some serious costs to being motivated in this way.
I'm sure you've heard of the carrot and stick analogy for motivation. Well, using self-doubt as your motivator is the equivalent of beating yourself with a big stick! You're motivated to move away from pain, rather than towards something you really want.
This kind of motivation is not only soul-destroying and exhausting, it also sucks all the joy out of what you are doing. When we are motivated by moving away from pain, we can spend an awful lot of time doing things that don't really move us closer to where we really want to be.
So whilst you may be successful, there's a good chance it won't ever feel like enough and you'll spend your life racing around the hamster wheel wondering why you feel so bloody exhausted all the time.
Turning down the volume
Where we go wrong is that we try to push the inner critic away.
Think about it, If you were trying to warn someone of impending doom, would you stop because they pushed you away? Or would you try harder and get louder and bigger to try to make them listen? Exactly!
Pushing the inner critic away doesn't work. So what can you do instead?
- Start to pay attention to your inner dialogue and see if you can tune into the voice of your inner critic. Listen out for any words of criticism, sentences involving the words 'should' or 'can't' and any comparisons to others.
- You are not your thoughts and your thoughts aren't facts, so it's important to separate yourself from your inner critic. If you've not seen the Pixar film 'Inside Out' I'd really recommend watching it as it illustrates this point perfectly. I like to think of my inner critic as a little character called 'Negative Nancy' who is a massive scaredy-cat that is super over-protective and working overtime trying to keep me safe. This also helps me to have some compassion for her too. Rather than saying I'm freaking out, I say Nancy is having a meltdown, which helps me to then say and do the right things to calm her (and myself) down.
- Get curious with your inner critic - what is it trying to do right now? What is it trying to protect you from? What is it most afraid of? Then start to question it - is that true? Do know that's 100% accurate? What else could be true?
Once you are clear about what's really going on, can you respond to it compassionately, in the same way you would if it were someone you love? Even though its attempts to keep you safe are pretty harsh and misguided, it often just needs to be heard and reassured that you've got this.
- Once you are aware of your inner critic's voice and can begin to identify it, imagine turning down the volume. The goal is not to remove it completely - being fearless isn't a good thing! It's about learning to feel the fear and do it anyway.
- Cultivate an inner cheerleader to challenge negative or unhelpful thoughts. Pick a phrase to motivate you, encourage positive change or boost your self-esteem and repeat it to yourself. Research shows that doing this daily can decrease stress and increase resilience. I have some go-to phrases I say to myself when self-doubt starts to creep in:
- Yes, you can.
- You've got this.
- You've got a 100% success rate of making it through hard times.
- Permission to be human.
- Your best is enough.
- It's OK not to know.
- This too shall pass.
"The day of unfailing, gorgeous confidence isn't coming. Self-doubt will always be a part of what we each work with as we take steps to play bigger. The name of the game is not eliminating self-doubt. The name of the game is learning how to let the inner critic do its thing, without taking direction from it. The goal is to hear the inner critic's voice but not let that voice determine your choices."
- Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big.
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