American psychotherapist, Carl Rogers, observed a kind of “conditional positive regard”— a more critical view of oneself — in therapy patients. According to Rogers, this self-critical view stopped children from working toward ideals and led to excessive approval-seeking in adulthood. In the past decade, scientific research revealed strong correlations between negative self-talk and psychopathologies such as depression, social and performance anxiety, aggression, perfectionism and eating disorders, and self-harm.
When unhelpful inner critics are ignored, individual and organizational efforts on talent/leadership development, diversity and inclusion become ineffective at best, stalled at worst because talented individuals hold back or are unable to perform at their best.
Have your inner critics ever taken over the driver’s seat such that they take you to dark places you don’t want to be, where you feel anxious, afraid and small? Or to places where you feel frustrated with yourself or belittle yourself that you can’t meet your expectations?
Some of you may have these inner critics taking over regularly, others of you only sometimes. When they do take over, though, they take the driver’s seat and it’s difficult to take back control.
When inner critics take over, you might notice that:
- You hold yourself back and stay in your comfort zones. You talk yourself out of doing something new, different or unusual, saying things like “that’s not me”, “I can’t”, “I shouldn’t”
- You are overly critical of yourself. Others tell you that you are doing well and you still put yourself down.
- You find it difficult to receive praise. You find ways to deflect acknowledgment – that it wasn’t just you, that you were lucky, that it wasn’t a big deal.
- You feel awkward to name your strengths and weaknesses. You don’t own your strengths and feel ashamed of your weaknesses.
- You compare yourself to others and work too had to fit in. You are not comfortable with doing things your own way because it is different and feels inferior.
- You create reasons why you don’t or won’t succeed. You believe you can’t succeed because you are not like other successful people and end up sabotaging yourself.
- You have perfectionist tendencies. You don’t share your ideas or complete tasks because there’s always more to fix.
- You worry too much about what others think. You fear being seen as incompetent, feel embarrassed or exposed and hold back from speaking up or sharing ideas.
These voices get even louder when you try doing something new – a cunning strategy adopted by the inner critics to keep you exactly where you are. These voices can be incredibly forceful and sometimes very sneaky. Even some of the most confident appearing people are plagued by these inner critics, causing stress and anxiety.
So what can we do about these inner critics?
Most importantly, suppressing or trying to ignore these voices is the least helpful strategy, according to many psychologists including Susan David, author of the #1 Wall Street Journal Best Seller Emotional Agility, founder of the Harvard/McLean Institute of Coaching and faculty at Harvard Medical School.
What is more helpful is to take them off the driver’s seat and keep them in the passenger seat by:
- Becoming aware of these inner critics. When we are not aware of these voices, they are in the driver’s seat and we don’t even realise that we have been driven around by them.
- Remembering that these inner critics are originally not yours. You didn’t have them when you were a toddler. They were installed through conditioning at home, school, religious institutions and society such as to “be a good girl”, “don’t do anything risky”, “don’t show off”. These messages turn into inner critics such as “you can’t do xx”, “you’re bragging, too bossy”, “you’re not good enough”.
- Listening to them from a distance, as if you’re listening to a teenager in the passenger seat. For some of the inner critics, the content is actually useful even if the delivery is poor. Others are exaggerated or unfounded.
- Having a conversation with the inner critic passenger. Ask questions such as “what makes you say that?”, “what evidence do you have?” or request that they give you advice rather than be so critical.
- Adopt the approach “feel the fear and do it anyway” as Susan Jeffers says in her book of this title. Acknowledge that the inner critics are fearful, listen to what’s useful, then do what you need to do anyway.
Many of our inner critics have resided with us for a long time, so they won’t go away so easily. What you can do, though, is to reduce their power by bumping them off the driver’s seat.
Written by Megumi Miki.
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