We arrived in the trailhead parking lot at 5 a.m. As soon as Kristy turned off the car, it was pitch black. I could barely see the car parked next to us. Her excitement at the millions of stars overhead did not compare to the voice in my head shouting that someone was hiding in the woods ready to attack us. That voice got louder and louder until Kristy got me out of the car to see the stars. I took a breath and told that voice to stop his chatter. We started the hike, and the voice came back telling me I was out of my league. I had no business hiking a 14er (one of the 50+ peaks in Colorado above 14,000 ft. altitude) with a bum knee.
We all have that voice in our heads that tells us what we don’t deserve, where we don’t belong, and when we don’t seem worthy enough. That inner voice does not want you to succeed. The voice comes from the most primitive part of your brain that is apparently protecting you. The truth is there are many times when it may seem like it is protecting you when instead it’s taking you out of the game.
The first person you need to love is yourself. You need to lead yourself in a positive and constructive way. Would you ever talk to your best friend, partner, or child, the way you talk to yourself? Would you ever allow someone to talk to you the way you let your inner critic talk to yourself? Probably not.
You need to have an intervention with your inner critic. Here are three tactics you can take immediately to have a healthier conversation in your head:
1. Personify your inner critic.
My first recommendation is to name it, imagine what it looks like. Don’t use the name of the bully from middle school, or a family member who irritates you. Name the inner critic so you can distinguish between what the critic is telling you, and what you really think. Some refer to the voice as their Itty-Bitty-S***** Committee. Giving your inner critic a name means you can take away its power. By doing this, you are also able to create some distance between your inner critic and your own healthy thoughts. This leverages cognitive defusion, separating yourself from your thoughts. It reduces stress, discomfort, and believability of negative thoughts.
2. Acknowledge what your inner critic is saying.
So often we just try to push the inner critic’s comments aside and sweep them under the rug. That doesn’t work. It does not serve you. The voice will keep coming back. There’s no other way to silence, or at least turn down the volume on your inner critic if you don’t acknowledge it. Acknowledge what it’s saying. Often, we focus on perfection to silence the critic. That doesn’t work either.
Perfection shows up differently for men and women. Women focus on perfection. We review that PowerPoint or that email or that presentation time and time and time again. And at a certain point, the reviewing has diminishing returns. We’ve all been there.
For men, it’s about not admitting our vulnerabilities or where we don’t feel we have expertise. Recognize your strengths, where there is an opportunity for growth, and where you can engage a colleague or expert to collaborate with you. Acknowledge the reality of what you don’t know. You will be a better leader when you don’t try to be the foremost expert on everything.
3. Record the hope, delete the hate.
Your mind is like a DVR. For those of us who are in our 30s and 40s, you know what a DVR is. That playback is key to being an influential leader. How can you lead someone else to be an effective and influential leader if you’re not acknowledging the doubts in your head, the doubts that say, “Can I really do this? Do I belong here? Do I deserve this raise or promotion?” Once you personify and acknowledge that voice, you can turn down the volume of your inner critic. Kick that inner critic to the curb. Let it go. Be done with it.
Last year, my business grew by 35%. I ended the year on a high, thinking I could do anything. The first quarter rolled around and all of a sudden, I started having these conversations with myself that last year was a fluke, that I didn’t deserve the success. This is how it sounded:
- What kind of value do I really add to my clients?
- Can I really impact an entire organization or change the way a team communicates?
- Who am I to advise these brilliant people?
And yet on a daily basis, I have clients telling me how useful our conversations are. How our conversations change the way my clients communicate with others. How clients are taking command of their own careers because of our interactions. My clients, who were flying under the radar and weren’t being noticed, are now being heard. They are getting promotions. I was nominated to speak on the TEDx stage. Even as I write this, I am reminded that yes, I did a lot in 2020!
I still have those conversations in my head. That voice of the inner critic just keeps chirping away about what I don’t deserve, where I don’t belong, questioning the value I add. We all have inner critics. Many of us have different variations of these voices depending on the situation, circumstances, and people involved. There may be a captain, who tends to be the loudest, and then the accomplices who show up. Name them all. Acknowledge them all. This gives you the upper hand to turn down their volume.
4. Learn from your inner critic
Your inner critic is trying to protect you. If you took away the limiting beliefs, what can you learn from the inner critic’s message? If you made a mistake, or things didn’t go as well as you would have liked, what can you do differently next time? Dr. Craig Manning, author of The Fearless Mind, recommends recognizing three things that went well and finding one thing to improve. Note, he does not speak to focusing or reviewing what went wrong. This positive thought reinforces and accelerates good behaviors. This exercise forces you to stay in a growth mindset, looking for opportunities to learn.
Pay attention to that inner critic’s voice. Recognize it. Acknowledge the truth: “You’re right. I’ve never been here before. I’ve never dealt with a sale this big. I’ve never dealt with a client this large. But I’ve spent the last decade working on these issues. I know this industry forward and backward.” By having a healthy conversation with your inner critic, you are distinguishing the difference between the truth and the lies:
- “You don’t belong here.” That goes in the lie category.
- “I’ve worked in this industry for the last decade, and I know it forward and backward.” That is the truth.
When you make that distinction between the truth and the lies, you are able to turn down the volume on your inner critic. By turning down that volume, you can then acknowledge it before pushing it aside. You’ve dealt with criticism. So it’s not going to come back at the same force and the same volume as in the past.
MIT senior lecturer and executive coach, Daena Giardella at MIT Sloan, speaks to understanding the characteristics of your inner critic as a key influential leadership skill. “The inner critic is harmful because it triggers our self-protection mode. It diminishes our sense of trust and confidence, and amplifies feelings of shame and insecurities which undermine our confidence to take risks and trust our choices.”
As you practice these three steps, you will get to the point that when the inner critic’s voice pops into your mind, you will be able to disarm it in about 10 seconds – guaranteed. I don’t promise too much, but this one I guarantee will work. With practice, you will recognize that it’s the inner critic’s voice talking, not your own. You’ll make the distinction between what is true and what are lies, and then you will kick it to the curb. You will silence it. You will turn the volume way down on that critic.
This requires practice, before a difficult conversation, during a stressful situation, and after that moment. You can then approach any situation, any challenge, any individual with confidence and conviction, and you will be able to lead with influence and authority. Building a healthier inner dialogue takes time, but you’re worth it.