You are not good enough! You are ridiculous! You are a failure! You are too slow! You are too messy! You are bad! You are over-sensitive! You should be able to handle this! You are weak! Who do you think you are?!
These are just a few of the ways my clients’ (and my own) inner critics have shown up this week. This is a big topic in Coaching and Leadership. Sooner or later in a coaching assignment or on a leadership development programme, a leader will meet their inner critics and start to become more familiar with them.
In the toilet of a conference centre last summer my inner critic raged at me after a platform speaking assignment. It was the largest audience I had ever spoken to. The speaker before me had been stunning, engaging and funny. After his talk people flooded to the front to talk to him. After my talk, no-one came up to me. I stood at the front on the stage while everyone filed out to lunch. More about this later.
Some leaders begin coaching knowing their inner critic very well already, some take longer to hear the undermining voice that accompanies their work and life. For some it feels like they are in the constant grip of their inner critic; what Tara Brach, in her book Radical Acceptance has called ‘the trance of unworthiness’. For some it tends to be more context-specific or triggered by external factors such as a promotion or a stressful deal.
I have so much to say about inner critics that this post will not be enough. What feels most important today is the the idea of befriending our inner critics. So what does this mean?
It means three things.
- Recognising that your inner critic is only part of you.
- Thanking your inner critic for the ways it serves you and soothing it.
- Noticing that you have other voices that might be more useful to you.
We are many parts, many sub-personalities and we can learn to tune into the different parts of ourselves and the things they say to us. When our inner critic is active, it can feel like everything it says is true and its voice is our only voice. But this is not the case. If you can hear your inner critic telling you that you are not good enough, remember that another part of you is listening to it. That part of you is separate from your inner critic and can witness it. That part of you can also hear other voices in you and arbitrate between them. We learn to do this with our friends – choosing who we listen to or hang out with. We need to learn to do this with the parts of ourselves.
When we hear our inner critic, we can recognise that it has positive intentions. An inner critic is a voice that has served you well. It has kept you safe or helped you thrive in a family or school or workplace. Sometimes inner critics grow up with you in your functional role. If you are in finance you may have a cautious inner critic – “don’t take risks with money!” If you are a lawyer you may have a diligent inner critic – “every detail must be right!” If we can hear our inner critic we can also reply to it. We can say “Thank you for your contribution. Thank you for keeping me safe. Thank you for all you do for me.” And we can also soothe our inner critic. Our inner critic can often be fearful and childlike. It wants to hear from a more adult part of you. “It’s OK, I’ve got this. You don’t have to worry. ” Once we’ve noticed our inner critic and got into a chat with it so that it feels heard and soothed, we are ready to hear what other voices are available to us.
To bring this to life, let’s go back to the conference centre loo. After my platform speech, in the privacy of the toilet cubicle, my inner critic had a field day. It launched a full on attack. “I told you you couldn’t do platform speaking!”, “No-one wants to listen to you!”, “You need to have written a book before anyone cares what you have to say!”, “Just who do you think you are?!“
In previous eras of my life this would have been crushing. I would have lost sleep for days and felt waves of painful embarrassment. But something was different today. Having spent a lot of time in therapy and supervision getting familiar with my inner critics I was able to stay relatively calm. It wasn’t fun but it was a roller-coaster I had learned to ride. I listened to my inner critic for a while and I noticed that it had a lot to say. I was able to thank it for all the ways it has stopped me embarrassing myself in the past and to say “calm down. it’s OK, I’ve got this”. With some deep breathing I was also able to hear some other voices inside me. They said:
“That other speaker has been doing this for 20 years. This was your first time. He had a first time too – and I bet no-one rushed up to him then”
“You were trying something new. And that means learning and that means risking! And I’m proud of you. You were brave today!”
“Just because no-one came up to you didn’t mean that it was terrible. They were just ready for their lunch. You will get some feedback data later, then you can decide, calmly, how you did.”
“Whether you did well or not, you are OK. You are loved and you are valued by many.”
By seeing my inner critic as an inner friend I can hear it, respect it, appreciate it and soothe it. By seeing it as only one of many inner friends, I can exercise choice about whose voice is most useful to me in any given moment. Even if this makes sense theoretically, I want to acknowledge in all of you who are doing this inner work that it is not easy. This takes serious amounts of practice and perseverance. This is the inner work of leadership. It goes on silently, in toilet cubicles, inside our own heads and with our most trusted coaches but it is hard work; heroic work.