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Brain circuits

How to quiet your inner critic

Published 22 June 2021 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

Our unrelenting inner critic can make our lives hell. That overly negative voice can contribute to untold stress and sleepless nights, which can then adversely impact work performance. During the pandemic, this voice may have become even more harsh: do more, push harder, keep productive, hold it together.

Here are four strategies that that can help to tame your inner critic.

I. Know that it’s (likely) about the context, not about you

Many people, including highly successful leaders, have an internal critic that becomes louder as they move into the leadership spotlight. The first step when you hear that critic is to recognise it as normal or human. It’s not weird to experience self-doubt and it doesn’t make you a failure either.

Strategies to achieve this:

  1. Acknowledge the context surrounding you: structural dynamics relating to the pressure to produce a particular image or leadership persona, and the systemic gender, racial and cultural biases occur regardless of how well or skilfully you behave. It’s a systemic, rather than a personal issue.
  2. Harness your thoughts. Entertain the notion that we can have some control over our mindset, and specifically how much we collude with the idea that we’re not good enough.
  3. Build strong validating relationships. Seek allies and other’s feedback to put the voice of your inner critic into perspective.

II. Revisit the birth of the critic

The origins of our inner critic might come from a parent, teacher or role model or may even have taken up residence in childhood. Identifying when this voice was born, and who it represents, can help you let the voice go and replace it with more empowering narratives.

Strategies to achieve this:

  1. Spend time yourself, or with a friend or trusted advisor, to identify when and how your inner critic was born. Who does that voice inside your head represent? When was it born?
  2. Recognize why the critic felt needed at the time and contrast with your situation now. This voice probably is not needed anymore.
  3. Practice forgiveness and compassion for yourself as a leader, for that child, and for those who perhaps unwittingly helped give birth to that critic.

III. Recognise that your internal critic is just a bundle of thoughts, not the truth or reality

Neuroscience research confirms that most of us ruminate too much, which is detrimental for our mental health and well-being. Practicing becoming more skilled at noticing rumination and consciously choosing not to keep thinking those thoughts can weaken the power of our internal critic.

Strategies to achieve this:

  1. Accept that the mind proliferates thoughts – try to acknowledge that harsh thoughts are not the truth but a more constructed reality.
  2. See that we have a choice as to whether to give these thoughts an audience – or not.
  3. Engage in mindfulness strategies to allow the power of these thoughts to subside. We can consciously allow ourselves not to engage with or think them yet again.

IV. Be yourself lightly

We can choose how much of our emotional and mental energy we put into firming up the borders and upholding the needs of the self. What’s more, our sense of self is open to learning and growth. Detaching the situation, from yourself as an individual, can enable you to be more open to others and non-defensive.

Strategies to achieve this:

  1. Recognize when you are investing a lot of energy into securing, defending or upholding your sense of self and self-importance.
  2. Notice an ‘in the moment’ choice about where we put our energies and opt to invest more in hearing and supporting others.
  3. Experiment with embracing a ‘bigger self’ – one that is more open, playful and permissive.

Authors

Alyson Meister - IMD Professor

Alyson Meister

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD

Alyson Meister is a Professor specializing in the development of globally-oriented, adaptive and inclusive organizations, she has worked with thousands of executives, teams, and organizations spanning professional services through to industrial goods and technology. She was recognized as a Thinkers50 Radar thought leader in 2021.

Amanda Sinclair

Professorial fellow at Melbourne Business School

Amanda Sinclair is an author, researcher and teacher in leadership, change, gender, and diversity. A professorial fellow at Melbourne Business School, her books include Leadership for the Disillusioned (2007); Leading Mindfully (2016) and, with Christine Nixon, Women Leading (2017). Amanda is also a yoga and meditation teacher and much of her teaching and coaching focuses on introducing insights and practices from mindfulness to leading well.

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