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Leadership

Quieting the inner critic

Published 13 April 2021 in Leadership • 8 min read

It’s 3am. Your eyes flick open. Something’s woken you. It’s that voice again: “How could I have been so stupid?” “Why did I say that?” “Why can’t I hold things together?” “I’ll be found out for the idiot I am.” “I can’t do anything right!”

No, it’s not your sleeping partner – it’s coming from inside your head. It’s that unrelenting inner critic who can make life hell. Many of us – successful, balanced managers and leaders – are dogged in our life by an overly judgmental voice that takes up residence, heightened particularly when we’re under stress. It may have been an even more constant companion over the last 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic:  do more, push harder, keep productive, hold it together.

For women it’s often loudest. One reason is that many women are brought up to put others’ needs first, at the expense of their own. And women have generally been asked to do even more during lockdowns and face greater occupational setbacks and hardships for doing so. But in reality, no one is spared: all genders and cultural backgrounds can suffer from a tough inner critic, that can be our own worst enemy. Learning to quieten this internal critic is a crucial skill for your well-being and resilience, and to help you better cope with the ongoing uncertainty that is the ‘new normal’.

We have identified four strategies that that can help to tame your inner critic. The first two are cognitively oriented: they consider the evidence and apply rational sense-making to quell this voice.

The second set are based on research in mindfulness and neuroscience, and rest more on insight and reflection. All 4 strategies are complementary yet what works for you will depend on your experience, career stage and organisational context. While the inner critic rarely disappears entirely, we can learn to recognize it faster when it surfaces and change our relationship to it.

Four strategies for quieting the 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. Take the impostor syndrome – where your inner critic tells you that you’re simply not good enough – that, despite your achievements, you’re going to be found out as a fraud. Many of us feel like we are winging it, especially if we’re doing new or difficult things. For example, Australian Mike Cannon-Brookes, billionaire and co-CEO of Atlassian, offers that he’s experienced imposter syndrome for nearly 15 years. 

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Michelle Obama highlights how her imposter syndrome has never gone away. It doesn’t mean we are not worthy or don’t have a valuable contribution to make. A first step when you hear that critic is, then, just recognise it as normal or human. You’re not weird or a failure if you sometimes experience self-doubt, rather it might be one of the ways we mobilise sharper effort.

When it comes to internal narratives that suggest you’re just not up to it, or don’t really belong where you are, contextual and situational factors can influence if, and how, they unfold. The visibility and pressure that organisations and societies put on leaders to constantly achieve, progress, and ‘look the part’ is laced with bias, triggering even successful leaders to feel unworthy and undeserving. This can be particularly potent for women and other visible minorities who don’t represent the typical ‘leadership prototype’ expected by society. When you are made to feel like an imposter – perhaps via extra scrutiny or tests of your capabilities – it’s important to learn to acknowledge that it’s (likely) not about your value or worth, rather just the way groups and systems maintain the status quo.

Steps to activate this strategy

1. Acknowledge the context surrounding you: the pressure to produce a particular image or leadership persona, and the systemic gender, racial and cultural biases that can mobilise societal judgements and our inner critic. These structural dynamics occur regardless of how well or skilfully you behave. Know that it’s the system that ultimately ignites this and needs repair, not you. This may enable you to empower yourself and others to create an inclusive culture where diverse models of leadership are valued.

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. At an earlier time, this inner critic may have helped drive you to achieve, but it has now served its purpose. Take a moment to carve out space to recognize and celebrate your accomplishments. Notice if you are minimizing or attributing your success to ‘luck’. It’s not good for you – or your supporters – if you consistently de-value your efforts and contribution.

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

Most of us can identify – with support and encouragement – when and how our critic was born, and even whose voice that critic represents. The voice of the inner critic might come from a parent, teacher or role model who said you weren’t good enough or wrote you off as not worthy of attention. It may be because a sibling was seen as the family success story; because an absent parent withheld love or approval; because of a family norm of never asking for help. Sometimes people say “I had a pretty normal childhood.” But a stern critic can still have taken up residence in the child. It is the child’s internalised – and often unconscious – message that powerfully kicks in, even when we are adults. By surfacing when this voice was born, and who it represents, you can begin to let this voice go and replace it with more empowering narratives.

Steps to activate this strategy

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? If you can locate the voice with someone else – a parent or authority figure – and it helps, imagine giving those words back to them!

2. Recognize why the critic felt needed at the time, find tenderness for the child or young person at the behest of that voice. Explore yourself and your situation now – the person you have become. 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 – or even with intention – 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 to do too much thinking of the ruminative kind. This thinking is often judgemental (of self as much as others): we overly rehearse and rehash events we may have little control over. When we ruminate, the brain’s Default Mode Network is activated and studies show that too much of this kind of thinking is detrimental for our mental health and well-being.  The good news is that we can get more skilled at noticing that’s where our mind has gone and consciously choose not to keep thinking those thoughts. The more we practice this, the less power our internal critic has over us.

Steps to activate this strategy

1. Accept that the mind proliferates thoughts – it’s just what it does. Try to acknowledge this and understand that these particular harsh thoughts are not the truth but a more constructed reality. Others will not have the same perspective on the situation, or on us, as we have.

2. See that we have a choice as to whether to give these thoughts an audience – or not.

3. With this choice, we can 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, and say to ourselves, ‘I’ve thought those thoughts enough now.’

Pausing to notice, then let our critic’s voice subside can be particularly useful after we experience situations that trigger negative emotions, such as conflict, or when feeling rejected, excluded, not heard, not valued, or simply not up to things. Our minds can all too quickly begin recounting the evidence that we have, as usual, made a mess of things. Realising then, “Oh it’s just thoughts, it’s not reality,” is a very freeing move. It doesn’t mean we don’t learn from reflecting on difficult experiences, just that we don’t continually punish ourselves.

IV. Be yourself lightly

Especially in Western-oriented thinking and psychology, we’ve been taught that the individual self is very important – uniquely responsible for our success and failure – and that leadership is a mission to find and express one’s unique and authentic self.  While self-awareness and reflection as a leader are critically important, we can always choose how much of our emotional and mental energy we put into firming up the borders and upholding the needs of the self. Buddhist philosophy reminds us that the self is a construction, a set of stories we tell and are told about ourselves and our needs. We can choose to take perspective, to be less invested in self and how we are seen by others.

Our sense of self, or identity, also has many facets and is open to learning and growth. When in the grips of a judgemental self-critic, it can be liberating to choose to move into what some call, a ‘bigger self’. This may be as simple as recognising that a situation ‘is not all about me’ or allowing that others tend to spend less time thinking about you than you think. Detaching the situation, from yourself as an individual, can enable you to be more open to others and non-defensive, where normally you may have gone into battle, defending your ideas or existence. In relationships, this can also allow us to really listen and empathise (rather than lining up in our head reasons why we’re in the right).

Steps to activate this strategy

1. Recognize when you are investing a lot of energy into securing, defending or upholding your sense of self and self-importance, or the image of ourselves that we want others to acknowledge – likely that’s just ego speaking.

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.

In times of stress our internal critics often amplify. It’s important to recognize this, and instead of listening to – or believing – that harsh voice, expand your repertoire and replace it with one that speaks with more insight and self-compassion.

Authors

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.

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.

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