There’s a voice in my head, and I can’t shut it up.
Many of you probably have one, too.
The voice is telling me that the sentence I just wrote sucks. It’s telling me that this piece I am writing is going to flop. It’s the thing that threatens to give me an upset stomach a lot of the time when I get a new story assignment. What if I don’t know what to do? What if I fail? What if this is the one that finally proves I am a fake and a fraud?
It’s what makes it entirely possible, though incredibly contradictory, to look at a piece I wrote and at different times think it is the most brilliant, clever thing I have every written, and that it is complete and utter trash.
By now you know I am talking about the inner critic, a voice we hear in our heads that many psychologists say echo the expectations we heard or felt from our imperfect parents. (I can hear my dad now, “They always blame the parents.”). Some of us have a stronger inner critic than others. I feel it is worse for introverts, who spend a lot of the time in our heads deconstructing and reconstructing – everything.
My inner critic manifests a lot when I am writing, but it’s there for other things too. Our inner critic can certainly cripple and thwart. But it can also nudge and propel us. So learning to control (or at times ignore) your inner critic is a useful pursuit for professional growth and development.
Much has been written about silencing your inner critic, including this thoughtful piece in a 2019 issue of Psychology Today. Jena E Pincott argues that we can’t ever totally silence our inner critic, but we can change the conversation by techniques like self-distancing, self-affirmation, and self-transcendence. I find the last one particularly powerful and Pincott says this about it:
There are many ways to transcend—through meditation, time in nature, religious faith, ecstatic dance, and creative pursuits. But we can also rise above by affirming our core values, such as care for family, friends, and the causes we believe in.
I also love this article I found on Oprah.com by Cathleen Medwick from a 2003 issue of the Oprah Magazine, not only because it offers some advice from a psychology professor who authored a book on countering negative thoughts, but also because she masterfully reveals her inner thought processes as she feels like she’s botching an interview when in reality it is going fine. (I can totally relate.)
Medwick shares advice she received from that professor, Martin E.P. Seligman, who said:
“First you recognize that the thought is there. Then you learn to treat that thought as if it were said by some third person whose job in life was to make your life miserable. And then you learn to dispute it, to marshal evidence against it.”
I have tried this and find it works. Recently I was writing a club profile for the Rotary magazine and found myself stuck midway through. I could hear my inner critic saying the story was confusing, the transitions didn’t make sense. The flow was all wrong. So I stopped, took a coffee break, then combatted the voice. “No, you’ve got this. It’s not bad. It just needs a little finesse. This has happened before. You just need to let it sit and come back later” A day later, everything pretty much fell into place.
Elle Hunt, a health and wellness writer for the Guardian, explores why cultivating self-compassion as a means of changing our internal monologue has benefits beyond ourselves.
By fostering compassion for ourselves, experts say, we are more readily able to feel it for other people, meaning our kinder, calmer, more empathic approach can radiate outwards. With more months of lockdown looming, with all the uncertainty and unhappiness that is likely to bring, changing your inner monologue is one small – and, crucially, free – step towards looking after your mental health.
Recognizing and confronting our inner critic is extremely relevant as we seek to grow professionally. It can stand in the way of getting the most out of a mentoring experience by constantly threatening to sabotage the openness, acceptance, and willingness to share.
But I feel there is also great value in sharing and connecting with other people and getting external feedback, like we encourage here on Connect. It can build the evidence that we can use to marshal against the enemy within. Often times the feedback of others is much kinder, and much closer to the mark, than our inner voice.
How about you? What areas does your inner critic target most? What tactics have you found successful in countering its accusations? Let's learn from each other in this discussion post.