What to Say to Your Inner Critic
Who we are, at work, can be subtly different from who we are elsewhere in our lives.
Being confronted with a particular task or responsibility can summon aspects of our personality typically left hidden at home or amongst friends.
It is only in the confines of a busy kitchen that we summon an inner resource of concentration and authority. Only when handed a budget in need of delicate balancing do we summon a previously undiscovered resourcefulness in finding solutions.
But this same element of unpredictability can also come at a cost. By pushing ourselves to test certain limits, to do things we might not otherwise do, we also wander into difficulty. We discover areas in which we lack natural talent. We are forced to confront things that seem impossible and it is easy to lose confidence.
At times like this, our minds can play host to a very unpleasant character: the inner critic.
It tends to pay its visits late at night, it waits until we’re very tired or physically depleted – and then it starts to whisper vicious and appalling things to us. Phrases that destroy all possibility of peace and self-compassion, that confirm our worst fears: we’re useless, a fraud soon to be found out, completely undeserving of that promotion we’ve been thinking about.
Too often, in the face of yet another onslaught by the inner critic, our minds freeze: we simply don’t know how to answer back. We’re in a tunnel alone with the critic and forget that there might be any other perspectives to bring to bear on our situation. We let ourselves be assailed by merciless accusations – and sink into self-flagellation and despair.
“The first step in counteracting a negative inner voice is to develop a ready-made response,” says Daon Broni, The School of Life faculty member and performer.
“So, for example, your inner critic says ‘I don’t deserve this’. You need to prepare an answer for why you do deserve it. You need some phrases which have come from a self-compassionate way of thinking. Words that allow you to feel comfortable telling yourself: no, I do deserve this and I can do this.
“You have to respond to those negative voices with a positive voice, and you can develop a whole list of supportive thoughts. You can do that in conjunction with a professional who helps you to iron out these supportive thoughts, but you can also do it by speaking to someone you’re close to, someone you trust. Tell them about these negative thoughts and let them give you the positive ammunition, the positive reinforcement that helps you to combat those voices when you’re alone and feeling vulnerable.”
When our inner critic tells us – ‘you’re a loser, you’ve messed this up’ – we might respond with the observation that there is never one story of a life; the difference between hope and despair hangs on a different way of telling contrasting stories from the same set of facts. Of course, you could spin everything as a tragedy; and focus on failures and things that have gone wrong. But let’s try another route: ‘You’ve done brilliantly just to get this far. You’ve overcome obstacles that other people know nothing about. The challenges you have to deal with are your own and you deserve credit for handling that unique set of circumstances even when things haven’t quite gone to plan, because things never go to plan. Impressive people have fallen at lesser hurdles.”
Or perhaps another classic of the inner critic has been aired: ‘Everyone else can handle this stuff, it’s just you that can’t.’
Another characteristically harrowing suggestion, but one based on false information. We don’t know how other people handle things. We only know people from the outside, from what they decide to tell us and naturally they hide all the bad bits that we’re only too aware of in ourselves. Almost certainly, others are going out of their minds, others are wracked by self-doubt. Just as fearful about their chances of hitting their targets or making it to a final interview round for that dream job. We might answer: ‘Life’s a struggle for everyone. Stop comparing what you know of your deep self with the advertising hoardings others have put up about their lives. Just imagine, for a moment, what private torments those seemingly perfect other people might have suffered, so very similar to your own.’
When we learn to defy our inner critic, we level the playing field. No one is immune from feelings of inadequacy or uncertainty, but equipped with the right amount of positive self-talk, everyone can learn to manage that self-doubt without letting it keep them from taking chances and pursuing new opportunities.