Let's face it; we can all be prey to self-criticism. The more we step out of our comfort zone and take on being a leader, the more vulnerable we are to this part of ourselves.
Only last week, I was talking with an experienced leader, someone who has run a successful business for over 30 years. What became evident in our conversation was that her internal critic was alive, well and thriving on the current diet of challenging and risky decisions she needed to make. A lack of immediate colleagues and peers with whom she could talk things through further fuelled her self doubt. As with many others, leading through the current uncertainty was taking its toll. Add to this the sense of isolation many leaders experience the further up the organisational ladder they climb, then the door is wide open for our inner critic to enter and make lots of noise.
What is an "Inner Critic"?
Our inner critic is a way in which we relate to ourselves and creates filters on our world that colour how we experience it. These then influence our emotions, mindset, and physiology, affecting the quality of the outcomes we achieve, sapping our sense of personal confidence and damaging our overall well-being and resilience.
So how can we keep this part of ourselves at bay? Below I've outlined seven strategies for quietening our inner critic:
1) Recognise it.
Knowledge and understanding give us a choice around how we respond. Noticing and stating that our inner critic is present offers us the chance to shift how we are relating to ourselves. This awareness can have an impact on lightening our mood.
2) Subtly shift the quality.
Everyone's inner critic will have qualities and tone that are unique to them. For some of us, it's the voice of one of our parents, for others, it may be just the harsh, patronising, or whiney tone that causes us to feel inadequate or deflated. A straightforward technique is to change the quality of the tone. Maybe slow down the pace of speech or soften the sound. Just a small shift can make a difference in the emotional impact on ourselves.
3) Lighten up and use humour
Effective leaders possess a balance between gravitas and levitas. When our inner critic is active, we can get overly severe and self-deprecating. It can be helpful to lighten up and refer to our inner critic more comically. For example, I refer to my inner critic as my parrot. Parrots squawk and can be very noisy and piercing, symbolic of how criticism can be perceived. I call her Polly, and when that part of myself is active, it helps me to keep things in check. After all, who wants a parrot to run their life?
4) Develop your inner coach
In cartoons, you sometimes see the mini angel and devil appearing on the shoulders of the central character, each offering their advice as to what to do next. As humans, we all possess different elements of our personality. It can help to see our inner critic as only a part of who we are. Developing another part of ourselves, our supportive inner coach can counteract the damage our critic does to our self-esteem. Our inner coach can:
- act as an objective witness, tuning into the reality of a situation
- ask useful questions of ourselves as to how we might proceed
- be a curious inquirer
- support us to be more compassionate with ourselves
- focus on being constructive, acknowledging what works, and learning from what doesn't.
Mindfulness is now widely advocated in many large organisations as a means for managing stress and improving well-being. An intentional and non-judgemental practice, it helps us quieten our mind and any associated inner critics. Developing a daily practice is restorative. Such activity can include meditating, spending time in a focussed, relaxing task such as drawing or colouring, or being out in the fresh air noticing nature. Mindfulness can help us establish an inner calm and centredness, all anti-dotes our inner critic.
6) Reach out to others
No man or woman is an island. Whatever your level of leadership, accessing support can be reasuring and keep self-doubts at bay. Talking things through stretches our thinking and explores our concerns. This leads to better decisions and increased levels of confidence. If you have no peer group to call on, find a mentor or coach. Being a leader doesn't mean you have to know everything or always get it right, but seeking support can help us work it out so we can give it our best shot.
One of the simplest ways to quieten our negative inner voice is to adjust our filters towards what is going well and being grateful. In times of crisis, this can sometimes seem impossible, but that is the time to be even more vigilant and notice what is working. A daily check in to acknowledge what we are grateful for is recognised as one of the most powerful ways to manage our mood when feeling vulnerable. Examples could include being thankful for:
- the team
- a step achieved on our plan
- the comfort of our surroundings
- having a healthy body that works
- the sun on our faces.
Gratitude is universal and covers every aspect of our lives.
So in closing, try out these different strategies. Some you may like better than others and that’s ok. What's important is that you find a way to support and empower yourself to lead in the best possible way, not only for you but for those around you.