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Have you met your inner critic? 5 things every leader or speaker needs to know



by Daniel Kingsley

I seldom look at myself to avoid any self criticism

Isabella Rossellini

Inner Critic Public Speaking LeadersHave you ever stood up to deliver a speech and thought “I can’t do this”?  Or prepared to make a suggestion at a meeting and thought “they’re not going to be willing to follow me on this?”.  Or have you simply had that sinking feeling before you are about to say something in public?

If so then you’ve probably been attacked by your inner critic.

The “inner critic” (which often shows up as a critical voice in our heads) is so challenging for those of us wanting to make an impact in public life because it’s activity is hidden – usually from ourselves – yet it is often powerful.

It does it’s work quietly, often so quietly that we don’t even realise it’s speaking.  And yet it still has a massive effect on our levels of confidence and our ability to act decisively and bravely.

The good news is that once you can see it in operation and understand how it works you can do something about it.

The inner critic something I have plenty of first hand experience of.  After lots of research and practice, I’m starting to get much more successful with dealing with it – both for myself and with those I coach.

So in the spirit of sharing what has been some powerful learning for me and those I teach, here are 5 things I think every leader or public speaker needs to know about the inner critic:

1. Everybody’s got one

The inner critic is that voice in your head that says things like:

“They’re going to hate what you say.”

“No one’s going to believe you.”

“That was a stupid thing to say.”

“Everyone else is better than you.”

From the research I’ve done reading books and talking to people, everyone has got one.

Some people clearly hear their critic’s voice and some don’t.  Some people’s inner critics rarely speak in clear sentences – and for some others the critic doesn’t show up so much as a voice it’s more of a feeling – like most of their energy has drained out of them before they are planning to do something challenging, such as speaking in public.  Does any of this sound familiar?

Some people’s inner critic is fairly small or lightweight, whilst other people have inner critics like a 2 tonne gorilla.  The strength of your inner critic will usually be proportionate to the number of critical adults you were around when you were growing up.

Mine’s medium to large – so handling my inner critic is a pretty important topic for me.

2. It’s not your voice.

This is a key insight.  It sits inside your head.  It often speaks to you using your tone of voice or intonation, but it is an imposter – it isn’t authentically your voice and it’s not speaking your point of view.

In fact, the inner critic’s script is composed from all the critical things your parents and teachers said to you whilst you were growing up.  When it uses words it usually uses the “you” form as if it’s an authority figure speaking to you from the outside trying to give you advice.

The inner critic is a part of our psyche that we have created, but it’s not who we are.  This is really important, since if it’s not who we are we don’t have to listen to it or be governed by it.

Many people that I coach are labouring under the impression that this voice in their heads whispering (mostly) bad advice is their own voice.  They say “I’m very hard on myself” or “I’m my own worst critic”.  This makes it very hard to challenge the operation of the critic as trying to challenge yourself is like trying to pick up the chair you’re sitting on.  It’s virtually impossible.

So the first stage in learning to understand and manage the critic is to realise that it isn’t you.  I like often to view it as a black crow sitting on my shoulder – sometimes whispering, sometimes squawking.

3. It’s a bit of a psychopath

In my experience, the extent of this varies quite a bit from person to person, but believe it or not, the frame of psychopathy is a good (rough) starting point for understanding how the inner critic functions.

Here’s a nice definition of psychopaths from an article in the Scientific American:

First described systematically by Medical College of Georgia psychiatrist Hervey M. Cleckley in 1941, psychopathy consists of a specific set of personality traits and behaviors.

Superficially charming, psychopaths tend to make a good first impression on others and often strike observers as remarkably normal.

Yet they are self-centered, dishonest and undependable, and at times they engage in irresponsible behavior for no apparent reason other than the sheer fun of it. Largely devoid of guilt, empathy and love, they have casual and callous interpersonal and romantic relationships.

If you are able to hear the words said by your inner critic, you may find that they fit the bill above to a large extent.  The inner critic is often (though not always) superficially plausible and charming, usually sounds very normal, yet is devoid of guilt, empathy or love and is often extremely callous in the way it speaks to you.

Although I’ve characterised inner critic as a cruel or even in some cases psychopathic adult, the critic developed in most of us when we were children, so it actually tends to be quite childish and simplistic in its approach.  Although it usually speaks in the tone of harsh parent or teacher (whilst using your own voice), its point of view and level of insight can often be more akin to that of a pre-teenage child.

If you are able to hear (at least) some of the things your inner critic says to you in the course of a typical day or week and you write them down (this is actually a good exercise to do), I would expect you would find that they are:

  1. Universally unkind – the critic never says anything nice
  2. Almost always very pessimistic – the critic never thinks anything good will happen
  3. Very broad-brush. Tending towards an all-or-nothing approach.  Not very nuanced.
  4. Often said in a way which is extremely harsh – even if there is some shred of truth in what it’s saying, the way it is saying it is so cruel it does more harm than good.

To be honest, when I finally sat down and made a list of the the things that my inner critic was saying to me and (over and above that) the way it was saying them to me I was pretty shocked.  It was downright nasty.  And also largely inaccurate.

So – where we’ve got to so far, is that we’ve all got a voice in our heads that isn’t our voice, it’s offering pretty inaccurate advice and it offers it in a way which is usually (at best) quite harsh.

4. The critic only speaks when you’re feeling vulnerable

For those of you who have previously spotted the existence of your inner critic, have you noticed that it tends to shut up when things are going really well?  When you’re feeling good about yourself, feeling secure and confident, in an easy situation that voice tends to be silent.  This gives a clue to what triggers the activity of the inner critic and what it’s trying to do.

The critic exists to protect us from feeling vulnerable.  In very basic terms, when we are feeling scared of how we will be received in the world, especially by other people, the critic comes in to “save us” by giving us advice as to how to behave – much the way that our parents or teachers would have done when we were young.

As I suggested earlier, the quality of its advice is patchy at best and the tone that it’s delivered in is usually so harsh as to make the sum of it’s contribution a pretty negative one, but at bottom the critic thinks it’s helping us.  

Imagine you’re a leader about to give a speech to your team at work.  The company has had its best ever month, everyone on the team has contributed and you’re about to announce to everyone that they are all going to get a massive bonus at the end of the month.  You’re feeling really confident and the mood in your office is great.  How vulnerable or scared are you feeling?  Not very, I’d guess.  How loud will your critic be speaking?  I’d guess he or she will be silent.

Now imagine the opposite scenario.  You’re having to deliver some bad news, or you’re going through challenging times.  You need to deliver a difficult message, which some people may not like.  How vulnerable to do you feel now?

The more vulnerable you feel, the louder the critic tends to speak.  This of course sets up a vicious circle, because the critic whispering “they’re all going to hate you” in your ear makes you feel more vulnerable…and off we go!

5. You can effectively manage your inner critic

So all the news so far in this blog piece has been on the challenging side.  The good news is that there are simple concrete things we can do to massively reduce the impact of our inner critic, leading to much more confident performances in our roles as leaders and public speakers.

The most straightforward of these is to address the vulnerability that the inner critic is trying to save us from experiencing.

The key to addressing this vulnerability is to notice a number of things:

  1. If we say (for instance) “I feel scared” – what we usually mean if we look more closely at ourselves, is that there is a part of us that feels scared.
  2. If we examine our inner experience carefully, paying particular attention to the feelings and sensations in our bodies, we usually discover that not all of us feels scared. For instance, our arms and legs may feel relaxed and “not scared” even if we have “butterflies in our stomach” or our chest feels tight.
  3. In fact, we usually discover that there is a “child-like” part of us that feels scared and some other parts of us that don’t feel scared, which we could describe as more “adult-like”.

(I use the language of a “child-like” part, because it makes sense to me and because those vulnerable parts of me “feel” young. If this language doesn’t work for you just replace “child-like” with “vulnerable”.

Additionally, if you have difficulty in carrying out the noticing exercise above for yourself, don’t worry.  It can take a little practice to do and can often be assisted by a coach experienced in working this way – at least at the start.)

What I am proposing is that when we are in a challenging situation, there are child-like parts of us that feel vulnerable and more adult-like parts of us that don’t.  Can you see how this way of looking at things feels more empowering than simply saying “I feel scared”?

The good news is that the more resourced adult-like parts can pay attention and “look after” the more vulnerable “child-like” parts.

If you want to know how to do this, simply imagine that one of your children or your niece or nephew came to you and said “I feel scared”.  How would you respond?  I would imagine that you would feel warmth or compassion in your heart and you would comfort them.  Now apply the same principle to those vulnerable parts within yourself.

Here’s how this insight makes a huge difference in practice: If we are able to actively look after the child-like part of ourselves that feels scared then the inner critic has no need to try to “parent” us.

It really is that simple.  (Though that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy).

If we are able to (a) realise that we’re feeling vulnerable, (b) realise that only part of us feels vulnerable and (c) are able to give compassion and attention to that vulnerable part, the way we’d comfort a scared child, our vulnerability is being “looked after” and there’s no job for the inner critic.  So, it just tends to (metaphorically) go and have a lie down and relax.  This isn’t just my experience, but also that of a number of psychologists who have done extensive research into this area.

For my part, I can tell you, when I do it – it works.  And very effectively.

Give it a go, and let me know how it works for you.

This is a pretty complex subject, with many nuances far beyond the scope of a brief blog post.  (And if you’ve got a two tonne gorilla of an inner critic you might want to get some coaching or some other external support).  There may also be several aspects to your experience which are different to those outlined here, or subjects that I haven’t even started to cover.  If you’d like a detailed description of this territory I’d highly recommend Hal and Sidra Stone’s book – Embracing Your Inner Critic.

And as always, I’d love to hear your experiences of this in the comments below.


Daniel Kingsley
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