How to Tame Your Inner Critic to Play a Bigger Game in Life + Business

Taming Your Inner Critic


When I started my first business back in 1996, I was lonely and felt isolated because I had just left a hospital where I was the PR and marketing director and knew everyone on staff.  I did the classic, “If you build it, they will come” approach and set up an office in a studio behind our house and started freelancing.

As I worked at home alone, I began to notice the critical voices in my head that began to tell me that I didn’t know what I was doing. The voices said, “You don’t know enough” and “Who do you think you are to start a business?”  Back in the late 90s, I hardly knew anyone that was a solo entrepreneur.  In addition, I didn’t have the technology team that the hospital had and my biggest struggles back then were with technology.

I persevered for two years by slowly building my business, borrowing a little money from us, and created a legal entity to show the Universe I meant business.  I also got a great accountant to help me understand what expenses I could write off as a business owner.  As I picked up more and more small projects, I gained more confidence to keep going. What is amazing to me today is that I learned how to set up a business exactly how it needs to be done.  My two most important expenses were my attorney and accountant in the beginning.  I still use the same attorney and accountant 18 years later.  They are my most valued business advisers.

I can still remember sitting in my office alone and not having a community of friends who understood what I was doing. My inner critic had its way with me yet what kept me going was my dream of working with an important company outside our small community. I fiercely held that dream even though people around me projected their own limiting beliefs on me.

My dream became a reality two years later in 1998 when my company was hired to contract with Microsoft’s PR firm to manage Microsoft’s Healthcare Industry Solutions Group.  This was a huge step up yet I felt like an imposter many times that first year.  Yet I was living my dream and nothing was going to stop me at that time.

If I knew then what I know now about how the inner critic can take us out of the game, I would not have suffered so much.  This is what I want for you.  I want to help you get out of your own way, and I’m developing a new course on that topic that I will teach in June.

Your mindset is the only thing between you and success.

Self-realization happens when you can hear and distinguish your inner voices and not act on them. In the places where your voice has been censored, it’s important to find out why and to understand why your voice became imprisoned. It’s a process of recovering parts of yourself that have been censored or hidden in your life. It’s important to name what you are afraid of so you can identify where your voice has been shut down.

The Imposter Syndrome

Susan David is a faculty member at Harvard and the author of an article titled “How to Manage Your Inner Critic” in the Harvard Business Review, where she talks about the “imposter phenomenon” as a real psychological syndrome. Even though you may get excellent performance reviews at work, you still feel like you may get discovered for being incompetent. This syndrome is real and common.

You might do your best to suppress or ignore your inner critic but this actually will cause it to increase and persist. When you feel anxious and have the need to work harder or please people, stop and ask your inner critic: “Where do you come from?” Susan David says this is a valuable psychological technique that will help you think objectively.

Get to Know Your Inner Critic

Now I want you to take a trip back down memory lane to see where your critic came from. Critical voices in the head can be formed what things that your friends, colleagues, teachers, religious leaders, or the news media said as you were growing up. Your inner critic evolved to protect you from shame and vulnerability. Critics can also come from our own approaches to winning and losing. The result is we hide out, don’t use our voice and play a small game in business and life.

What’s important here is that once you understand where this voice comes from, then you can learn to recognize when it is not telling the truth and learn to disregard what it says.

You want to be open to it but do not believe everything it says. Ask it, “How will you help me be successful with this task?”

Name Your Inner Critic

Name the most predominant judgmental voice in your head. In ancient cultures, tribes named their deities – the good and bad deities. Naming her or him allows you to notice the voice. I recommend you give it a bitchy name that is humorous to you. Think of it as one of your “Negative Nellies.”

One of my critics is named Helga. She is fierce and never wants me to stop working. She drives me to work through lunch while eating at my desk. She tells me that I need to do more and go faster (I’m not doing enough or going fast enough). Noticing Helga allows me to unhook from her voice in my head, which creates the feeling of unworthiness that drives my behavior to work more (and harder) resulting in me feeling depleted. This is how our thoughts and beliefs create our reality.

Understand that your inner critic can actually help you. Your inner critic has evolved to help you set and meet high expectations. Act in spite of your inner critic. You can learn from your inner critic, but be careful not give it too much power. As soon as you can recognize a voice inside your head complaining or criticizing you, ask it this: “ Are you here to help me or hurt me?”

Clue #1: If what your inner critic says to you drains your energy or lowers your confidence, ask it to go do something else and stay focused on the task at hand. Witness your critic and breathe. Don’t resist the voice and try to push it away because it will persist. I notice Helga, and have her sit down for tea. I do not “attach” emotionally to what she says to me.

Uncovering the Critical People in Your Life

A critic could be someone in your family, a peer from middle or high school, a teacher, a religious person, or a friend.

Your School Years

1. Who is on your list as a critic during your school years?

2. What happened?

3. What did he or she say to you?

4. What do you feel emotionally and how do you react when these words come flooding back to you?

5. Who would you be if you could not think this thought or belief now in your life?

6. Turn what the voice says to the opposite. For example, Helga says I have to work harder. Write down the opposite thought: I don’t have to work harder. Now come up with three specific statements why you don’t have to do what your critic says.

Your mind will only believe genuine, specific statements not general statements.

Here’s a sample of my turnarounds to “I don’t have to work harder.”

a. Working harder burns me out and I don’t do a thorough job.

b. I name all that I have done today to see that I am doing a lot already.

c. I think of when I have taken time off to rest and play, and remember how much more creative I was during the month we recently lived in Baja and how much better my writing was during that time.

A Recent Critical Comment

1. Who recently criticized you?

2. What happened?

3. What did he or she say to you?

4. What do you feel emotionally and how do you react when these words come flooding back to you?

5. Who would you be in your life today without this thought? Live that out!

Someone Who May Have Meant Well But Hurt You Anyway

1. Who recently criticized you?

2. What happened?

3. What did he or she say to you?

4. What do you feel emotionally and how do you react when these words come flooding back to you?

5. Who would you be without that thought? That is where you want to live in this place. Remember, it’s only a story. Ask yourself, is this the story I want to live out?

Now I’d like to hear from you. What did you name your inner critic? What does your inner critic say to you?

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Painting credits: Donna Mulholland

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