Most of us have a voice that lives inside our head, permanently poised to offer its two cents. For some of you, this voice may be a tireless cheerleader, encouraging you and boosting your morale. But for others, it can be the harshest of critics, pulling you down and undermining your confidence. If you identify with the latter category, take heart in knowing that you are far from alone—relentless inner critics can be found everywhere in the working world, from cubicles to boardrooms.
In her article, When Your Toughest Conversations Are the Ones You Have with Yourself, published in the Harvard Business Review, Erica Ariel Fox lets readers in on a secret: even some of the most confident, seemingly unshakeable leaders you know battle raging self-doubt and constantly berate themselves. Fox explains that while many leaders are able to handle tough conversations with their colleagues and team members because they seem that as “part of the job”, they struggle with the interactions they have with themselves. Their inner critic questions their competence, blames them when things go wrong, and even makes them feel like frauds.
Sounds familiar? Then my message this week is meant for you—let’s talk about how your inner critic makes it presence felt and ways to silence its negativity.
Interestingly, research shows that women tend to be much harder on themselves and rate their own performance lower than men do. Geoff Trickey, in an article in People Management, references this trend, and matches it with personality research that suggests that people who overestimate their abilities are more likely to grow faster. The assumption is that if you think you’re good, you’re more likely to put yourself up for recognition. It is one of the reasons for the significant gender biases at the workplace.
Now, you might be wondering—is it really such a bad thing to be aware of your own flaws? Of course not! It’s great to be able to look at yourself clearly, identify your areas of improvement, and work on them. In fact, self-awareness is one of the most important qualities for a leader to be effective. And that is, ironically enough, one of the biggest issues that many leaders grapple with.
Occupational psychologist, Amanda Potter, shares research by her firm, Zircon, on what makes different people successful. According to them, Olympians and other high achieving sportspeople are particularly self-critical. They closely cross-examine every aspect of their behaviour—their sleep, food and regular routine included, as well as details of their game. And they use these insights to better themselves. So, while they are clearly tough on themselves, they balance it with a healthy dose of belief in their abilities and determination to achieve their aspirations. General Electric guru, Jeff Immelt, has much the same advice: “I think you can’t do a job like this for a long time unless you’re horribly self-critical… You have to be massively self-aware, because if you’re not, it is so easy to be blind to problems.”
So, the problem isn’t being self critical. It’s when your internal appraiser crosses the line from constructive self-appraisal to destructive self-sabotage. In other words, if you constantly feel like you’re not good enough and hold yourself responsible for every single thing that goes wrong, then your inner critic needs to be disciplined—because that’s not self-awareness, it’s self-punishment. Just imagine if another person was making you feel this way. You would certainly fight back and prove them wrong. Then why give your inner voice a free pass, even when it’s making you miserable? Developing a more positive relationship with that part of yourself will boost your confidence, creativity and productivity—not to mention your happiness and peace of mind.
Here are some ways in which you can tame the commentator in your head and balance its criticisms:
1. Listen to your thoughts
In order to beat unpleasant thoughts, you may instinctively try ignoring them. Unfortunately, not only does this not work, it actually makes matters worse. Trying to suppress an unwanted thought causes it to rebound with greater intensity. So, instead of trying to drown it out, acknowledge that your inner critic exists and listen to what it has to say—this is the first step towards taking away its power.
2. Distance yourself
It’s crucial to recognise that our thoughts are not always grounded in facts. Just because a part of you thinks that “the presentation I gave was terrible” or “I’m going to fail at this project” doesn’t make it so. Your inner voice can be notoriously unreliable. Keeping this in mind allows you to distance yourself from your thoughts. Psychologists recommend an easy technique for differentiating yourself from your inner critic: instead of thinking in “I” statements, try to think in “you”. For instance, replace “I should have seen that coming” with “you should have seen that coming”. This will help you see your inner voice as a separate entity—one that can, and does, make mistakes.
3. Let’s talk
Now that you know your inner judge is fallible, you can begin a dialogue with it—instead of allowing it to continue its harsh monologue. Consider how you would treat a friend who came to you with such feelings of self-doubt. You certainly wouldn’t agree with their overly harsh self-criticism—you would see that they were overacting to the situation and offer compassion and reassurance. Why not do the same for yourself? As Fox points out in the above-mentioned article:
‘You know best practice is not to lecture someone, but rather to have a dialogue. Embrace the tone of dialogue in your inner speech as well…. The negative voice in your head wants something. It wants to be heard. It needs something, too: a bit of compassion and friendly reassurance. When you provide these, the conversations with yourself start to go a lot better.’
4. Challenge it
Alternatively, you might prefer a more combative approach. Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychology professor who has written extensively about “learned optimism”, recommends a three-step process: recognise your critical voice; treat it as an enemy whose job is to make your life miserable; and marshal evidence against its accusations. Essentially, when your inner voice delivers an unfair judgment, respond with a more accurate version that proves it wrong.
Say, something catches you by surprise during a meeting. Afterwards, your inner critic laments that you never see anything coming, that you always mess things up. Approach these claims as you would if they were made by a hostile person. Examine the facts: yes, you were caught off-guard, but you regrouped within minutes and the discussion became even more productive with this new information. Plus, you anticipated similar developments in the last three meetings. This was just a minor hiccup—nothing more. Dismantle the catastrophic thought, piece by piece.
5. Move forward
As leaders, we tend to have very high expectations of ourselves—and that makes it difficult to deal with failure, be it on a small or large scale. If you make a mistake, you might start to obsess about it, replaying it over and over in your mind. Not only does this make you feel worse, it also doesn’t help you move forward.
Research shows that the more you focus on blaming yourself, the worse you are likely to perform in the future. Instead, you need to embrace the failure, forgive yourself, and get into solution mode.
In her 2008 commencement address at Harvard University, author JK Rowling offered valuable advice about learning from failure. These words are relevant for everyone, from college graduates to corporate leaders:
‘I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless. Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well have not lived at all, in which case you’ve failed by default. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I have ever earned.’
As leaders, we tell our peers and colleagues to forgive themselves, to learn from their mistakes. Why not take this advice when it comes to our own errors? If you can start to see failure as an opportunity for growth, rather than self-blame, then you can step into the problem-solving phase. Ask yourself how you can do better, and silence your internal critic by taking action to improve future outcomes.
Remember, your overly critical voice is the darkest, most self-destructive part of yourself—it can pull you down and keep you from achieving your true goals. Even when that voice is saying “you can’t” or “you’ll fail”, you must stay on the course you have charted for yourself. Advocate for yourself through your actions—speak up, volunteer, take a chance, start a conversation, accept a challenge. By doing so, you weaken the naysaying part of yourself along with strengthening your confidence and self-belief.
As leaders, you also need to watch out for your team members who might be self-critical or not self-critical enough. Some employees tend to over-estimate their abilities. And so, you need to ensure that you are giving honest, direct and frequent feedback and helping them become more self-aware. And for those employees who are being overly harsh on themselves – you need to find a way for them to boost their self-esteem and to encourage them to play to their strengths.
As always, I look forward to your perspectives.
P.S. This week’s #monday8am is coming a bit early as I am on vacation this week, with poor network coverage.