What Does Your Inner Critic Look Like?

Remember when people who heard voices were considered “crazy”?

Now, I believe it’s pretty commonplace for even the most adjusted men and women to hear voices. This is your inner critic.

It’s usually your ego protecting you from challenge and growth, and it’s usually when you’re triggered or under stress, but in those moments, those voices hold powerful sway over us human beings. They get loud, and can drown out any and all reason. Some of the voices have been with us since we were kids, and maybe now feel real familiar – not only because they’ve been with us for so long, but probably because they also remind you of an overbearing father or a protective, fearful mother.

And if you’re like me, it’s hard to tell which voice has your best interests at heart. Is the voice telling you to work twice as hard motivating you towards success, or is it causing you to burn out? Is the voice that’s telling you to quit before you fail, self-sabotaging or recognizing it’s time to cut your losses? How do you know which voice to listen to? Which of these voices actually has your back, and believes in your incredible capacity and capability?

Here are several ways to identify your inner critic:

If the voice uses the word “should”, that’s a huge red flag. When you say to yourself, “I should go to Aunt Gail’s Sunday brunch” what you are really saying is: “I don’t want to go to Aunt Gail’s Sunday brunch”.  “Should” is code for people pleasing or fear of disappointing others. It is not doing what’s good for YOU.

If you feel terrible when you hear what the inner critic is saying. Hurtful, mean words like: “you are fat; you shouldn’t eat that/wear that” “stick to what you do best” “who do you think you are?” “you aren’t smart enough” “you are a fraud” “they’re gonna laugh” “nobody is going to love the ‘real’ you”.  Those dispiriting words will demotivate us, crush us, dim our lights, and cause us to play small. Fuck that. I’d rather fail spectacularly because at least I’d be spectacular.

If it feels like it is coming from a fear-based place. Check in on the motivation of that voice. Is it “protecting” you from something? And if so, what’s the worst-case scenario? Then play it out to get more comfortable and quiet that voice. For example, if you’ve got a salary negotiation coming up, what’s the voice telling you?  Words like, “you aren’t doing that great of a job, you probably shouldn’t ask for that much money”) are simply an attempt to devalue you before you even get in the negotiation table;  THAT is the ego trying to anticipate and plan for the disappointment. Beat them to the punch, so to speak. YOU can take charge of managing worst-case scenario by prepping and being ready with concrete rationale on why you deserve the raise you deserve.

However they show themselves, these “voices” are simply your ego, hell bent on protecting you from what it perceives as certain imminent death. Every challenge (the interview, the big presentation, the first date, the conflict with family) feels like a clear and present danger to the ego, which working in concert with your lizard brain (fight/flight/freeze instinct).

And of course your ego wants you to avoid doing battle…and getting hurt!! (possibly in the very same way you were hurt as a child, something the ego has imprinted and uses as a frame of reference and keeps it on a constant mental loop as a reminder). With this in mind, it throws every reasonable excuse at you. And it’s wily. Because that ego is custom to you, it knows exactly what paralyses you. It knows what you’ll run from. It knows how to make you throw up the best defenses. Just like mine does for me. And what stops me in my tracks, might be something you merely smile at, as you keep moving forward.

To help banish the voices, various coaches recommend either naming the voices, or imagining them as a creature, like a gremlin or a lizard. And you can do this, too. It helps. If it’s in the form of a lizard (especially a small cute one!), it’s much easier to pat it on the head, empathize with their motivation (protecting you), and say, “thanks for your concern, but I got this!”

I’ve gone a step further though. Because my voices are larger than fucking life.

I imagine my inner critics as judges on “The Voice”. 

They each have a purpose, and a personality, and plenty of negative feedback about my “performance”. They even spin around in those chairs. Except it isn’t Adam Levine or Blake Shelton cheering me on.

It’s Simon Cowell from that other show saying “How did you even get this far? Who let you on this stage? You are a total hack!”

And then there’s Gordon Ramsay (also not from The Voice):
“Your performance was a hot mess. And you brought nothing new, original or fresh.”


And finally, Paula Abdul (how’d she get here?), who is telling me that I’m amazing, and that I don’t need to look any further for feedback… but I can’t trust her because she sounds drunk and her head keeps bobbing forward like she might fall asleep at the table.

Beyond the fun game of personifying your inner critics, here are some tips for overcoming them…


1. Breathe. That’s a signal to the sympathetic nervous system, to deescalate from fight/flight/freeze (i.e. you are not in danger!).
2. Seek feedback from trusted sources. Mentors, colleagues, coaches, friends, trusted confidants will have a different POV because they are outside the problem.
3. Look at the evidence. Does it back up what the voice contends is “true”? Probably not.
4. Take action – even small steps – towards your goals. Action is the antidote to self-doubt because it gives us a boost of the feel good chemical “dopamine” (often called the “reward molecule”). And it compounds…the more action, the more dopamine, the better we feel, and the more courageous and self-assured we become (even during failures).
5. Go for a run and get the endorphins going (another “feel good” chemical which helps us power through adversity and pain). Besides the bonus benefit of endorphins making you feel invincible, I believe if you change your environment, you are more likely to change your perspective on the problem.

Or you can stay home and curl up in a ball on you bed because it’s too fucking hard.

But then tomorrow, get up and do one of those 5 things. Or all of them. And get back to your relentless pursuit of greatness.

Because the world needs your unique contribution. Now more than ever.

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