I don’t think anyone completely escapes it, so I think we should just talk about it.
When we don’t talk about the self-critical thoughts we face, we empower that little gremlin and give her cover. If we have shame about having an inner critic, we bolster its influence, if we talk about it we can help each other make peace with it. We can “name it to tame it.” I call her “her” (instead of “it”) because like it or not, she is a part of me – she is not Me, but she is a part of me. (And your gremlin is a part of you too.)
Our critical inner voice comes from a natural negativity bias our brains have developed to keep us safe. Neuroscience confirms that we’re wired to stay on alert for threat and negative circumstances as a survival mechanism.
Fortunately, in our modern world, many of the threats our brains detect are not actually life-threatening. Unfortunately, our nervous system is very efficient in quickly responding to stress, even if it is a looming deadline, snide remark, or traffic jam instead of a predator. The inner critic is the guard dog warning you of potential doom.
When I took the leap from a structured 30-year career where I thrived, grew, climbed the ladder, and felt competent and confident to walking on a new path of independent work, my critic started feeling a little feisty! I found independent work to be such freedom, such a gift - but it didn’t come without challenges.
As I evolved into a new way of being, I became aware of a critic who had been tamed in my “old” world but found a new lease on life as I faced my new reality. When we face change, take on a new challenge in life, a new venture, or a fresh experience, our gremlins act like kids on a sugar binge – they get a little crazy. Just like us, each gremlin has its own personality – its own “bag of tricks” that we can get familiar with.
Our inner dialog tends to be very repetitive. When my gremlin gets active I notice it uses comparison to shake my confidence. I know many others face a similar internal whispering.
Each person has a unique inner dialog; the negative voice takes many forms.
Some people have very aggressive gremlins who say things like “you aren’t worthy,” or “you’re unlovable,” or “you don’t deserve this.” My own gremlin is sneaky; she’s that passive-aggressive “frenemy” who never directly tells me I can’t accomplish my goals, but does like to point out what others are doing that is different (i.e. better, more professional, somehow above and beyond my work).
I have gotten to know her and her tricks. My gremlin disguises comparison and hides it behind the pretense of “learning” and “research” when it tells me to look at what others are doing so I can - you know - “learn.” When I look at others, I question myself and feel stuck. When I trust my own ideas and intuition and live as my authentic self, I am clear, focused, happy, and productive.
Thinking of your inner critic as a character you can get to know can give you a little distance to consider the dialog more objectively. I am becoming “friends” with my gremlin and when she asks me to look at what others are doing, I pat her on the head and then remind myself to be authentic instead of comparative. It is getting easier with practice.
Do you know your gremlin’s tricks? If you spend a little time paying attention, you can recognize your own patterns and begin to dispute the unhelpful messages. You can hear your critic without having to agree with all that it says. Remind yourself that your brain’s negative bias is trying to keep you safe, so you can think of your inner gremlin as someone who has the best intentions to protect you, but doesn't always give good advice.
You don’t have to believe what your critic says!
Of course, it seems so obvious once it’s written in black ink that it is unhelpful and unhealthy to compare myself to others, yet how many of you have looked at another person and unconsciously compared yourself? Your body, your job, your salary, your accomplishments, your relationship, etc. I often realize I am making a comparison only when I notice the pit I feel in my stomach; by learning my own body signals, I can tune in to hearing the unreasonable messages and shift my mindset.
Talking about our doubts and our negative self-talk is powerful because when we speak it out loud it loses some of its power.
Take the time to tune in to your gremlin and start noticing what happens when she speaks.
When you can “catch” the inner dialog by feeling the signs in your body or recognizing the repetitive messages, you can use mindful breathing to unhook from the negative messages, step back and question the truth of the message.
Your inner critic is surely different from mine. She may be bigger or smaller, louder, or subtler, she may be mean or sarcastic, but she is likely there as a regular companion. Get curious and practice noticing. When she speaks ask yourself these questions about her message: Is this message kind? Is this helping me be the person I want to be? Does this inspire me or hold me back? How am I experiencing this in my body? By tuning in and getting to know our critic we can loosen the grip of negative messages. As for me, I am choosing authenticity instead of comparison.
How about you?