Observing Your Inner Critic

Jul 11, 2017 / By Chris Holman
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We all have a little voice inside our heads that criticizes, chastises, and judges us and what we do. If not dealt with, this voice grows stronger and can drain our joy and enthusiasm for work and life. The key is to recognize—and work with—your Inner Critic.

One of my favorite summer pursuits is riding my bike. I ride a fair bit. On weekdays the rides are shorter, an hour or two. On the weekends, I love taking longer rides…100+ miles, riding solo up and down the Mighty Mississippi and out and about in the beautiful Minnesota countryside. During the week, I’d think about my upcoming ride on the weekend, and where I might go. Sometimes at night, as I dozed off into sleep, I’d relive a recent ride…and imagined myself retracing the route…mile-by-mile.

Obsessive? Compulsive? Odd? Not to me. I found the anticipation and recollections all quite relaxing.

Yet, something has happened lately. I’ve stopped “loving” my longer rides. In fact, I’ve stopped going on the long rides altogether. Initially, I couldn’t figure it out. I could sense my diminishing ardor for the longer rides, but couldn’t quite place the cause.

Then, it all came into focus. I recognized that I wasn’t riding solo at all. I was riding tandem with an unwelcome partner…my Inner Critic.

The thing is that these 100-mile rides take a while. I’m on the bike six hours or so. That’s a long time to be alone with your thoughts. And lately, the dialogue in my head has been somewhat one-sided…dominated by the thoughts, judgments, and pronouncements of my Inner Critic:

“You idiot!”

“What’s wrong with me?’

“Why did I do that?”

“How could I be so stupid?”

Who or what is your Inner Critic?

Who among us doesn’t have an internal dialogue in our heads? Experts have assumed that our inner voices begin when we start learning language at around 12- to 18-months-old. Our Inner Critic is assumed to begin contemporaneously, when we first hear “No!” and see and hear boundaries, warnings, disapproval, and anger from our parents and others who raise us.

Over time, the Inner Critic can become more insistent and disapproving, instilling feelings of low self-esteem, shame, deficiency, and depression. It is not uncommon that our inner critic stymies our thinking and actions by imparting feelings of self-doubt that undermine our self-confidence.

Jay Early and Bonnie Weiss have labeled seven types of Inner Critics: the perfectionist, the taskmaster, the inner controller, the guilt tripper, the destroyer, the underminer, and the molder.

Inner Critic: Friend or foe?

Is your Inner Critic an enemy or an ally?

Interestingly, the experts are not unanimous on this point, reflecting the reality that not everyone’s Inner Critic is the same. One school of thought is to treat your Inner Critic as an enemy to be dismissed, overcome, or ignored. This view is taken in Byron Brown’s Soul Without Shame, Richard Carson’s Taming Your Gremlin, and Elizabeth Lombardo’s Better than Perfect.

Alternatively, others believe that your Inner Critic is an ally who holds valuable information. Hal Stone’s Embracing Your Inner Critic, Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons, and Pat Allen’s Art is a Way of Knowing fall into this camp.

Which approach is best? Some research indicates that a flexible approach might be best. If the Inner Critic is insistent and stubborn, listening to its concerns may be most helpful. If the Inner Critic is more mild in it’s reproaches, gently ignoring the critiques may be best.

Full disclosure: I am a business coach, not a therapist. I am not qualified to prescribe the best therapies to address your Inner Critic, should therapy be the desired answer. The above discussion is intended to be a short review of some approaches that are in the realm of popular psychology today. It’s a starting point for your own research.

Observing your Inner Critic

As a coach of financial advisors, I am a full-throated proponent of the power in observing oneself. This is the ability to stand outside yourself and non-judgmentally witness your thoughts, feelings, and actions. This state of mind can have the feel of watching a movie in which we ourselves are one of the actors. What I have seen to be most powerful is that the more we develop our observer capacity, the more in charge we can be of our thoughts, feelings, and actions…and the less controlled by people, events outside ourselves—and our Inner Critic.

When we are in the position of observer, we have the ability to simply notice what is while holding ourselves somewhat detached from our own thoughts and feelings. We can become more able to distinguish between our own sense of what’s true, and what’s actually happening around us. It is a way of being more “mindful” of the role that our own emotions, opinions, judgments, and attachments play in how we view the world.

Exercise: Observing your Inner Critic

For a fixed period of time (One week? One day? Four hours?), keep a tally of all assertions, pronouncements, and judgments of your Inner Critic. Don’t worry about quashing your Inner Critic. Simply observe, and take impartial notes in a journal or some other easily accessible place.

In the observing instant, you are calmly asking yourself: What’s happening now…moment by moment by moment. As your observer becomes more discerning and effective, you’ll become better and better at recognizing the voice of your Inner Critic, and simply accepting that this is momentarily the way it is.

The power of observation

On a recent three-hour bike ride, I consciously determined that I would listen whenever my Inner Critic spoke up. I wouldn’t suppress or debate…I would simply take note.

On two separate occasions, the Inner Critic appeared and judged my past actions…a recent one from last week, and another instance from some 40 years ago!

I let the Inner Critic have his say, and made a mental note. Then…he quieted down, and I continued pedaling.

Three hours later, I was back home…having completed one of my fastest rides ever. What a nice…coincidence?

Start observing your own Inner Critic and you may find that you accomplish far more with much less stress and effort.

Resources

I trust that you found this discussion helpful. For those of you who want to research your Inner Critic still further, here are 10 resources that might be helpful:

  1. Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself From the Judge Within, by Byron Brown
  2. Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice: A Revolutionary Program to Counter Negative Thoughts and Live Free From Imagined Limitations, by Robert and Lisa Firestone
  3. Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way, by Richard Carson
  4. Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk: And Other Truths About Being Creative, by Danielle Krysa
  5. Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-Criticism into a Creative Asset, by Hal Stone
  6. Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict, by Tsultrim Allione
  7. Art Is a Way of Knowing: A Guide to Self-Knowledge and Spiritual Fulfillment Through Creativity, by Pat B. Allen
  8. Self-Therapy for Your Inner Critic: Transforming Self Criticism Into Self-Confidence, by Jay Early and Bonnie Weiss
  9. Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love, by Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo
  10. Change Your Questions, Change Your Life: 10 Powerful Tools for Life and Work, by Marilee Adams

Chris Holman is an executive coach with Horsesmouth. His career in financial services spans 35 years as a financial advisor, a national director of investments, and an executive coach. He is a member of the International Coach Federation (ICF), specializing in coaching financial advisors, especially through group coaching. He can be reached at cholman@horsesmouth.com.

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