Listen to this story
How to Manage Your Inner Critic
Realistic strategies for reaching your potential
I’m reading Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls with my daughter. It profiles Yusra Mardini, who, while fleeing the war in Syria, swam an overweighted dinghy holding 20 refugees to safety when the motor gave out. She competed in the 2016 Olympics as part of the refugee swimming team.
Also among the stories is Rita Levi-Montalcini, a Jewish Italian Nobel Prize–winning scientist who fled religious persecution during World War II but nonetheless created makeshift surgical instruments in hideouts to pursue her research during the war.
These are stories of people achieving dreams despite fear and discrimination, and they remind us of our daily choice to believe in our limitless potential. You read stories like these and wonder, “What passion might I pursue if I were unconstrained by expectations?”
For myself, I imagined our family spending a year in New Zealand, discovering the magnitude of the world and trading trips to the playground for visits to Milford Sound. I considered more deeply—“What do I want my legacy to be?”—and visualized chapters of my own unwritten book.
But then a voice interrupted the dreaming like a slap in the face: “That’s not realistic for you now, Chantal.”
This is the tension between potential and the inner critic. Below are some hard-won lessons from the world of executive coaching about beating back inner critics.
You read a story about the perseverance of someone like Yusra Mardini and are reminded of your own lack of fortitude. She swam for her life as a teenager, and I delay researching the visas required to live abroad.
These stories inspire, but they also incite fear that I squander time and opportunity. They invite that unproductive voice that asks, “If you haven’t made your mark yet, will you ever?”
If we’re human, we’re all susceptible to this negative self-chatter, inner critic, gremlin, or saboteur (call it what you will), because the inner critic is a successful outgrowth of our cognitive design.
When we lived a more primitive existence as hunters and gatherers, the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response when we feel threatened was a vital mechanism to improve the chances of our survival. This response kept us safe from bears and buffalo stampedes—ensuring we would instinctively run from predatory animals, rather than debate the pros and cons of fleeing to safety.
In modern life, we occasionally still need to protect ourselves — earthquakes happen, violence occurs. Good thing we’re still wired for vigilant response.
But it’s almost 2 million years since our hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and most of us don’t confront daily external threats.
In this era, we most frequently consider ourselves as our greatest threat.
If we care too much, advocate too much, want too much, we’ll be stampeded by the contemporary beasts known as failure, inadequacy, and worthlessness.
So the inner critic warns us to limit risk in the event we’ll fail and to keep our guard up so we’re not made a fool. It reminds us we’re not as wise, capable, or strong as we might believe and ensures we never test the extent of those boundaries, come up short, and live a life of catatonic shame. How sweet.
But in this small, self-defeating mental state, we fight or flee — we fight the temptation to dream bigger, and we flee the option of greatness—all the while missing hidden opportunities and profound possibilities. We miss accessing the Yusra or Rita within us.
Our critics can present as obvious, demoralizing demons (“You’re worthless!”), but also as sweet-talking captors who provide damning evidence of our deficiencies (“That kind of passion would be too overwhelming for you.”). Neither version serves us, but they seep into us all.
As an executive coach, much of my work involves supporting leaders to recognize, reckon with, and disengage from their inner critic in pursuit of greater impact.
Let’s take a former client of mine: Melissa (name changed to preserve confidentiality).
Melissa is a managing director who came to me wanting to “assert her opinion more.” Results from a round of 360 feedback revealed this was an area for growth, and Melissa herself felt a craving to access her voice.
In our coaching work, we uncovered that Melissa feared people would respond negatively to stances that were primarily rooted in her values and beliefs. They would reject her most authentic self.
Her critic fueled the fear, whispering, “They won’t like you if they really know you,” reminding her to withhold expressions of vulnerability. She imagined that asserting the “wrong” opinion would reveal her utter incompetence and undo all the value she had contributed to date.
So Melissa’s inner critic repeatedly asked, “Is that really worth sharing?” to keep her doubtful and quiet. It then celebrated Melissa with a righteous cheer when team members’ opinions led to failed projects. “Your opinion would have led to a different outcome — as long as we know that, it’s all that matters,” the critic would boast.
The critic exaggerated threats around Melissa, kept her small, and convinced her it was for her own good. Melissa, overly trusting of her captor, got sucked into the narrative like a Stockholm syndrome victim.
Or consider Mo (name also changed for confidentiality). Mo’s recent promotion to the position of executive director (ED) brought up his desire to more fluidly navigate situations of uncertainty.
Instead of getting paralyzed by chaos, he sought to sit comfortably in nuance, recognizing this as a hallmark of great leadership.
We unpacked what Mo feared most about uncertainty. In his mind, an inability to eliminate chaos meant he lacked strategic thinking skills and was intellectually inferior.
As a result, Mo’s inner critic worked hard to overly plan for meetings, collect an abundance of data, calculate every turn in a conversation, and plot Mo’s recommendation or rebuttal.
Conversations also revealed that Mo feared that uncertainty bred inefficiency and caused people to disengage and give up on his ability to lead. His inner critic reminded him to guarantee a prompt decision or closure with every issue, or else his people would quit. The reality, though, is that the critic’s obsessive overplanning and halting of creativity in favor of closure proved exhausting and self-defeating for Mo’s staff.
How Can You Silence Your Inner Critic?
Melissa and Mo are two examples of people so enmeshed with their inner critic that they couldn’t see the toll it took on their ability to thrive. Examples, however, are endless. So, how does one detach from the voice of the critic and experiment with the boundaries of our capabilities? Here’s how.
Tip #1: Notice It
If we’re unaware that we can turn the critic’s volume up or down, we are a slave to it. We must build skill in noticing its presence. The good news is that our inner critic shows up in predictable ways. It is:
- Black or White: “You can’t work and be a good parent.”
- Repetitive: “You’re incapable of doing that. Remember, you’re incapable. You’re not capable.”
- Extreme and Permanent: “If you do that, you will be abandoned by everyone you love, forever.”
- Harsh: “You’re 35 years old and still haven’t done anything decent with your life.”
Example: When Melissa began noticing her inner critic, she heard the absurdity in its extreme and binary claim, “All the value you’ve contributed to-date will be discounted if your opinion is wrong!” This distance she created between her and the critic allowed Melissa to see her hard-earned reputation in a new light — with pride and confidence — which gave her the guts to share her opinion more readily.
Tip #2: Personalize It
Identifying the specific nature of our critic can shift it from all-knowing and omnipotent to a mean-spirited playground bully.
In Positive Intelligence, Shirzad Chamine writes:
“Saboteurs do far greater damage when they do their work while hiding under the radar, pretending they are your friend or that they are you. Observing and labeling them blows their cover and discredits their voice.”
In his book, Chamine outlines the 10 most common critics within us all — from Judge to Stickler to Perfectionist — which serves as a useful starting point to identify the exact nature of our own. Check out more here.
Example: When Mo assigned the persona of “creativity killer” to one of his critics and imagined the clothes, posture, and motivations (think ax wielding troll) of this self-sabotaging nuisance, he found himself better equipped to dismiss it. What opened up for Mo was the realization that fueling creative tension and welcoming controlled chaos was a powerful way to generate new ideas, empower his people, and relinquish control.
Tip #3: Manage It
When we are trapped in the part of our brain that fuels the fight-or-flight response, we are anticipating danger at every turn. It’s like a candy store for our sweet-toothed inner critic.
The prefrontal cortex area in our brain, however, is where we access creative thinking, impulse control, and the ability to plan and solve problems (to name a few of its virtues). It’s more like a vegan grocery store for that sweet-toothed inner critic — there’s no threat for it to prey on.
Operating with the prefrontal cortex thereby diminishes the volume and validity of our critic. David Rock, in Your Brain at Work, reports that “[t]he loss of prefrontal function only occurs when we feel out of control.”
Here are two simple introductory exercises to regain control:
- Pause to breathe deeply and repeatedly.
- Temind your critic of your wants and needs: “Your protection of me is unnecessary. Thank you, please go away.”
Example: As a first-generation immigrant to a single mom, Melissa felt frequently “different” from her peers as a kid. The voice that told her to hide feelings helped her fit in because she didn’t draw attention to her challenging emotional experience. Yet, as her leadership grew, the distance Melissa kept from people limited her ability to motivate them. She reminded her critic, “It’s safe now for me to reveal myself. When I’m fully seen, I have my greatest impact!” Melissa then noticed a dramatically heightened level of connection and trust with colleagues.
Tip #4: Wonder About It
Most of the time, our critic is limiting versus supportive. But it’s not entirely useless. There can be nuggets of truth in its ranting that are worth considering.
In Peter Bregman’s article, “Managing the Critical Voices Inside Your Head,” published in the Harvard Business Review, he writes:
“Resist the urge to judge whether the voices in your head are right. It’s impossible to know and it doesn’t matter anyway. Are you lazy? The truth is that you probably are, in some ways. And, in other ways, you’re not. But that’s not the right question. Instead, think about the outcome you want and ask this question: Is what this voice is saying — and how it’s saying it — useful right now?”
So, wonder about your inner critic’s usefulness, and determine if listening to it serves you.
Example: Mo felt attached to his goal-oriented and efficient identity. Those strengths had served him well and led to meaningful results. But holding so tightly to those strengths inhibited him from growing. Instead of blindly listening to the critic that said, “Strategize more! More!” Mo answered questions with me like, “In what contexts are these strengths of best use to you? How might you be efficient and creative?” Mo didn’t deny the value of strategic thinking, but he wondered how valuable it was all the time. Mo learned to more nimbly leverage different strengths in new ways and found himself surprised by unexpected ideas and possibilities that emerged.
Tip #5: Act Despite It
It’s impossible to silence the critic forever. We must build resilience against our critic and act despite it to test those self-imposed boundaries.
When we fail (which we will), it’s not permission for the critic to reclaim our cognitive functioning. It’s just a momentary setback that is best handled with humor, curiosity, and grace. I know, easier said than done. But it’s seemingly the only way to discover what we are capable of in this lifetime.
Example: To test the validity of her fears, Melissa asked her boss for help on a project, asserted her opinion about performance inconsistencies in a direct report, and shared how her personal background influenced her current motivations with her team. All the while, Melissa quieted the critic that warned, “That’s incompetent! They’ll shun you!” and felt relief as she received additional support, aligned her values and actions, and discovered renewed energy around her purpose and priorities.
I have dreams for myself and my future. Mo, Melissa, Yusra, Rita, and all of us all hold sacred dreams within ourselves.
We can give our critic the microphone and center stage in our life and listen to the reasons why our hopes are unreasonable, foolish, or dangerous. Or we can reclaim the microphone and put our critic in a nosebleed seat.
From that stance, we are free to experiment with possibilities that inspire us, follow curiosity that excites us, and discover ways to live and lead in ways we only dreamed possible. So, choose to say good night to your critic, and wake up that potential and possibility within.