Is Your Inner Critic Killing Your Original Thinking?

What wins out over “willpower” for high performance innovation.

Don’t let your inner critic cloud your judgement!

In an age when creative thinking is prized for innovation, many people in business have a block when it comes to their ability to solve problems in a new way or break new ground. The cause of this blockage could be closer to home than you think, and surprisingly possible to shift.

skeptical monkey by Nicolas Delamotte LeGrand

What prevents us from being in that dynamic, inspiring creative zone?

Fear. Mostly fear of humiliation, being put outside the “in” group, a.k.a. looking stupid, failing, or losing status. For example, Brené Brown’s article on shame in the Atlantic describes what each gender is up against: if you’re a man getting it wrong could mean being perceived as weak, if you’re a woman it could mean being perceived as not nice or incompetent. You can learn all the design thinking tools you want, but if fear is directing the show, you won’t get far.

Overcoming success

Ironically, the more successful we are in a given area, the harder it can become to take risks that are necessary for creative progress. Why would we pursue risks that entail possible failure, shame and vulnerability? If we operate in a win-or-lose paradigm, and especially if we believe the hype, it’s hard to take risks that are truly experimental.

shocked monkey by Nicolas Delamotte LeGrand

The inner critic in disguise

This kind of fear often manifests as quasi-reasonable-sounding-self-doubt, and often shows up in one universal form that is not always recognized: our inner critic (aka the monkey mind, gremlins, mind-bugs). It may show up sounding reasonable, even helpful. It may say, “You’re not ready yet.” or, “You’d better do some more research first.” or, “People will think this is stupid.” or, “You can do this after you get the next promotion and have more seniority.” If you pay attention though, you’ll notice this voice is always stopping you, blocking you from your moving forward on your most original thinking.

Often our response is to use “willpower” to push ourselves for great results. Unfortunately, when this push stems from the “will” of the inner critic, it doesn’t produce original thinking. The inner critic can make us very busy though, keeping us jumping through many “important” hoops, leaving no time for the more risky pursuits. An interesting aside: our very idea of “willpower” may be misguided, as explained by Dr. Kelly McGonigal’s research.

The inner critic’s motivations

Everyone has an inner critic. However, the inner critic is not your creative ally; it has other motivations. It’s not the same as rational critical thinking, which will offer forward moving strategies. The inner critic will do everything in its power to keep us safe. Safe almost always equals familiar. In business, this is increasingly dangerous, because what business needs now is agility, flexibility, killer insights, and creativity. We need to be conscious of our inner chatter, and separate realistic analytical thinking from paralyzing worry or overly optimistic grandiosity. This is crucial, because what we don’t face consciously often runs our lives.

hysterical monkey by Nicolas Delamotte LeGrand

That monkey is an unreliable narrator

When consumed by the monkey mind, we often misperceive what is going on around us. Our mind stays trapped in pre-existing stories. We literally can’t see what’s right in front of us without our bias dominating the interpretation. The inner critic is disproportionately self-absorbed, anxious and busy with things counterproductive to original thinking. The inner critic fires off in the face of any potential threat. It doesn’t distinguish between types of risk. That’s a lot of CPU that isn’t available for paying attention to the world around us. For most of us the safety instinct will dominate, unless we practice consciously countering it with a clear strategy.

Curiosity as reliable guide

Paying attention, in its many forms, is in short where original ideas come from.

Take the invention of Kevlar, for example, by DuPont chemist Stephanie Kwolek in 1965. Kwolek noticed an anomaly, and tested a solution normally thrown away. Her curiosity led to the discovery of a super strong fiber that is now used in over 200 products from bicycle tires to body armor.

The more we are able to pay attention to the world and other people, to notice details, to gain insight, to feel and synchronize with our gut, not only think with our head, the less confused we are by the inner critic. We can then more easily tap into our creative mindset.

Force of will can be seductive, but it’s the wrong tool for the job in this case. Creativity benefits more from a state of curiosity, committed engagement and flow rather than willful pushing.

Don’t banish the inner critic, manage it

Rather than trying to banish, silence or beat the inner critic into submission, it’s more effective to learn not to take direction from it. In an HBR ideacast leadership coach Tara Mohr offers insights on why we can’t and don’t need to get rid of the inner critic. The goal is to recognize it, and not let it drive decisions.

angry monkey by Nicolas Delamotte LeGrand

The inner critic will never be interested in making progress on big ideas that might change the world, or even your corner of it, unless it’s a sure thing for your ego (which by nature it rarely is). If we think the inner critic is something we should permanently silence, soon enough we will have another reason to feel we’ve failed, because the inner critic doesn’t really ever go away. Instead we can expect it to show up when we are taking risks, recognize it for what it is as soon as possible, and then shift our focus.

An antidote? Cultivate friendliness toward yourself

Befriending the inner critic will free up our personal creativity. I like to think of it as cultivating an “anti-monkey-mind” monkey. The wise, friendly, curious, understanding monkey. The wise monkey smiles at the critical monkey and says, “Oh hi, it’s you again! Have a seat outside and shell pistachios while I get on with my work.” Humor often helps. Otherwise the insidious inner critic chatter will lead us happily chasing our tails, diving into distraction, and watching other people make their mark (often while we sit by and criticize).

content monkey by Nicolas Delamotte LeGrand

Then practice

We can learn to work skillfully with the monkey mind; otherwise we risk missing the chance to be creative and make our unique contribution.

Besides awareness, friendliness and humor, research shows that anxiety can be countered by consciously connecting with our core values and strengths, as organizational psychologist Laura Morgan Roberts describes.

There are many other tools that help dial down the volume on the inner critic. It’s well worth having a variety of strategies on hand, because the inner critic can shape-shift. Knowing what we want, deeply, and developing a vision driven by principles like openhearted courage may be key, but how do we live that out? For me, the answers are often the same as in music: practice. Practice is physical, it’s not just in our heads.

Owning the way we respond to our inner critic is a powerful aid to taking creative risks and enhancing innovation in business. Creativity is not something some people have and others don’t, and it not solely owned by the artistically inclined. Managing the inner critic helps clear the space for insights and original thinking to spontaneously arise.


Laura Carmichael is on the faculty at THNK School of Creative Leadership and Innovation. Combining 25 years in the performing arts and 15 years corporate training experience, she leads her own workshops and coaching practice on creativity, innovation and presence at Serious-Play.net.