Without fail the person that is cruelest to me is me. Since I was a child I’ve had very active inner critics, who despite being total arseholes, I provided with the space to get comfortable and thrive. This was great in terms of motivating me to be good at everything I did, excelling at exams and within the structural spaces we seek approval (my 20s were consumed by work). It did have the sad side-effect of making me only want to do things I knew I could excel at, instead of embracing things I found fun. Inner critics aren’t big fans of play. Doing anything enjoyable was a shortcut to guilt.
Sound familiar? I’ve also seen this charming inner voice referred to as the fraud police, negative self talk, your inner bully and even your inner demons. All of these descriptors are apt. This inner voice has an encyclopedic memory of every piece of criticism you’ve ever received, whether it was justified or not, doesn’t matter. Inner critics don’t discriminate. They also remember every time you felt you could have done better. We all have inner critics, it is just that some of us have a healthier relationship with them. Some of us have learned not to feed and encourage them. This is something I need to remind myself every day. But subduing my very vocal inner critics left a void in my internal narrative, one that I deliberately chose to replace with cheerleaders.
One of my exercises in my Uncertainty workshop involves participants thinking of 3 people they greatly admire. They could come from any walk of life. So if you were one of my workshop participants you could pick from a mix of people you know, people pushing the boundaries in your area of work, famous experts, or even broader celebrities you look up to. The key is that you pick people whose opinion you respect. These become your designated cheerleaders. You may all be familiar with the expression “what would Jesus do?” Well, this is more, “what would Jesus’ advice be to me right now? What would he say?” That is assuming you’d pick Jesus. Your cheerleaders are yours. They’re tailored to your needs, and you can add to your squad whenever you need to. Say you’re particularly worried about money, you might want to add a financial cheerleader. The opportunities are endless.
The key is to make sure you internal narrative isn’t dominated by voices intent on putting you down. The things we say to ourselves, we would never consider saying to others because it would be too cruel. I’m convinced that if our inner critics suddenly manifested in the physical world, many would be considered dangerously psychotic. 2020 has been a bumper year for inner critics, they’ve had extra time with most of us, and they are fuelled up. Work uncertainty, financial chaos, sickness, disrupted family lives, pressure on relationships, isolation, lack of balance, political uncertainty and trauma – these all help our inner critics thrive.
So if you are struggling and you’re judging yourself for it, please stop. Take a moment to listen to what you are saying to yourself. Call it out as bullshit, and disrupt the narrative (out loud if you need to). Take that moment to replace your critic with someone who has your back. A positive and encouraging voice that invites you to look at your situation and your life through a different lens. A focus that highlights the opportunities and not the barriers. A voice that is kind and compassionate. There is so much strength and power in kindness and compassion, and it is wonderfully self-sustaining. The kinder we are to ourselves, the easier it is to be compassionate to others. It is a beautiful and nurturing virtuous circle.
So yes, my inner critics are still around, they’re hard to kill, but I keep them in my mental bin. They may try to escape on a regular basis, but having created these positive, nurturing voices in my mind, I’ve found it a lot easier to get these hideous monsters under control and locked up again, with minimal damage to my well-being. It has also opened me up to a whole world of opportunities, so that even during lockdown my horizon felt expansive and full of potential. It may be a different future to the one I envisioned as a child, but it fits the adult me so much better.
If you are struggling with work related demons and would like to invest some time in fighting them, my next full day virtual ‘Leaning in to Uncertainty’ workshop is running on 10th August and you can find out more about it here