We all have one… the inside voice that tells us we won’t meet the challenge; that we don’t fit in; that we won’t – or aren’t – doing well; that others are passing judgment on us.
The Inner Critic is the voice that tells us we’re wrongly dressed; too fat / thin / short / tall / unappealing or not successful enough; one that says our accent is too noticeable; that people in the past were right in treating us poorly and belittling us, or that our faults and all the mistakes and blunders we’ve made will be, or are, obvious to everyone – and that this collectively somehow makes us bad/wrong/inferior.
The Critic can show up anywhere or anytime. It can arrive hastily when we’ve just tried something and done poorly (or failed altogether), when we’re outside of our comfort zone, or in any of a number of other circumstances. Generally speaking, we’re more susceptible to its attacks when we’re tired or stressed.
One context that can really bring the critic out is speaking in front of a group. For many of us, as we prepare to get up in front of others to speak, the Critic really takes the helm, so by the time we’re actually in front of the audience/group, the Critic has us believing everything it’s been telling us. And our bodies show it: clenched hands; flushed or pale faces; darting or downcast eyes; damp brows; locked legs and/or arms (and as we read from notes [groan], or recite from an overhead); voices that are quivery, hesitant, or monotone. We are beset by thoughts of failure… thoughts that once we’re done, we’ll be passed over for a promotion, that our colleagues will avoid us, that we’ll have to consider ourselves losers.
All of that is happening because the Inner Critic has been shouting at us, deafening us to our authentic ways of being – to the self that has overcome difficulties; the self that has embraced challenges (new languages, new jobs, new colleagues, new technologies); the self that is appreciated, valued, and loved by others. In other words: the authentic self that lets us think and act as we truly are.
If we want to be authentic, we have to face, then quiet down the Critic. And we can only do that if we realize that it’s afraid… more afraid than the authentic self.
We all have ways in which to face up to the difficulties and challenges we meet. One very effective tool in the moment is Third Person Self-Talk. Another one is ‘Thought Stopping’. (When you hear the Critic’s voice in your head, you simply say ‘stop’. You may find yourself saying it over and over again, and it may take a few minutes or longer, but it has the ability to cut off detrimental or negative thoughts, so don’t be deterred.)
No matter the tool, people who do confront the Critic sometimes find themselves becoming angry. Little wonder. The Critic is a bully that’s been frightening them, belittling them, and lessening them for years.
Anger is cleansing, but when it lessens, compassion needs to take over, because the Critic has a reason for being loud and taking over. We just need to figure out what it is. Most likely, it’s hanging onto hurtful experiences from the past, and is worried that if we get up in front of others, not only will that hurt be exposed, but we’ll be opening ourselves to more hurt, more criticism.
Ironic, isn’t it? The Inner Critic is hurting us in an attempt to keep us safe.
It is up to us to reassure that inner voice. To let it know we can tell the difference between realistic fear and overblown fear. (Realistic fear? Facing someone with a weapon. Overblown fear? Talking to a group of people). We need to tell it to take a deep breath, retreat into the background of our lives and assume its proper place.
The Critic does have a proper place. It’s not there to run our lives; it’s there to serve us. It’s there is alert us to realistic dangers. It’s there to keep our egos in check. And it’s there to keep us from assuming we are smarter than we are, or from assuming we always know better than others.
There is another dimension to taming the Critic. That dimension involves a deeper, longer-term inquiry into where it comes from, what its motives are, and a “negotiation” with yourself tore-write the unhealthy part of your inner “script / story / belief” about yourself. We’ll write more about that another day. Many of the seeds of how to handle that negotiation are found in this article, but this dimension of the problem is worth a deeper dive at some point.
Getting in touch with old hurtful experiences and releasing them, understanding why the Critic behaves the way it does, and knowing the role it needs to play in our lives, brings each one of us closer to authenticity… an authenticity that is incredibly freeing.
In the context of public speaking, this authenticity allows us to use our arms and other body language naturally as we speak, to look directly at others; to use a voice that’s clear and confident. In summary, it allows us to overcome our Number One Worst Fear so that we can stand in front of others and just… be ourselves.