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The Psychology of Success: Managing Your Inner Critic
Member news | August 25, 2023
As professionals, we know that success is a combination of education, hard work, networking, natural abilities, opportunity, innovation, mentorship and ambition. Have you also considered how your mental outlook is contributing to your self-confidence or self-doubt, and ultimately your success?
FACC Member Xavier Lederer, Business Development Coach and the voice behind Ambrose Growth shares insights on how to tame your inner critic.
Xavier has over 20 years of experience challenging the status quo to grow mid-market companies as much as 70% in two years, in the US and in Europe.
Why are you so harsh on yourself? How to tame your inner critic.
“You don’t belong here: you are a fraud! Why would smart people ever want to listen to you?” whispered the manager to the salesperson. Galvanized by this wake-up call that he desperately needed, the employee rose to the occasion and exceeded all expectations.
Does this sound realistic? Of course not! Who would feel upbeat by such senseless, demotivating speech? This scenario obviously never existed – and yet the speech is 100% authentic: I heard it from a sales executive last week. It wasn’t directed at a team member though: it was directed at himself.
Your inner critic: your #1 judge
We all have an inner voice that continuously judges us. Its main message varies from person to person; in a separate article, we discuss how to identify your inner voice’s main messages. In this post, we discuss its negative impact on yourself and on your ability to grow your business, and what to do about it.
One of my client CEOs told me his inner voice calls him a “loser who sets the wrong example to his team and will never be a successful entrepreneur” when he doesn’t take over what his team members fail to accomplish. My inner voice calls me “lazy and complacent who will fail as an entrepreneur and a father” when I am idle for more than 2 minutes, even on vacation – and makes me feel guilty and shameful every single time it happens.
Our inner critic pretends to be helpful and necessary to our success, but its long-term impact is unequivocally negative. Why do we keep listening to our inner critic, even though it is obvious that its message is utterly uninspiring and demotivating? What can we do about it?
How does your inner critic afflict your performance?
Our inner critic constantly finds faults with self (for past mistakes or current shortcomings), with others, and with circumstances. This judge sounds helpful at first sight by shedding light on our shortcomings. While it has the appearance of a helper, it is a bully that blackmails us with shame and guilt, with pretty dramatic consequences in the long run. It tells you: “Without me pushing you, you will be unworthy of love / attention / success.”
Your inner critic negatively affects you in three significant ways:
Your inner critic has a long-term damaging impact on your own personal performance.
Your inner critic acts like a radioactive armor: it pretends to be protective but it will leave you poisoned and bald in the long run. Let’s get back to the two examples above:
- Client CEO: To respond to the guilt of not being the ideal leader his inner critic describes, this CEO feels the pressure from his inner critic to micro-manage his team when they don’t deliver, at the risk of becoming his company’s #1 growth roadblock – with the negative consequences on his team and on business growth that you can imagine.
- In response to my guilty feeling of missing out on learning opportunities for my children (and hence of not being a good father) if I am idle on vacation, I take them on high-tempo sightseeing trips (“We only live once, let’s get the most out of it”, right?) – with, here again, the exact opposite long-term impact on my effectiveness as a father.
“The inner critic is harmful because it triggers our self-protection mode, MIT Sloan sr lecturer Giardella says in this article. It’s a toxic, self-blaming message that is usually connected to a deep-seated feeling of shame that says, ‘Who I am is not ok.’”
Your inner critic promises happiness but never delivers it.
It is also the same inner critic (called “the judge saboteur” in Shirzad Chamine’s book Positive Intelligence) that promises you happiness when you… [sign this big contract / hire a more talented VP / double your business size / …]. “When you get those things, Chamine says, the judge saboteur lets you celebrate for a minute or a day. And then it gets right back into it, because ‘when’ is a moving target rather than a promise to be kept. Every year millions of people go to their grave still trying to satisfy the last condition to finally be happy.”
Your inner critic triggers relationship conflicts.
Our inner critic judges not only ourselves and circumstances, but also others. The issue is: it is contagious. A typical example is a love relationship: at first, you show your best side, which brings out the best in the other person.
But at some point the honeymoon is over: your judge saboteur starts to show up and negatively impacts your emotions. You get more easily irritated / annoyed / … by the other person’s behavior, which wakes up the other person’s judge saboteur – starting a vicious, self-reinforcing negative cycle that Giardella calls the “blame-shame” cycle.
What changed in the other person? Nothing. Their judge saboteur had always been there, hidden, and is now running the show – and so is your judge saboteur. To make things worse, your inner critic is a coward: it will never admit that it started this cycle. The good news is: since each of us triggers and reinforces this cycle, we can also weaken it by being less judgmental and weakening our own judge saboteur.
Manage your inner critic: discernment vs. judgment
Your inner critic’s assumption is that you “will only do the right thing under pressure, or out of fear of guilt, shame, or negative consequences,” says Shirzad Chamine. If your inner critic managed people, it would be the worst manager in the world, because it is grounded in negative energy and negative emotions: it wants to beat you up. And yet you let the worst manager in the world manage you from time to time.
Making the difference between judging and discerning is essential to better deal with your inner critic, Chamine explains:
- Discernment is “paying attention to the state of things as they are.” There is no shame, no blame, no negative emotions – just objective data. “Once you have made an observation like this, you can figure out what to do with that discernment.” Discernment is grounded in positive intentions, like personal development.
- Judging is the work of your inner critic and involves negative feelings when looking at the facts: disappointment, shame, guilt. As Chamine points out: “Your distress is not caused by what happened, it is caused by your inner critic’s reaction to it.”
Practically speaking: what can you start doing today?
Managing your inner critic is a long yet very rewarding process, and a crucial leadership skill. There are initiatives that you can take right now, like:
- Notice your inner critic when it talks to you. “Knowing when your judge is surfacing will enable you to identify and label it in its act of sabotage. Doing so is key to reducing its power,” says Chamine.
- Answer these questions:
- What would change, at work or in your personal life, if your inner critic’s voice was significantly weakened?
- When your inner critic is messing with you, what kind of emotions are you feeling?
- Recognize that everyone has an inner critic – try to decipher what your team members’ inner critic whispers into their ears. This will make it easier for you to connect with them at a deeper level.
- Take 5 minutes to assess how active your inner critic has been over time: on a scale from 0 (very little active) to 10 (extremely active), how active was your inner critic in the first 10 years of your life, in the second decade of your life, in your third decade, and so on until today. Which conclusions can you draw from the evolution of this score over time?
- Meditate and practice empathy. Shirzad Chamine has developed a very practical, on-the-go method to help ground yourself when your inner critic is assaulting you (I use it a lot, and I warmly recommend it). Please feel free to contact me if you want to find out more: Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
Learning to identify my inner critic and to separate it from my own voice, and applying these techniques has helped me a lot. I now realize the long-term harm of my inner critic, can tame it, and remain calmer when someone else’s inner critic blows a fuse. It has helped me become a better leader – more able to grow organizations. I now bite my tongue before suggesting a heavily loaded vacation schedule (which costs me a lot of effort, I have to admit) – and, who knows? my children might even decide that I can still go on vacation with them this summer;-)!
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Sometimes the CEO’s inner critic is the #1 roadblock. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.