Replacing the self-critical voice
It just takes one simple trick.
If you have trouble taking risks, trying new things or sharing creative work, I want to share something powerful with you.
Let’s talk about the voice.
Not the TV show. Not the Trump Supporter in your family. Not even your voice.
The self-critical voice inside your head. The one always telling you that you can’t do it, you’re not good enough, it won’t work and you’ll never make it. The character on your shoulder that never fails to share exactly what it thinks at the most inconvenient times.
Here are a few of the self-critical voice’s greatest hits:
“You’re going to fail. You’re embarrassing yourself.”
“That isn’t you at all. Don’t even try. Stick to what you know.”
“What are people going to think? You’ll have to find new friends.”
“This is terrible writing. You’re not creative and never will be.”
“You’ll never submit this on time. You always do this!”
“Your nose is funny looking.”
Note: if any of that got too real and you’re feeling very seen right now, please know that your nose is perfect just the way it is.
Whether you can hear and recognise it consciously, or it’s more of a feeling of tension or hopelessness, we all experience self-criticism. The voice can change depending on what you’re doing, or the challenges you’ve been facing. Worse, it rarely stops there: one harsh line can start an avalanche of negativity in our minds that can be hard to stop.
Self-criticism has stood in the way of everything in my own life from starting new projects and following passions, changing jobs, public speaking and trying new sports to little stuff like standing up for friends, talking to strangers and having difficult conversations. In a game of self-criticism bingo, I’d be hard to beat (See, there it is again!).
After many years of trying to silence the voice and turn my thoughts around, I came across an exercise that almost single-handedly transformed self-criticism’s impact on me.
Silencing the self-critical voice
Your self-critical voice might be loud and easy to spot, or subtle and waiting in the tall grass to jump out when you least expect it. Some identify the voice as belonging to someone from their childhood who was particularly harsh or criticising of their every move: a family member, teacher or friend.
I’ve read about plenty of ways to silence the voice before. Give the voice an accent or funny tone, allow it to speak before thanking it for sharing and moving on, creating a villain-type persona for the voice so you can control it. When I tried the last one, my voice became a cartoon snake in a war bunker with a Soviet army hat and a headset.
Spoiler: it didn’t work.
But here’s what did. In her book The Imposter Cure, author Dr Jessamy Grant shares something quite spectacular and game-changing about this impressive ability to criticise ourselves constantly: despite what you may have always thought, the voice isn’t actually helping.
Not just sometimes (duh), but at all.
We’re conditioned early to be self-critical. It’s a harsh world out there. It took a long time for me to find my feet, and this voice probably felt like it was protecting me: from wearing the wrong shirt on casual day at school, saying something people would endlessly laugh at, or losing friends that were probably not good for me anyway.
But when you add up the facts and really focus on the big picture, self-criticism doesn’t make the grade.
I want you to see this for yourself. All you need to do is pull out a blank piece of paper, or open a new document, and jot down all of the benefits of this self-critical voice. Everything you can possibly think of. Then, do the same with the negatives.
It will only take 5 minutes. I promise.
Here’s what I came up with:
Without it, I can’t improve
Stops me from producing bad quality work
Helps me avoid embarrassment (sometimes)
Makes me work harder (feeling like shit, but technically true)
Stops me from starting difficult work – procrastinating
Prevents me from being creative
Makes me anxious when working under pressure
Clutters my head with negative thoughts, making me constantly feel bad
Discounts my achievements
Can’t be stopped when it starts criticising
Prevents me from seeing the positives of life and my work
Makes me paranoid about what other people will think
That’s just the tip of the iceberg for me, too. Self-criticism has turned me into a completely different person than I would be if I had taken more risks in my life. I look back on the last ten years since I graduated and wonder what could have been, who I could have been, if I didn’t have this convincing voice telling me that I couldn’t start the blog, shouldn’t leave the job, or won’t make an impact.
I’m going to assume that, like me, your second list is greater than your first. If it isn’t, then continue on your merry way – the voice must be doing you some serious favours.
But wait – the voice is how I get things done!
The first thing you might be thinking and feeling is this: self-criticism makes me stronger! It tells me when my work is bad so I can improve it, or when to shut up so I don’t draw the wrong attention. Or keep me working so I can hit deadlines. It’s keeping me safe!
Is it, though? Does the voice make you actually feel safe, or does it make you feel anxious and revved up?
In her book, Dr Grant asks if you would prefer to work with Coach A, a real asshole, or Coach B, who is encouraging and supportive and believes in you, but keeps you accountable to your goals. Coach A yells at you, tells you that your work is a piece of shit and you’re never going to make it. Doesn’t ever expect anything of you, genuinely.
Every teacher, friend or family member who’s made a positive impact on you was probably more like Coach B than Coach A. I know that’s true for me. And they’re not always going to be nice – like my sixth grade Maths teacher, every good mentor needs to push you a little.
There’s a better way
Why can’t your voice be more like Coach B?
A voice that is supportive and understands the challenges, but keeps you going with a positive approach. A voice that pushes you a little when needed and gives you an uplifting, motivational talk when you’re down and out.
And the best thing about this voice is this: because it’s an aspect of you, it knows all of your best qualities, strengths and abilities (and what inspires you to get up and keep going).
I’ve tried this approach for the past week and have seen some radical changes. Instead of running off with the voice when considering taking a risk, I stop and hear it out. Then, I ask what Coach B has to say. This one shift alone has already given me back access to something I haven’t been able to do for many years: write and publish my own words.
The self-critical coach still shows up slightly drunk, annoyed and wanting to share. But I’ve finally started to recognise that it’s not me talking, it’s not intuition. It’s not even logic and reason. It’s just a bad coach that’s out of a job.
My challenge to you is this: what could you achieve if you replaced your self-critical voice?