We all have it – that nagging voice of self-doubt that speaks up when we try to make bold moves. It might say things to us like…

  • “You’re going to make a fool of yourself.”
  • “You’re not qualified enough to do that.”
  • “Why bother applying? There are so many other stronger candidates.”

It can be difficult to recognize when this voice of self-doubt, which I refer to as the inner critic, is speaking up or when we are being realistic in our thinking. In order to so, first it’s helpful to understand the motivation of our inner critic.

The inner critic tries to convince us that we’re not enough in an effort to keep us playing safe. Tara Mohr, women’s leadership expert and author of Playing Big, explains, “The inner critic is an expression of the safety instinct in us—the part of us that wants to stay safe from potential emotional risk—from hurt, failure, criticism, disappointment or rejection by the tribe.”

If our safety instinct took a straight-forward approach with us, it would simply say, “Don’t try that new thing, it’s too risky” and we would ignore it, moving forward anyway. Instead, the safety instinct is cunning, telling us things like:

  • “Your proposal is going to flop. There’s no way they’ll go for that.”
  • “You really need more education on the topic before you start speaking about it.”
  • “Your music is really awful.”

And those thoughts sound true to us, so we often listen and avoid submitting the proposal, trying our hand at public speaking, auditioning to sing, or whatever the bold move may be.

So how do we know when it’s our inner critic talking? Mohr explains that there are some key ways to recognize our inner critic. The inner critic can be harsh, rude, or mean and speak to us in a way that we wouldn’t speak to someone else that we care for. It can sound like a tape on constant loop or broken record, often repeating a few key lines over and over again (sometimes for years on end). It can often sound very anxious, ruminating on worst-case scenarios. The inner critic uses black and white thinking, not able to see any middle ground. You might notice that the inner critic has a fixed mindset.

Now contrast the inner critic with realistic thinking, which Mohr says speaks from a place of curiosity, not fear. When we’re in realistic thinking, we take a forward-thinking approach, asking “How might I?” rather than “Can I?” Our realistic thinking voice is grounded, calm, solutions-oriented, and able to see the grey.  

When we’re trying to make a career move of some kind, the inner critic can become a loud voice, so it’s important to know how to manage it and learn to channel that realistic thinking instead. Mohr recommends three methods to use in the moment:

  1. Name and notice. Begin to recognize the voice of the inner critic in your mind throughout the week. When does it speak up? What strategies does it tend to use, or repeat, with you? Becoming aware and observing the inner critic, rather than identifying with it, allows us to decide how we’d like to react.
  2. Give your inner critic a name, or persona. Ever seen the movie Inside Out? The different “parts” of Riley (Sadness, Disgust, Anger, Fear, and Joy) come to life on screen as unique characters. Like these aspects of Riley, the inner critic is one of your many parts, not the core of who you are. Make up your own character for your inner critic to better understand its perspective and add some humor to the situation.
  3. Offer compassion and understanding. Remember that your inner critic is speaking from your safety instinct, trying to protect you. When you hear your inner critic speak up, ask yourself what your safety instinct might not like about the situation. Looking at it from this lens allows you to understand your inner critic’s motivation and offer some self-compassion. I personally find that this step is key – it allows me to feel the fear and jump anyway.

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Next time you find yourself in swirl of self-doubt, particularly when it comes to your career, I hope that you’ll try your hand at some of these strategies to manage that inner critic. In the meantime, I’d highly recommend reading Mohr’s book Playing Big or watching a few of her videos.

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