I have been so blessed with the opportunity to coach truly talented future leaders in this profession. Their firms believe in them, they are skilled and have high potential. Yet many of them – and us -- are impacted by a critical, sometimes unempowering inner voice. The thoughts racing through their minds give them a different view of themselves, makes them doubt their abilities, and overall can be a roadblock to fulfilling their full potential.

The inner voice can sometimes be positive and encouraging, but most of the time, it is a chatty, unchecked critic in our heads. Listening to these messages consciously or unconsciously, day in and out affects many aspects of our lives and careers. It is time we reign in the influence of this internal critic and subject it to some fact-checking.

The critical inner voice should not be confused with our conscience. They are two different things. Our conscience serves as our moral guide. Our inner dialogue is a series of thoughts that help us make decisions and learn. The tone and pattern of these thoughts are established through many inputs that influence the positive or negative nature of the messages it delivers.

Having a critical inner voice affects our:

  • Ability to interpret situations. We often generate more negative interpretations of situations than positive or hopeful views. For example, when a colleague doesn’t complete a task on time you may think “they are not as engaged in their work,” or “they don’t care about how this impacts me when they are late.” Though the truth may be that they were assigned another project with a higher priority, or the client was late in submitting their information. These hopeful interpretations can be more challenging to generate when we have a loud critical inner voice.
  • Mood. We can find it makes us feel bad or have a negative frame of mind and, as this article from PsychAlive says, it “…sabotages our pursuit of satisfaction and meaning in life.
  • Ability to trust. We may have thoughts like “they don’t really like working with me,” or “they won’t have my back in this situation.”
  • Ability to accurately self-critique, therefore, we place limitations on ourselves and back away from stretch goals. It can feed us messages like, “you don’t have enough experience or knowledge to become an advisor to clients” or “you don’t have the skills to become a partner.” These inaccurate assessments can make us shrink our performance and pull back from the professional and personal goals we may have.
  • Attitudes, prejudices, relationships (personal and professional), the way we relate to others, and our on the job performance, according to Lisa Firestone Ph.D. in her blog “Steps to Overcoming Your Critical Inner Voice” posted on Psychology Today

We can’t eliminate this critic, but we can overcome the effects, and not be as impacted by the false messages it feeds us. To start, we have to become aware of what it is saying. For some of us it is a whisper that creates an overall doubt or angst. In certain situations, it becomes louder and clearer. When you focus on what these thoughts are, be sure to write them down. By seeing them in black and white, we can start to fact-check their accuracy.

We can see how ridiculous some of our thoughts are immediately. For example, “I’m stupid,” or “I don’t know enough about this.” Even writing this now, I question how we could ever let these thoughts influence us, but they do. Now, other thoughts may be more deceptive, or have a kernel of truth to them, that causes doubt. Thoughts like, “I don’t have enough experience to assist this client.” Perhaps you don’t have as much experience as someone else, but do you really not have enough experience to provide some value? Here is where we start fact-checking. Write down all the ways you can provide value to this client, or where you have provided value to another client. Start to dispel this belief that you can’t move on to more challenging engagements or clients.

The contributors to PsychAlive suggest taking notice of when your mood changes for the worse, and noticing what it is saying. What just provoked those thoughts? Did an interaction or situation just happen that spurred the critical inner voice to start gabbing at you? This is where we can intentionally consider alternative interpretations of what just happened. For example, say a project was just assigned to someone else when you thought it should be yours. You may find it put you in a bad mood. Your critical inner voice may be saying, “They want to give that opportunity to their favorite staff member,” or “I did something wrong, and they just don’t want to tell me.” This can lead you to begin thinking you are not appreciated, or you are not smart enough. When in actuality, it may be they want to free you up for another opportunity, or they are concerned you are overburdened and need to give you more breathing room. By pausing the moment you feel your mood shift to consider what is running through your mind, you can just as quickly change your mood to be more positive.

There are times when the critic in our mind gets louder. Take note of these situations.

  • Is it when you are in a meeting, and it wants to limit your contribution to the discussion?
  • Is it when a client asks you a question you haven’t addressed before and you want to avoid the discussion?
  • Is it when you are given an advancement opportunity?

Take stock of where and when it tries to get you to pull back. Then assess if retreating is really the appropriate response. If you were invited to the meeting, your participation is wanted – even expected. You may not have all the information for the client, but you have some information you can share with them in the moment. And remember, our critical inner voice is not the best judge of our abilities and others can see the potential we offer.

Over time, as you become more practiced in proving your critical inner voice wrong, it is easier to ignore the messages and not be restricted by the thoughts. The critical internal dialogue becomes less intrusive, and you can pursue your goals, have a more positive frame of mind, and establish stronger bonds with others because you are not so concerned about vulnerability. This is an exercise I personally have had to and continue to practice. It is so freeing to quiet this naysayer in my head.

The negative inner critic is almost universal, and you can allow yourself to be slowed or even stopped by yours. Or can choose to be extraordinary by addressing it head-on, shifting your perceptions intentionally and accomplishing so much more in your personal and professional life as a result!

All the best,