Just thinking about the first step toward doing something new or different is often enough to send our brains into “I can’t do it” overdrive. Surfing icon Laird Hamilton famously said, “Make sure your worst enemy is not living between your own two ears.” It often seems the bigger the ambition, the louder the voice in our heads is shouting “no!”
In the coaching world, we call that negative, judgmental voice in our heads our inner critic. While it’s easy to downplay this voice as crazy thinking, it’s actually a programmed part of our brain that’s hard-wired to keep us safe. This part of our brain sees change as fearful and dangerous, in order to protect us. So when we're thinking about a change or taking a risk, it triggers a fight-or-flight reaction. It does not differentiate between small (talk to a stranger) medium (expressing an unpopular opinion) or large risks (presenting a TED Talk). Our inner critic loves the status quo, and will tell us anything in order to keep us in our comfort zone.
The good news is that we can take our inner critic out of the driver’s seat. We get to choose what we believe. We can choose to accept our fears as truth, or we can exercise courage and face those fears head-on.
Here are a few ways to separate fact from fiction and tame your inner critic.
Look Your Inner Critic in the Eye
Develop an awareness of your thoughts. Many of our thoughts are life-affirming, empowering, and helpful in guiding us. However, we all have limiting thoughts – long-held beliefs that limit us in some way. These thoughts are not true, but just ideas we’ve accepted as truth.
In order to make change happen, ask yourself whether those thoughts and fears are really true, and acknowledge how they’re holding you back. Once you understand where the negative voice is coming from, you can learn to recognize when it isn’t telling the truth and disregard what it says.
Ask Yourself: What's the Worst That Could Happen?
When faced with doing something new, we usually don’t realize what we’re actually afraid of. Or, we create a bigger doom and gloom picture in our mind than really exists. I always ask folks to articulate their fears by thinking through the worst-case scenario.
For 30 seconds, allow yourself to go down the rabbit hole of the absolute worst-case scenario that could happen if everything fell to pieces. Play out the most negative outcomes. If you can, write it all down.
Then, take a step back and reflect on what you’ve written. Ask yourself: How bad would this actually be? And what would you actually you do if this happened? If you can think through an approach to the worst possible situation, you will prove to yourself the worst-case scenario is not insurmountable. And when that happens, you release the fear.
Turn Your Thoughts Around.
In contemplating change, there seems to be an immediate pull towards analyzing the risks or stockpiling the reasons why something won’t work out. In order to tame your inner critic, it’s important to examine both sides of the argument. When my clients come to me with negative or critical thoughts, I work with them to build evidence for both sides of the thought.
For instance, let’s say a person is thinking, “I shouldn’t make a change to an independent career because things will be worse than they are right now.” They have already compiled a mile-long trail of evidence why this is absolutely true.
I ask them to take this thought and turn it around to the opposite. In this case, from “I shouldn’t make a change because things will be worse than they are right now” to “I should make a change because things will be better than they are right now.” And then, I ask them to think of five to ten reasons why this turnaround thought could be true.
By examining the evidence that supports and refutes the thought, we are challenging our natural assumptions and fears. We allow ourselves to replace our overly critical thoughts with more accurate statements.
To silence that little voice that says “I can’t do it,” decide that you won’t accept negative thoughts as truth. It takes courage to go face-to-face with your inner critic. But the power, and future success, is all yours.