I would like to introduce you to one of my “friends” – meet my inner critic Anna. She is short, 5’1” (to be precise) and has long hair. She often wears comfy clothes and likes to stay at home with a cup of hot chocolate and read, journal, and cook for as long as she can. She does not have many friends, is lonely and can get scared very easily. She is excellent at killing my dreams and reminding me of all the ways I am not be capable of the task at hand especially when I am doing something new, or something that is deeply aligned with my core values. I must confess there is so much in my life that I have said no to, thanks to Anna keeping me small and sheltered.
Does she sound familiar? I would suspect many (if not most) of you also have an inner critic like Anna .
Now, you may be curious why am I referring her as a friend when she possesses such few qualities of a good friend.
And, yes, that is intentional – I am calling Anna a friend because I firmly believe she cares about me and wants to keep me safe. The problem is that in her quest to love me, she gets too anxious about me and can often project her own unmet needs, childhood wounds and complicate things very easily. Her mean words and sabotaging behavior stem from very good intentions. The irony is that this love often manifests itself in ways that do not ultimately serve me well. I believed her and let her drive the car for way too many years of my life and unfortunately did not always go on the right roads or get to the right destinations. Metaphorically, she never wanted me to leave my town let alone go on a cross country road trip.
And here is another secret about Anna – she is a friend I can’t break up with, she somehow finds a way to get into the car again.
However, over the last couple years as I have gotten to know Anna better, I have found a way to listen, tend, befriend and learn from her fears but she no longer gets to drive the car. Period.
Does she always listen?
But we have definitely had a much healthier relationship and I feel so much better about the roads and destinations I have gotten to. I’d like to share a few tools that I have learnt from some incredible teachers and leaders and hopefully some of these can help you as well.
- Acknowledge her presence – For many years, my strategy was to dismiss, suppress or ignore the critic. I would get frustrated, angry, or sad that she is a part of my life. Now, I have learnt that there is no escape and I simply accept the fact that she is here, and my job is to honor her presence and existence. We all have a friend like Anna and to remember that she exists to protect me and keep me safe.
- Personify – When I first learnt about this technique which is to give her a name and a persona I was skeptical. I thought by giving her an identity, I’d amplify her presence and impact in my life but it turned out to be the opposite. By giving her a name, I was able to see her as a part of me, not all of me. When her voice would get too loud, I could notice and tell myself – “Ah, it’s Anna. Let me give her some love and listen to what she is so scared about.”
- Bring curiosity – This is often the step that is hardest but can be very helpful. I like to stay curious and present around what her unmet needs and fears about the situation are and often times there is a valuable insight. As I have made her feel seen and heard, I have found that she no longer worries as much about me.
For example, I had always loved to write ever since I was a child but for many years especially in my early years in my corporate career, harsh criticism from coworkers and managers (especially as an immigrant woman) really hurt Anna and her way of coping was to simply suppress every writing aspiration of mine to keep me safe. As I have gotten to understand her fears, those wounds have healed better, and I no longer get mad when Anna tries to keep me small.
- Take action – Sometimes, all it takes is genuine listening with curiosity to my critic. Other times I need to take small steps in the direction of my dreams and let Anna see that the world won’t come crashing down if I face one more rejection or disappointment and that I can pull myself back up again. This simple practice empowers her to calm down.
In the example above, I had to start writing and most importantly write because it gives me joy and meaning to express my ideas. I had to kindly remind Anna that even if no one read my words or nobody liked my ideas, it would be okay and that I can continue to write. Over time, she has softened her grip and learnt that writing isn’t a binary activity that is linked to the outcomes being good or bad or whether people liked it or not but it was more of a gift to myself.
- Invite your inner leaders – And finally, my favorite practice is to invite my inner leaders into the conversation. Just as most of us (if not all) have a critic, we also have one or more inner leaders with beautiful words of wisdom, skills and tools to bring our gifts into the world. When I am too stuck with my critic, I’ll gently invite my leaders to give me the wisdom to drive forward. I am lately finding that Anna gets so much more secure when the leaders are all in the room and that there is a whole team out there taking care of me and it’s not just her job to protect me. She knows that ultimately I will be safe, loved and belong in their presence.
Over to you, how does your critic show up and what tools have helped you continue to move in the direction that creates purpose and meaning in your life?