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The Inner Critic


I have had many (many!) conversations – with friends, students, colleagues, and even strangers – about the voice we all hear in our heads; the voice I call “the critic.”

These conversations have been both illuminating and disturbing to me. Illuminating because I have learned from others how they cope with this internal critic and that is inspirational for me. Disturbing because these are people who I find fascinating, talented, kind, beautiful, confident, capable (I could go on)... and it hurts me that they, too, suffer from this nagging voice.

The Critic is that voice that tells you to doubt yourself, that says you can't do it (whatever it is), that encourages you to hide, that says awful things when you make mistakes. There is something comforting about knowing that everyone has this voice – it lets you know you're not alone in learning how to cope with it – but it also makes me sad. Sad that we are all moving through life having negative internal conversations when, most likely, we are being externally supported, encouraged, and loved.

I have done a couple of presentations about this topic, and have found that one of the most powerful questions I can ask after letting everyone acknowledge that they hear The Critic is this:

To whom is that voice speaking?

Most people answer with a blank, shocked look on their face and no verbal response. Some people answer, “I don't know.”

We often identify so strongly with The Critic voice that we stop hearing the voice of our True Self – the voice that is interrupted, quieted, and (for some) eventually silenced by The Critic. The True Self says things like, “Wouldn't it be fun to...,” “I should try...,” “I'm doing really well at this...,” etc. The True Self acknowledges the things we enjoy and do well, it recognizes our strengths and talents, it encourages and supports.

Once you can hear both voices you can start separating them. Once you've separated them you can start listening to your True Self with trust, knowing that The Critic is a false voice made up of fears and doubts. This can make a huge impact on how you live your days, do what you love, and interact with the people in your life.

Don't believe me yet?

Try this:

1. While you're doing a regular task – because this is a horn blog, let's say you're practicing your horn – listen closely for The Critic. When that voice speaks, write down in a journal exactly what it says (ex: “That sucked! You should be able to do that better!”). Do this for one week. Make sure to note which things are said repetitively – either write it out each time you hear it or make hash marks next to the first statement.

2. At the end of the week, read through everything The Critic said. Imagine saying them (ex: “That sucked! You should be able to do that better!”) to someone that you love deeply – your mother, your best friend, your little brother, your partner. Write down the emotions you felt while you were imagining saying these things to someone you love.

3. Ask one of the people you love (and really trust) to listen and react to some phrases (don't tell them what the exercise is about – just say it's an experiment). Read them the things you wrote down (ex: “That sucked! You should be able to do that better!”). Watch their faces closely – really take in how the words hurt or surprise them. Ask them to verbalize their reactions/emotions.

4. Afterwards, explain to them what the exercise was about. Ask for their feedback.

When you imagine speaking The Critic's words out loud, when you say them to someone you love, or even when you just see them written down on paper, you will have a new understanding of how actively negative that voice can be and how much it hurts you on a daily basis.

Recognizing the power of BOTH of your internal voices is the first important step that moves you forward on the road to building more confidence and trusting who you really are. The second step is recognizing that you have control over these voices.

Note: For some people, the voice of The Critic pops up in only certain situations. While doing your week-long experiment, put yourself in those situations often (ex: interacting with people at a party, speaking in public, practicing a sport or instrument, exercising, etc.).

If you want to further discuss this topic or inquire about presentation opportunities, please contact me. While I don't claim to have all the answers or solutions, I'm thrilled to help when I can.

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