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A 5-Step Process for Befriending Your Inner Critic to Become a Better Leader

Carley Hauck November 13, 2019

In my experience, most leaders, including myself, have a high bar for success. You climbed the ladder in your organization because you stood out, took the initiative, and inspired others to follow you.  The negative, and likely unsustainable, aspects of this part of you is that you push yourself hard and have high expectations. Perhaps you beat yourself up for not being good enough, and likely you extend this to your colleagues, direct reports, and your personal relationships. Welcome to being human and having an inner critic.

What is the inner critic? It is that judgmental inner voice that points out our flaws, keeps track of whether we are making progress, and reinforces our sense of unworthiness. This tough, critical voice reminds you, “Whatever you do is never enough.”

Even the most accomplished mission-driven leaders have inner critics of varying intensities and tendencies. The inner critic operates out of fear and is motivated to keep us safe from harm, but left unchecked, it can impact our self-confidence and -esteem. Befriending your inner critic is key to being a resilient conscious leader who can flow with large and small changes, such as layoffs, reorganizations, and product launches.

We can befriend our inner critic by developing a growth mindset. Our mindset has a huge impact on how you lead, communicate, and collaborate with others. Our mindset exists on a continuum, from “fixed” to “mixed” to “growth.” Your body is always evolving, and so is your mind. Carol Dweck, my colleague at Stanford, highlights in her research two different states of mind: fixed and growth. Those with a fixed mindset believe that they possess only certain basic abilities, intelligence, and talents. Their goal is to look smart all of the time, and never fail. A person with a fixed mindset facing a re-organization might say, “Why can’t we keep doing things like we used to? It seemed to work well enough. Why all the changes?” Those with a growth mindset, on the other hand, understand that they can learn new skills and advance with new experiences. They are up for the challenges ahead and, more importantly, are part of innovative solutions. Leaders with a growth mindset value learning and development.

It is important to be aware of what keeps you in a fixed place versus a growth place. Being aware of your triggers and the thoughts that might bring you into a fixed place is the first step. Perhaps the challenge feels too difficult to face — but when you, instead, embrace a growth mindset, you will move forward. In the leadership courses I teach at Haas Business School and Stanford University, the inner critic I hear about most is the impostor.

The Impostor

What is the impostor? Many men and women in leadership positions or in competitive academic environments believe they are not intelligent, capable, or creative enough, despite evidence to the contrary. No matter how many times they’ve proven themselves capable, they’re sure someone is going to find out they don’t know what they’re doing. A study in 2011 by the International Journal of Behavioral Science found that an estimated 70 percent of people experience impostor syndrome at one point in their lives. What does the impostor sound like? This:

  • “I don’t have what it takes to be here.”
  • “I don’t belong here.”
  • “I have to compete if I want to get ahead.”

Event after writing 11 books and achieving great acclaim and success, American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou still couldn’t escape the nagging doubt that she didn’t deserve her accomplishments. Albert Einstein felt the same way.

Shifting from Inner Critic to Inner Wisdom

Your inner critic isn’t trying to hurt you. His or her goal is to protect you, and has undoubtedly employed brilliant strategies to keep you safe and help you thrive. Your inner critic helps you to avoid losing status, influence, love, power, or safety, but it can derail your confidence or clarity, unless you see it for what it is: fear.

The good news is that you can train your mind to look for the good in yourself and others with a regular meditation practice. Through a daily meditation practice, you become mindful of your thoughts and the voices of your inner critic. I encourage you to listen and get to know them; befriend them. Once you listen to and hear these voices, you will choose to lead from a more perceptive place — your inner wisdom.

We all have these voices, and when we learn how to be more accepting, we create inner belonging. Inner belonging lays the groundwork for a culture of belonging in the workplace and world.

Inner Game Practice: Befriend Your Inner Critic

Document the voices of your inner critic for a week in your journal. Give them names. Notice whether your energy increases or you feel depleted, anxious, or insecure. Let the critics speak on the page. What do they want to tell you?

I label the inner critic when it arises or prompt myself throughout the day to acknowledge what part of me is leading. For example, I ask, “Am I being pleasing or controlling?” These are my two dominant inner critics. When I recognize that the inner critic is leading, I can lean back and choose to do the opposite. For example, if the pleaser is running the show, I change that tune and notice what I am feeling and needing — and express that. If the controller is leading, I acknowledge this part of me that feels scared and then choose to soften, relax, and calm myself down, or ask for what I want. I go into controlling as a way of getting what I want, but if I just name that aloud (regardless of whether I receive it), I tame it. The inner critic deeply wants to be seen and heard, so if we acknowledge these “voices” and their underlying need, inner wisdom can lead the way. Labeling these voices and experiences helps me make different choices, allowing me to grow my mindset into something more resilient.

Try assigning another voice to your inner wisdom. One of my coaching clients, Elizabeth, named her loudest inner critic the impostor. To counterbalance this nagging voice, which said, “You don’t have what it takes to lead this team,” she brought in the compassionate voice of Mr. Rogers, who would say, “Elizabeth, you are doing enough, and you are loveable.”

Notice that the voice of an inner critic says, I am not enough as I am, I have to compete, or I don’t belong here, whereas the inner wisdom voice affirms, I am complete. I belong. This exercise shows you how to shift from critical to wise.

What does your inner wisdom want to tell you? Let it speak to you via writing in your journal.

How to Be Mindfully Incredible in 5 Easy Steps

Several years ago, I was teaching meditation tools to Pixar leaders and professionals. I called this program “Be Mindfully Incredible.” I love the movie The Incredibles, and it was fun and effective to sync the title of the class with Pixar’s culture. The point of this “Mindfully Incredible” exercise is to talk back to your inner critic, and remind yourself that you are brilliant!

  1. Label your thought. This is a moment of mindfulness. What voice or part is leading the way? If you are lost in a negative thought, acknowledge it by labeling your experience, and let it go.
  2. Swat it away. I sometimes think of negative thoughts as bothersome flies in the air. They are buzzing around you. You think they are gone, but then they come back. Give the “flies” a good swat and say, “Not now. Stop! Be Here.”
  3. Sing a happy song. Sometimes when I am in a negative state of mind, I sing an upbeat, empowering, positive tune like “Let Love Rule” by Lenny Kravitz.
  4. Use a positive antidote. If you notice you are feeding a certain thought like, “How did I get on this team? Everyone is so much smarter than me,” change your tune and feed an opposite thought. For example: “I have many gifts and talents, and I know I am a valuable member of this team.” Repeat the new growth-oriented affirmation for 90 seconds. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
  5. Integrate a positive thought with an empowering movement. Our mind and bodies are connected. If you say, “I move through challenges and thrive afterwards,” bring this into a movement, so that your body has a new memory and pattern. We are always automating patterns on top of patterns based on unconscious and conscious scripts. Our thoughts have a huge impact on our actions. Internally you don’t want to part of the story that diminishes you. Our bodies are a pathway for transformation and a tool for reminding us what we are here for.

Becoming a conscious and resilient leader is about bringing our whole mind, heart, and body in alignment. Our thoughts have a huge impact on our actions. We are training the mind and body to let go of the unconscious fixed and negative scripts and growing the positive and resilient scripts. To lead with love at work and the world, it begins with loving and actions towards yourself first.

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