Do you hear that critical voice in your head? Of course you do, if you’re like most workers. No matter your position—manager, accountant, lawyer, CEO—your inner Critic pops up like burnt toast in breakneck speed, reminding you of your poor performance or how incompetent you are. It puts you under the microscope, bludgeons you with criticism, and tells you what a worthless, selfish, dumb or inept colleague, team member, parent, or spouse you are. The voice says you can’t; you should, ought to, have to, or must. (famed psychologist Albert Ellis called it “musturbation”).
Your Critic never rests and knows where to find you, no matter where you are or the time of the workday. Stalking you on the way to your workstation and whispering in your ear, “You’ll never make the deadline.” Blasting you for going blank when your boss asks your opinion in a big meeting. Berating you for snapping at a coworker who talks over you in a meeting. Eviscerating you with name-calling and putdowns because you didn’t do well in the job interview. Or blindsiding you with self-doubt before the presentation or performance review. It could be scolding you right now. Listen closely. Do you hear it: “No, that’s not right! You don’t know what you’re doing! You might as well give up! Who do you think you are? You’re an imposter.”
Burnt toast anyone?
There’s a paradox here. Neuroscientists insist your Work Critic is trying to help you perform but gets in the way, adds insult to injury and piles on more work stress. Studies show when your Critic comes down hard on you after a mistake, rejection or failure, it reduces your motivation and dilutes your chances of success. Although the Critic’s intentions to protect you often backfire, once you learn to sidestep it, you knock whatever the work challenge you’re facing out of the park.
Put Down Your Gavel
Career coach and author, W. Timothy Gallwey once said, “It is humbling that the voice giving controlling demands and criticisms was not really as intelligent as the one receiving them.” Mental health practitioners used to recommend fighting words to deal with the Work Critic. Put up your dukes to beat, combat, conquer, fight, or battle your Critic. Or snapping a rubber band around your wrist to silence the intrusive voice. But contemporary neuroscientists say that’s like attacking the fire department when your house is on fire. It sets up an adversarial relationship between you and the Critic only further stressing you out.
In other words, a negative reaction toward your Critic IS the stress—the very thing you’re trying to overcome. This strategy engages you in a war impossible to win—one you want to avoid if you want to thrive in your career. Your Critic always has a comeback and always wins, plus you can’t get rid of it. So, when the Critic pops up, if you don’t fight, debate, argue or steamroll over it, what do you do?
Three Steps To Sidestep Your Inner Work Critic
To untangle from the Critic’s iron-fisted grip, according to modern neuroscience and clinical evidence, your best course of action is to befriend it. After all, it is trying to help you in its own counterintuitive way. Take these three steps, and you will be amazed at how effective this tool is.
Step 1. Observe the Critic like you would a blemish on your hand, listening to it with a curious, dispassionate ear as a part of you. This gives you a distant perspective from the voice and keeps you from identifying with it and from attacking yourself. Here’s how it works. Imagine someone scolding you over your cell phone, and you hold the phone away from your ear. In the same way, you can hold the Critic’s message at arm’s length and listen to it from afar as a separate part from you, not all of you. When you let the critical voice come and go without fighting or personalizing it, it keeps you from believing its made-up story. But if you oppose or try to reason with it, you give it credence and, instead of streaming on through, it engulfs you.
Step 2. Talk to the Critic using a non-first-person pronoun such as your name or as “you” after you’ve watched it for a bit. University of Michigan psychologist Ethan Kross conducted research into the value of first-name self-talk as a way to disable anxiety before or after work stress when people often ruminate about their performance. Kross gave 89 participants five minutes to prepare a speech. Half were told to use first person pronouns (”I”) to refer to themselves while the other half were told to use their names. The pronoun group had greater anxiety with such comments as, “There’s no way I can prepare a speech in five minutes,” while the name group had less anxiety and expressed confidence using self-talk such as, “Bryan, you can do this.” The name group was also rated higher in performance by independent evaluators and were less likely to ruminate after the speech. Other studies also show that first-name self-talk is more likely to empower you and increase the likelihood that, compared to someone using first-person pronoun self-talk, you see a challenge instead of a threat.
This self-talk tool allows you to refer to yourself the way you might speak to someone else or how someone else might speak to you—allowing you to process the situation as if it’s happening to another person. It shifts your thinking to a bird’s-eye view of an outside observer, so the Critic’s story isn’t the only story in your head. You get a more balanced perspective, and your mind and body follow suit with more calm, clarity and confidence. Studies show this practice lowers anxiety, raises self-control, cultivates creativity and puts the brakes on the Critic’s voice that restricts possibilities.
Step 3. Affirm yourself with positive messages. Studies show that we become proficient at what we practice on a regular basis. It’s just as easy to build yourself up as it is to tear yourself down. Landmark research found that positive affirmations act as “cognitive expanders,” creating a wider perspective of yourself to mitigate your Critic’s negative tunnel vision. The broader self view lets you see yourself more fully and bolsters your confidence. Next time you screw up (and you will because you’re human), put down your gavel and replace judgment with self-compassion. When you’re under work stress, try giving yourself pep talks, “atta-boys” and “atta-girls” and talk your self off the ledge instead of allowing your Critic to encourage you to jump.
Vincent Van Gogh once said, “If you hear a voice within you say, ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” I’m no Van Gogh, but I say, “If you hear an inner voice say, “You cannot achieve something or surmount an obstacle in your career,” then by all means do it, and that voice will be silenced.”