Why Women Criticize Each Other—Plus Ways to Play Bigger

They say that when a book literally falls off a shelf in front of you, it’s probably a sign. Such was the case with Tara Mohr’s Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message: When we flipped it open, we landed on a passage about why criticism—particularly between women—is so prevalent, and we had to buy the book and read it. Tara is a career coach who specifically focuses on women—women who find plenty of ways to hold themselves back and play a bit smaller than they deserve. While she teaches workshops and seminars on the subject, she’s distilled many of her theories and principles into Playing Big, which is a great, fast read. (We love her 10 rules for brilliant women, too.) Below, we asked her some questions (and love her advice on finding an Inner Mentor). Have more? We’re hosting a live Facebook Q&A with Tara this Friday for 30 minutes at 9amPST/12pmEST—come join the conversation.


In Playing Big, you talk at length about six reasons why women tend to get so “hooked” by what other people think, both in terms of positive and negative feedback—can you summarize the key points?


One of the most notable things I saw in my work with women was how many of them were being held back by a dependence on praise or an avoidance of criticism. That same underlying issue expressed itself in many different forms: For one woman it manifested as continually postponing the launch of a new nonprofit organization because she knew how controversial her approach would be. For another woman it showed up as not sharing her beloved handmade crafts because she worried people wouldn’t like them. Another woman wanted better work-life balance but was driven to work way too hard, because she was addicted to getting gold stars.

“Criticism is painful and praise feels good for both men and women. What other people think affects women more dramatically though.”

I could relate to all of them. I often felt tossed around in my life and work by my fear of not being liked, or by a desire for approval. So I began to get really interested in this issue.

Certainly, criticism is painful and praise feels good for both men and women. What other people think affects women more dramatically though, for a few reasons:

  1. We’re relationship oriented. When people don’t like what we are up to, it can feel like disharmony or a break in our relationships, which we so deeply value.
  2. We pick up more information about what others think. A host of studies show women are more adept at reading facial expressions and body language than men. This means we are getting more information than men, all the time, about how people are reacting to us.
  3. Approval from others has been our lifeline. For most of history, women couldn’t protect themselves through legal, political, or financial means. We didn’t have those options. We could ensure our survival only by adapting to what was desired and approved of by those with greater power. The legacy of that history is still alive in us and can make criticism or challenging the status quo feel like particularly high stakes.
  4. We’re—often rightly—afraid of personal attacks. Research shows that when women get negative feedback, it tends to be more personal than the feedback men get. It can also be more angry and even violent or vulgar, especially in our internet age.
  5. We’ve got years of good girl conditioning—messages to not rock the boat and to be likable. This makes doing something that won’t be approved of feel more transgressive.
  6. Lastly, our culture’s focus on women’s appearances (beauty, weight, etc.) sends girls and women the message that how others perceive us matters a great deal. Think about how many films, movies, or television shows you’ve watched in which the female character’s destiny was determined not by what she did, but by how she was perceived. That sends us a major message, which we often absorb unconsciously, that what other people think about us is more important than our lived experience or our choices.


For Point 4—fear of personal attacks—why do you think women are so inclined to criticize each other? Where does that come from? Why is it socially so accepted?


In any society, the people within a marginalized or low-power group end up taking out that pain and anger on each other through in-group conflict. Women today are grappling with our own form of this. To the extent that women are each not fully empowered ourselves—that we are still denying our own dreams or treating ourselves harshly—we will criticize, attack, and try to sabotage other women, because it rattles us to see in them what we have not permitted in ourselves. We will lash out if we see something emerging or expressed in another woman that we have squashed in ourselves. We won’t wholeheartedly support another woman following her passion if we’ve talked ourselves out of our own. We won’t support her idealism and desire to change the world if we treat our own idealism with judgment or harshness. We can’t celebrate success, ambition, assertiveness in another woman if we are curtailing any of that in ourselves.

“To the extent that women are each not fully empowered ourselves—that we are still denying our own dreams or treating ourselves harshly—we will criticize, attack, and try to sabotage other women, because it rattles us to see in them what we have not permitted in ourselves.”


So what needs to happen to change this?


Every woman needs to work on her own playing big, and that doesn’t mean simply her ego’s ambitions but rather a pursuit of her heartfelt dreams for her life and her real passions. When she’s given herself full permission to do that, to work on becoming the woman she longs to be, when she’s respecting her own dreams, she can be supportive of other women doing so, too.

When you feel jealous of other women, find yourself gossiping, or wanting to take away from another woman’s success, ask yourself, “Where have I gone astray from allowing and pursuing my own aspirations and what do I need to do to get back on my own side?” It’s about you and your path. It’s not about her.


How can we all hold criticism a little bit better? What’s the appropriate response when you feel attacked (whether “justified” or not)?


I want to invite everyone to try on this radical idea: Feedback can never tell you anything about you. It can only tell you about the person giving the feedback.

For example, if your boss tells you that you are a fabulous manager, that doesn’t tell you anything about you, or even anything about your management skills. It tells you something about what your boss thinks makes a good manager. And if your boss tells you that you are a poor manager, same thing.

“I want to invite everyone to try on this radical idea: Feedback can never tell you anything about you. It can only tell you about the person giving the feedback.”

Or if you write a blog and it’s super popular, that doesn’t tell you that you are a “good writer.” It tells you something about what certain people—your readership—connect with.

When we understand feedback this way, we don’t end up feeling attacked by it or validated by it. Instead, we begin to see feedback as extremely important, emotionally neutral information that tells us about the person giving it. If that person is someone we want to work with effectively or reach (a boss, a client, a colleague, or our customers, for example), we still need to take that feedback very seriously and incorporate it! But we do so in order to be effective in working with them, not because we think we need to “fix” something wrong with ourselves.


Speaking of criticism, you talk at length about everyone’s Inner Critic, and the role the Inner Critic plays in shaping your whole destiny. How do you identify—and where appropriate, silence, the Inner Critic?


All of us have a tough inner critic—a voice in our heads that speaks very harshly about us. This is the voice that flips out about your upper arms as you glance at them in a window reflection. It’s the voice telling you that you are a bad mom, or that you don’t have what it takes to run a business. Both women and men have that inner voice, but I think in our time, overall, women tend to be more held back by it.

I believe every girl and woman on the planet needs an Inner Critic 101 Training to learn what this voice is, why we have it, and how to deal with it. Most of us don’t get that education and as a result we end up being very limited by that voice. It really doesn’t have to be that way.

The first step in dealing with your inner critic is learning to identify when it’s speaking. Most of us are so used to its old narratives we think “that’s just me” and we don’t notice when it’s chattering away in our heads. We all need to get to know what our inner critic is saying, and we can do that simply by putting our attention on listening for it. When you hear it, you can simply say to yourself, “Oh, I’m hearing my inner critic now.”

“I believe it is extremely important that women do not wait on confidence in order to pursue their dreams!”

The second step is understanding what that voice is. I believe it’s an expression of our safety instinct—our desire to stay protected from any potential failure, rejection, embarrassment. When we are contemplating doing something visible, out of our comfort zones, something we aren’t sure if we’ll succeed at it, that safety instinct fires and starts using all those inner critic lines—You can’t do this! You aren’t ready yet! Go get a Ph.D. in the topic before you say anything about it!—and so on, in order to try to get us back in the comfort zone. That’s why our inner critics often speak up most loudly when we are on the right track with a new direction or career leap.

The third step is to choose to not take direction from that voice. When you know what your inner critic is, and you notice when yours is speaking up, you have a choice to not take direction from the voice, even as you hear it. I believe it is extremely important that women do not wait on confidence in order to pursue their dreams! We need to learn how to go for our dreams even as our inner critics rant and rave about them. So in answer to your question, we don’t silence our inner critics. We learn to not take direction from them. We learn how to hear the panicked voice of self-doubt but not be run by it.


On the flip side, you talk about finding your Inner Mentor. It’s a pretty amazing idea that the person you should really listen to most is within—so, how do you find this Inner Mentor?


This is such an incredible tool and I want every woman to experience it!

The Inner Mentor is the older, wiser you. It’s you twenty or thirty years into the future, your more fully expressed, authentic self. It’s very easy for women to get a vivid, clear sense of that woman through a short visualization. (Goop readers can access the audio of it from me here with password “taramohr&goop” and do it for themselves.) The visualization helps us access something wiser and deeper by moving away from our surface level goals or our egos’ idealized projections of what we want to become.

Once you’ve “met” your Inner Mentor, you can think about what choices in your life will help you grow more into her and which will take you further away. You can ask yourself: What would she do in this tricky situation? How would she write this difficult email? Would she choose option A or B in this dilemma I’m faced with? I’ve even had a lot of fun with women asking themselves: What does she do for exercise? What kind of food does she nourish herself with? What’s her personal style like? They have a great time starting to make choices more in line with hers—often more loving, enjoyable ways of taking care of their bodies, and a bolder, more unique personal style.

I’ve now worked with thousands of women to help them discover their Inner Mentors and then “consult” with her on their toughest challenges. I can honestly say, the results are never short of incredible. It can be exhausting to push, push, push towards our goals, and the Inner Mentor gives a really different kind of path—being pulled forward, guided by a compelling vision.

Tara Mohr is an expert on women’s leadership and well-being. She helps women play bigger in sharing their voices and bringing forward their ideas in work and in life. A Coaches Training Institute-certified coach with an MBA from Stanford University and an undergraduate degree in English literature from Yale, Tara takes a unique approach that blends inner work and practical skills training. She is the creator of the Playing Big leadership program for women, which now has more than 1000 graduates from around the world. Her book, Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message, named a best book of 2014 by Apple’s iBooks, shares her pioneering model from the acclaimed leadership program for making the journey from playing small—being held back by fear and self-doubt—to playing big, taking bold action to pursue what you see as your callings. Her work has been featured on national media from The New York Times to Today Show to Harvard Business Review, and has captivated women from all walks of life including Maria Shriver, Jillian Michaels and Elizabeth Gilbert.

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