Silencing Your Inner Critic

Rare is the person who has triumphed over nagging self-doubt, that voice inside that pipes up to assure us that we’re not quite worthy. Tara Mohr, a career coach and author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead, has worked with manifold women—including many at the top of their game—on not only minimizing the impact of this inner critic, but on shutting it down. “The world is in too much deep trouble for us to be stuck waiting in the wings because of self-doubt,” she writes. As Mohr explains below, these self-limiting beliefs have an antidote.

A Q&A with Tara Mohr


Where does this inner critic come from?


Within each of us is our safety instinct. It is always on alert, trying to prevent us from encountering any pain or harm. When we contemplate doing something that brings an emotional risk–the risk of rejection, failure, embarrassment, or simply facing the unknown–the safety instinct does all it can to try to get us to retreat right back to our familiar comfort zone.

The way that the safety instinct accomplishes this is by using the harsh words of the inner critic.  The inner critic is how the safety instinct tries to get us back into a seemingly safer, but not so fulfilling status quo.

For example, if you’re considering reaching out to someone you admire to ask for a meeting, or you want to share an innovative idea with your boss, you might hear your inner critic saying something like, “You aren’t up for that,” “you’ll make a fool of yourself,” or “wait until you are more experienced.” What’s really going on underneath those self-doubting narratives is the safety instinct trying to wound and intimidate you to go back into your comfort zone.

The problem is that everything that brings us the most fulfillment–personally and professionally–always involves taking the kinds of risks that the safety instinct doesn’t like. That’s why we’ve got to learn to be aware of the voice of the inner critic, but not believe what it says or allow it to direct our actions.


Do women wrestle with inner critics more than men? Are they different?


The research studies on this do not conclusively show that, in a global sense, women experience more self-doubt than men. However, they do suggest that in domains that we tend to stereotypically associate with masculinity in our culture, such as negotiation, quantitative work, and financial matters, women do feel more self-doubt than men. Unfortunately, leadership also falls into this category.

For women, the emotional risks of leadership and speaking up are particularly high stakes. We’ve been conditioned to act in ways that ensure our likability. We’ve watched, or experienced, how women are shamed when we do anything that might be perceived as arrogant or “not nice.” We’ve seen how women are unfairly criticized or ridiculed in the public sphere. It is no wonder that our safety instinct–and therefore its emissary, the inner critic–goes on high alert when we contemplate playing bigger in our work or our lives.

“The inner critic is how the safety instinct tries to get us back into a seemingly safer, but not so fulfilling status quo.”

Lastly, it is important to remember that while both women and men experience self-doubt, we are socialized to deal with it quite differently. Boys grow up absorbing stories in which a male protagonist at first feels fear and self-doubting, but then steps up to the challenge and is rewarded for doing so. But in those same stories, when a woman feels self-doubt, usually either a man swoops in to meet the challenge for her, or she fixes her self-doubt problem with a makeover! Of course, neither narrative is helpful.


How does this self-limiting doubt negatively affect us?


Think about your own life. Think of the kinds of work you most love to do. If you had consistently done that work without self-doubt, what opportunities might you have taken, and where might those have led you over time?

Think about the problems in our world that most pain you, the issues that you’d most love to make a difference around. If you hadn’t managed to convince yourself you didn’t know enough to do so, what might you be doing?

Or in the personal domain, if you didn’t have an inner voice chattering away about the size of your stomach or what’s wrong with your appearance, how much more fully would you be living, and how much more good would you be able to accomplish?

Now multiply that by all the women you personally know. Now by all the women in your town. Now by all the women in the world. This is the latent energy, talent, and love that is being blocked by our inner critics.


Is some self-doubt healthy?


Self-doubt isn’t healthy or unhealthy. It just is, and it’s here to stay, for all of us. But we can have a healthy or unhealthy relationship with our self-doubt. In a healthy relationship, we’re mindful and proactive about how we respond to our own self-doubt.

This question speaks to a concern I hear frequently from women when we talk about the inner critic. “Aren’t I supposed to sometimes see when I’m not good at something, to be aware of my strengths and weaknesses?” Learning to not take direction from our inner critic doesn’t mean we put on rose-colored glasses and decide we’re awesome at everything. We can be aware of where we’d like to grow, or when our work missed the mark, but with kindness to ourselves. They key is to master the difference between the inner critic and realistic thinking, and to seek real data from the stakeholders in our work (rather than making up stories in our heads) to understand how we’re doing.

“If you didn’t have an inner voice chattering away about the size of your stomach or what’s wrong with your appearance, how much more fully would you be living, and how much more good would you be able to accomplish?”

Ironically, when we are caught up with our inner critic, it does the opposite of help us be more self-aware. We end up being very un-self-aware because we tend to get so beat-up by our own inner critics, so we don’t curiously, comfortably seek out real feedback, and we aren’t able to interpret tough feedback in a healthy way.


Can our inner critic ever help us stay motivated at work?


Many women tell me at first, “I’m not sure I’m willing to let go of my inner critic. It’s helped me achieve so much over the years.” I invite women who are feeling this way to ask the following:

  • How much can you enjoy your work when you are working from that kind of self-doubt? Is that the mood you want to do your work in for the next twenty or more years? If you could do excellent work from a state of ease and excitement, without all the fear, wouldn’t you choose that?

  • Are you willing to deal with the health impact of working this way? If you are working extra hard and long because of how your inner critic is talking to you, you’ve got cortisol running through your body for many of your waking hours, which is not good for your health.

  • Who do you want to be in your career? While the inner critic can motivate you to dot all your i’s and cross those t’s, polish your work again and again, be extra prepared, it will never help you share a bold idea, reach out to a key new mentor or collaborator, or do genuinely innovative work. In other words, the inner critic can help you be a better worker-bee, but it can’t help you be a game-changer.

We asked women in my courses to reflect on, “When you are motivated by the inner critic, what does it motivate you to do?”—here’s a sampling of what they said: try harder on the hamster wheel, diet, be a perfectionist, have everything in order, keep striving, over-prepare, isolate, not say what I really want to say, only take on projects that I know I can do well in, overwork. I encourage women to do some journaling on these questions: What has your inner critic motivated you to do? What has it caused you to not do?


How do outside critics or toxic people feed our inner critics?


It can certainly be interesting to think about who in your life your inner critic echoes, or what institutions (maybe a past company, a school), or what norms (of your culture, family, industry) it speaks for. Our past experiences–that tough boss or maybe that unkind older sibling–might impact what our inner critic now says to us, but those experiences aren’t the cause of us having an inner critic. The inner critic speaks to all of us because we all have that safety instinct trying to keep us in an emotional comfort zone.


What are some ways to stop envying other people’s outward confidence?


First, bust your own illusions about their confidence. All of us are grappling with self-doubt. One law firm I recently worked with surveyed its mid-level female employees and found that self-doubt was their main struggle at work. Think about that: These are high achieving women in demanding careers, facing many challenges, and this is the struggle they named as most significant.

Also, more years of experience and accomplishments don’t necessarily mean more confidence. In a recent KPMG study, professional women were asked about their levels of confidence at work. Less than half of entry-level women said they felt confident at work, but strikingly, this number changed little as women advanced, with only 10 percent more senior women reporting they felt confident. Experience, accomplishments, and promotions did not make a significant difference for most of them.

“When we aren’t ruled by the inner critic, we can do so much more of what we want to do: We can go for the careers we’re really longing for; we can speak up about our ideas; we can reach out to the people we want to be connected to.”

But more deeply, if you find you’re envying what you perceive as others’ confidence, I’d take that as a soul cry that it is time to change your relationship with your inner critic. Envy is just a mirror, there to reflect whatever is inside of you that’s not being expressed or dealt with.


How do we quiet our inner critic–or choose not to listen to it?


We’ve all heard the advice that as women, we should be more confident. But that is not actionable advice. In the work I do with women, we are not trying to get rid of our inner critics, because the truth is, when we’re doing the important things that scare us, especially those things that are still counter-cultural or groundbreaking for women to do, we are often going to feel self-doubt. We can’t afford to wait on confidence to get going. Instead, we can learn to hear the inner critic voice but not take direction from it. To that end, here are three practices you can do in the moment, when self-doubt comes up:

1. Name and notice.

A first step is simply to notice the inner critic when it shows up. For so many of us, the voice of self-doubt has become the background music we live with. We don’t notice or question it. When you hear that self-critical voice, silently say to yourself, “Oh, there’s my inner critic.” When we do this, we immediately become the observer of this voice, rather than mindlessly identifying with it. This lets us not be a victim but rather gives us agency for how we respond to it.  

2. Create a persona for your inner critic.

Take a character from film or literature that fits your inner critic’s personality, or make up your own imagined character to personify your inner critic. Then, when you hear those inner critic thoughts, see them as coming from this character. This brings some humor and helps us take its judgments less seriously. It also helps us remember this voice is not the core of us, but just one of many voices within us.

3. Compassionately see your inner critic’s motivations.

Remember that the inner critic always speaks up in an attempt to protect us from some possible emotional pain, but that it’s likely being overprotective and irrational. Whenever you hear an inner critic thought, ask yourself, “What does my safety instinct not like about this situation?” Suddenly the whole situation looks very different. You might realize, “Oh, of course my safety instinct doesn’t like the idea of me pitching this big potential client, or taking on this leadership role.” Then you can have compassion for that scared part of you and move forward without confusing the inner critic narrative with the truth.


What are the short-term and long-term benefits of doing this?


When we aren’t ruled by the inner critic, we can do so much more of what we want to do: We can go for the careers we’re really longing for; we can speak up about our ideas; we can reach out to the people we want to be connected to. On a personal level, it means less hiding because of what the inner critic may be saying to us about our bodies or ourselves. If you’re a parent, it brings the opportunity to parent in a way that is more easeful, and more connected to your own intuition and values. Doing inner critic work has effects in every aspect of our lives.

Tara Mohr is an expert on women’s leadership and well-being. She is the author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead, and the creator of the Playing Big online courses for women. To learn more, visit www.taramohr.com.