Inner Critic vs Inner Mentor (DRAFT)

July 22nd, 2022 7 min read

Manhattan Bridge - Dumbo
Manhattan Bridge - Dumbo

When asked to define 'thinking', Socrates responded, 'The discussion which the soul has with itself'. Beware: This discussion may be abused or pushed to extremes, leading to agonising rumination or even madness. It can, however, make us distant observers of our own lives. Inner dialogue is one of the most powerful, yet underutilised, techniques for mastering the mind and fostering achievement.

"You’re not good enough", "You're not ready yet", "You do not belong here", "Don't speak up now. You will say something stupid! ". We've all heard that voice in our heads that continuously criticize, dismiss, and judge us. I was no different; until I read and practiced the book, Playing Big, by Tara Mohr .

At our office book club, we set a three-month target for finishing this book. Three weeks in, I'm already near the end of the book. That's how wonderfully this book has captured my attention and interest. The subtitle of this book reads,

For Women Who Want to Speak Up, Stand Out and Lead.

I agree that this book will appeal to a wide range of women. However, many men will be able to perceive a reflection of their own mental feelings when they read Chapters 1 and 2.

Our inner critic may be a vicious and destructive force. Its power and influence define our overall mental health. The destructive voice in our mind is never satisfied and may taint and ruin whatever we do, no matter how spectacular.

What is Inner Critic ?

According to Tara, the inner critic or the inner voice of "not me" has eleven qualities. You wouldn't notice all eleven qualities when that voice of self-doubt speaks to you, but you will notice at least a few. My continuous observation of my inner voice, who I named Rock,has 3 qualities.

  • The voice of reason
  • The voice of "You are not ready yet"
  • The voice of "You aren't good at math/negotiating/technical stuff"

The voice of reason

Self-talk is something that everyone does. But a lot relies on how we do it. Scientists have discovered that the correct words can help us overcome our phobias and become as knowledgable about ourselves as we are about others. There have been many a time I would talk to myself as well - "You think you can do this?. This is the voice of reason, where you reason with "You".

The voice of "You are not ready yet"

You work really, really hard to deliver value and then undervalue our own work. Even when you prepare well for situations, there is this voice in your head - "You need more time to prepare", "you need another degree", "You don't have the right experience for this role"

The voice of "You aren't good at math/negotiating/technical stuff"

I was an average kid in school, always looking for ways to play rather than study. I was crazy about sports and would even create new ones while in class. By the time I started my professional life, I had self-doubt, and it showed during my discussions, talks and presentations. This doubt shows up around skills such as quantitative skills, negotiation, technical tasks, financial matter and sometimes even in leadership.

Realistic Thinking

In a series of experiments conducted by psychologists, they found that how people conduct their inner monologues has an enormous effect on their success in life. Talk to yourself with the pronoun I, for instance, and you’re likely to fluster and perform poorly in stressful circumstances. Address yourself by your name and your chances of acing a host of tasks, from speech making to self-advocacy, suddenly soar. Once you gradually begin to observe the inner critic, you will get to a point where you question yourself on what is realistic versus your inner critic, and that is very important to differentiate. The realistic thinker is forward-moving. He/She seeks solutions while the critic will spin and spin, thinking about the risks and worst-case scenarios. The realistic thinker is grounded, clear-eyed, calm, where as the critic speaks in an anxious and emotionally charged tone. As you observe and listen to your inner voice, look for these characteristics and differentiate.

Why do we have this self-critical voice inside?

According to scientists researching the inner voice, it takes shape in early childhood and lasts a lifetime as a friend, creative muse and a critic. Self-talk is how a child gets through what psychologist Lev Vygotsky called "the zone of proximal development." This is the area of challenges that are just out of reach and too hard for a child to handle on their own. Children work with adults to learn a skill, and then they go off on their own and talk out loud as they do the task. As mastery is gained, self-talk is internalised until it is mostly silent. It is still part of the ongoing conversation with oneself, but it is more private and is no longer broadcast.

A group of child psychologists at the University of Southern Illinois, led by Laura Berk, have spent decades writing down the details: In the best cases, a patient teacher or caregiver teaches children the non-emotional, useful, step-by-step language they need to master any task. The children, in turn, use this language in their private speech to teach themselves other things. "You can do it, try again," a well-taught child might tell himself/herself when he/she's having trouble. He/She could use logical phrases to help him/her solve even the hardest problems.

On the other hand, a teacher who is rude, angry, or prone to outbursts or impatience can teach children how to talk to themselves in a way that makes them feel bad about themselves. Children who have these kinds of teachers learn the language of frustration. They become bad at guiding themselves and get mad at themselves whenever they don't understand something. A child might say to himself/herself, "Stupid, you can't do anything," as he/she throws his/her book across the room. To make things even worse, the child also can't do the task.

Tara's studies show a different thought in the book. We don't have to have gone through certain things in life to have a harsh inner critic. We're hard-wired to do it. The inner critic is a sign of our safety instinct, which is the part of us that wants to stay safe from emotional risk, like getting hurt, failing, getting bad feedback, being disappointed, or being rejected by the tribe. The instinct to stay safe is clever. If it just told you, "No, don't write the song, don't switch careers, don't share your ideas—too it's risky," you wouldn't listen. You would probably say something like, "No, I'm fine with the risks. I'm going." So the safety instinct uses a better argument: "Your paintings are bad." "Your book won't have anything new to say because there are already so many books on the topic." "If you try to change careers, you will end up broke." When we expose ourselves to a real or perceived vulnerability—something that makes us afraid of being embarrassed, rejected, failing, or in pain—the inner critic speaks up louder and with more anger.

The inner critic's goal isn't to be right; it's to encourage you to avoid emotional danger. We take away the inner critic's power when we recognise that it is a method used by our safety instinct and that its chatter is not a representation of reality. In the time, we might tell ourselves, "I hear that voice, but I know it's not the voice of truth, and I choose not to follow it."

Sunil Samuel
Written by Sunil Samuel

Sunil Samuel is a JavaScript software engineer and teacher. Sunil's taught hundreds of people how to make the world a better place with quality software development tools and practices. He lives with his wife and his son in Bangalore, India.

Learn more about Sunil

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