Make Peace with Your Inner Critic

An Interview with Tara Mohr by Sarah Green Carmichael

Quick Takes

  • Consider whether desire for praise is keeping you from taking risks
  • Understand the difference between your inner critic and realistic thinking
  • Notice and name your inner critic
  • Allow your inner critic to be present but not run the show
  • Avoid arguing with someone else’s inner critic

We spoke with Tara Mohr, author of Playing Big, about how to deal with self-doubt (or help someone else manage theirs).

SARAH GREEN CARMICHAEL: You argue in your book that too many of us are playing small when we actually have the capacity to do bigger things. Is it just fear that holds us back? What’s really getting in our way?

TARA MOHR: Fear is absolutely at the core. Fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of doing something so innovative that maybe it’s controversial or makes you feel alone in what you’re doing. All of those are really big fears. But another huge block for people is simply self-doubt. It’s having that inner-critic voice and not having any tools to manage it.

SGC: Why is it important to reevaluate your relationship with praise and criticism?

TM: Ask, “Is my relationship to praise really serving my biggest goals?” Many people come to a juncture in their careers where to move forward, they need to evolve their relationship to praise, particularly if they’ve been high achievers. That could start early in your life or early in school. Or it might start when you really found your groove in your career. You’re used to getting gold stars and awesome performance reviews. You’re used to wowing the client. You’re used to getting the job that you applied for.

All of those things are different forms of praise. We can become reliant on that, even addicted to it. Then that can prevent us from making an important lateral career move into a new area that we need to delve into to ultimately get to the next step. Or it might prevent us from applying for something that feels like a huge stretch, because we’ve gotten so used to that positive feedback that we don’t want to have a different kind of experience. Or it might prevent us from doing our most innovative work, which is probably going to be more polarizing in the feedback that it brings.

These are some of the ways that being attached to praise can limit us. That’s why we might want to unhook from it, so we can go for greater challenge, be more innovative, and express more of our unique point of view and our voice. Ultimately I think most of us know that is what’s needed to get us to our long-term goals and to simply feel more free and fulfilled in our work.

SGC: How do you then decide that you should definitely listen to your inner critic if it’s a bad decision? Or say to yourself, “No, I’m going to just go for it”?

TM: Your inner critic is very different from your voice of critical thinking or realistic thinking. You never want to listen to your inner critic as if it’s telling the truth, because it’s not. You might hear something similar coming from your critical thinking or your realistic thinking, but it will sound really different.

The way that we can tell the inner-critic voice from the voice of realistic thinking or positive critical thinking has to do with the tone of the thoughts in our head. The inner critic will tend to be very repetitive, like a broken record. It might be, There’s no way this is going to work, if you’re starting a new venture. Or, repetitively, You don’t have what it takes to manage this team well. It will be very black-and-white in its thinking. The inner-critic voice is quite binary. If it’s talking to you in a way that is harsher and meaner than you would speak to someone you love, you’re hearing the inner critic.

The voice of realistic thinking, in contrast, is not repetitive. It’s forward moving. It might sound like, I’m getting some clues that I am really not managing this team that well. But realistic thinking will move you to the next place. What might I be able to do to address that? What kind of support can I get? Is this the right move for me? It will have a curious generative tone and will be much kinder to you.

The voice of realistic thinking seeks solutions and moving forward. It’s able to see the gray, whereas the inner critic is not. That’s how you can distinguish the two.

SGC: What should we say to our inner critic?

TM: First, when you hear your inner critic, name it for what it is and simply notice it. I’ll give you an example. When my book was coming out, I had an opportunity to write an essay about it for the New York Times. At first, I had in my head that there’s no way that the New York Times op-ed page was going to publish one of my essays. I’m not a fluid and articulate writer. I thought that for about five days before I thought, Wait a second, maybe that’s not true. Maybe that’s my inner critic.

That’s active noticing, which doesn’t always come immediately, because when it’s our own inner critic, it feels so true. But then I asked myself—and this is step two—why would my safety instinct not want me to do this thing?

When I asked myself that question, I could suddenly see the part of me that’s super scared about anything that feels emotionally unsafe doesn’t want me to write an op-ed for the Times. It’s going to get all kinds of feedback. People are going to like it or not. So, of course, there’s a reason my safety instincts were trying to talk me out of doing it. Now I have some awareness about why that inner-critic voice is coming out.

I need to allow it to be present, but not run the show. I wrote that entire article with the inner critic still chattering that there’s no way this is going to be published and it’s going to be horrible. It was published and it did great.

The act of knowing what it is is recognizing it in the moment and then allowing it to be present. You’re saying, basically, Thank you for your input, but I’ve got this covered. You’re allowed to be here, but you’re not allowed to make the decision about what I do or don’t do.

SGC: What advice do you have for someone who is managing an employee with an overactive inner critic?

TM: The common mistake that we make—as managers, friends, parents—is that we think our job is to argue with that person’s inner critic. So their inner critic might be saying, I’m just terrible with numbers. As a manager, you see that this person has potential in this area or you think they’re good at it, so you might think your job is to say, “No, you’re really not terrible with numbers.”

Arguing with another person’s inner critic will rarely be effective. At the right moment, that person might suddenly hear that you believe in them, which causes them to see something different about themselves. But that happens maybe once in a thousand times, because for that person, there is some risk and they’re afraid. Their inner critic has one argument to try to prevent them from doing something.

If you convince them, their fear will just produce their next argument. You might notice that you finally convinced the person that they’re qualified, but then they say that they don’t want to do it because they want to focus on another project. Or they say it doesn’t fit with their priorities or their long-term goals right now.

Arguing with the inner critic usually doesn’t work. Instead, start a conversation: “I hear that you don’t feel you’re capable. I see you as really capable. I’m wondering if there’s some self-doubt at play that’s not grounded in the facts here.”

Share with them some of the irrational things your inner critic says to you: “Here’s how I’ve learned to not listen to it and how I think of what that voice is.” Instead of waiting for them to build confidence, you start to recognize a skill. The skills of managing one’s inner critic is something that you want to develop in your people and have an open conversation about, because the inner critic will prevent them from fulfilling their highest potential.

The inner critic will also prevent them from telling you what you need to know about the business or new possibilities. They feel self-doubt when they say something that maybe only they’re noticing or that isn’t being discussed yet.

Adapted from “Make Peace with Your Inner Critic,” on HBR IdeaCast (podcast), January 14, 2016.

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