Breaking the Inner Critic’s Hold

We all have that nagging voice in our gut and head. You know the one that calls you up at all hours of the day with its message of dissatisfaction: “You’re not working hard enough!” Or “You’re working too hard!” Contradictory messages, right? Yeah, our inner critics are good at doing that because it keeps us off balance, and when we’re off balance, we can’t choose the path we want. Want to get balanced and move toward the life you want? Want to bust the inner-critics hold? Read on.


In my last Pulse Post, “’Bring Your Saboteurs to Work’ Day – The Evil Lurking in the Dark,” (, I made the point that we don’t leave our personal saboteur – our inner critic – at home. It gleefully pulls up a chair next to us at work, puts its feet up on our desk, and settles in as an institutional saboteur. Left unchecked, it can wreak havoc and cost organizations billions in poor leadership and management, derailed productivity, and personal leave.

“When something goes wrong in your life,

just yell ‘Plot twist!’ and move on.”


Establish counterbalances

After working with clients to expose their inner critic by recognizing it, journaling it and naming it, it’s important to begin the process of building counterbalances to its incessant voice. What follows are three ways you as a manager, HR representative, or coach can do that.

1. Help them see their inner treasures.  Some clients are so weighed down by their inner critics – so deafened by the whisperings of their various shortcomings – they have trouble envisioning what one of my coaching colleagues calls “the treasure in their dark caves.” By “treasures” we mean who they really are: their values, their shinning essence, their natural self. One way to help clients envision their treasures is through the following exercise. I am always struck by the consistency in the responses of those surveyed.

Ask your internal clients to survey at least five trusted colleagues, close friends and relatives to answer the following questions:

  • What do you see as my top three to five values – the elements of life that I cherish the most?

  • If you were introducing me to a friend of yours, how would you compliment me? (e.g., “_____ always . . .”)

  • What are three characteristics that define me and speak to my uniqueness?

Reviewing the data from this exercise elbows the inner critic out of the way so that clients can see who they really are.

"We don’t leave our personal saboteur at home.

It gleefully pulls up a chair next to us at work,

puts its feet up on our desk,

and settles in as an institutional saboteur."

2. Reduce the saboteur’s anxiety.  Yes, its anxiety. Perhaps the most unique aspect of our inner critic is that it’s actually trying to help. It sees danger in any kind of change we consider, so it tries to protect us from that danger by holding us back – or relentlessly pushing us forward.  For example:

  • “My position will probably be the first to be cut. Why try at all?”

  • “My position will probably be the first to be cut. I’ve got to work harder.”

Neither message is healthy, and don’t waste your time trying to figure out the inner critic's contradictory “advice.” It’s all part of its plan to keep us off balance and stuck.

Once clients understand the inner critic's motivation, it becomes easier for them to reduce itsapparent anxiety by pointing out to themselves where they are not failing, where they are not inadequate, and where they are OK. In short, they have to train themselves to point out evidence contrary to the inner critic's message. And clients can begin to do that by asking themselves the following questions whenever their inner critic rears its head:

  • Is what my inner critic says to me actually true? Where do I have evidence to the contrary?

  • Is its message helping me move forward productively, or is it holding me back?

These questions reinforce that the inner critic has no ability to act on its own.  Only we do.

3. Probe with powerful questions – and listen.  You can support the process of counterbalancing the inner critic by asking powerful, thought-provoking questions. For suggestions, see the link, “25 Saboteur-defeating Power Questions.”

Probing with powerful questions, though, is only part of the solution. We must truly listen to what our client is saying – and not saying – as well as how they’re saying it. As Ed Batista argues in a recent HBR post, “How Great Coaches Ask, Listen and Empathize,” “listening is a whole-body process that happens between two people that makes the other person truly feel heard.” For another discussion of listening, see my previous Pulse post, “Want to communicate better? Stop talking”

The ultimate saboteur buster?

Clients typically feel that they are alone in suffering under their inner critic's shadow. So, to create trust in the coaching relationship, to show that personal growth is possible, and to have the words “You’re not alone here” truly land, tell your clients about your inner critic. (You’ve got one, right?) After I told one of my clients my saboteur story, she remarked with the hint of a smile, “Really!?  Hmmm. . . “

The above counterbalances may not completely quiet your clients’ inner critic – in most cases they’ve had a lifetime’s head-start – but these approaches can greatly diminish the inner critics’ impact over time.

I’d love to hear from you on your saboteur-busting strategies and questions.

Jeff Ikler