“Who do you want inside your head… do you want an enemy who is cutting you down… shaming you… or do you want an ally who says I’ve got your back, we can do this, I believe in you.. ?” Dr Kristen Neff.
When you put it like that, it’s rather an obvious choice isn’t it? But that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to move, especially if the enemy in your head has been the default position for as long as you can remember. I vary the names I use around this “enemy” as Dr Neff labelled it; saboteurs, inner critics, little critters, gremlins… it’s all the same thing, the voices in our heads, be they actual voices, or thoughts who chatter away to us with a self-limiting, over cautious and negative overtone.
We all have them, all of us. For some they are in check for most of the time, for others they dominate their daily landscape and for some, they have become so normalised that they can’t actually hear them as separate to themselves – they hear them as their own thoughts and voice. This is so common. SO COMMON. A devastating effect from our critic can be our belief that this is me, this is truth and everyone else is just coasting. Even if our rational brain can intervene and remind us that we have now read countless articles and books, watched a myriad of video clips and listened to every podcast going on the subject and they ALL tell us that we all do this, that we all have this, even then in they pop with the “ah yes but”.. to sow that little doubt again and to alienate us from the group.
They get in our way, they stop us from trying things, from saying things. They hold us back in a place that we may well have now outgrown. Different people need to tackle their own saboteurs in different ways. I have had some clients who turned their critics to stone and then smashed them up, some have banished them permanently to another country, planet even, some have shouted, some have cried. Other clients needed a more tender path, a one-way conversation, taking a parental role to the critic – I’m here, you don’t need to get anxious for me, I will look after you. Mine, I invite into the house, along with those emotions I find hard to be with, and they climb up there on the sofa with the others, get tucked in and get to just be with me, where I reassure them I’m there and I’m not ignoring them. Because for me, my saboteurs are trying to help me. They are terrible at it, I should stress, but their intentions are usually good and centred around keeping me safe. The flip side is an overactive aversion to risk and an overdeveloped drive to please others, which held me pinned in a rather grey and flabby place for some considerable time.
I don’t think we can overstate how large a part these inner critics can play in our lives, they can be utterly convincing and for some utterly paralysing. They present the “why you can’t, why you mustn’t and why you shouldn’t” side to the things that the real you offers up as ideas, plans and longings. When I was in my stuck place, I kept getting the message that trying something new would be fun, creative, challenging and, in short, exactly what I needed right now. However, whenever this came up, which it did with increasing regularity as I ignored it (or worse just ruminated on it with anyone who would listen), my inner critics went absolutely bonkers. “You can’t!!!!”. When I was able to dig into this with my coach, the messaging was along the lines of .. you can’t afford to… you will fail… everyone will see you fail… everyone will think you are an idiot… you will be poor.. you will definitely lose the house… nobody will ever employ you again..,. you got this job through luck – you had better hold onto it and keep a low profile… the pension, what about the f****** pension!!!!. And on it goes.
They are clever, clever little critters and they are powered by fear, which is a huge emotional driver for them. I have clear images of mine as they race around in ever increasing panic, real gut-wrenching panic at the prospect of any real change, anything that may upset their status quo; and this elicits real compassion in me, they are like frightened animals in the wake of a volcano. Hence, for me, the sofa is their place. This may well be different for you – concrete boots may be the answer for them! It depends on your relationship with them, and you do have a relationship already – examine what this looks like and how this is serving you.
So, what to do? How can we determine what is our saboteur and what is the real us? Did you guess it yet? Regular readers may be with me already… oh yes… awareness! Yay, I hear you cry, yet more sodding awareness. Taking the positive that it is, again, about awareness, once you have settled into this practice of noticing, you will have bedded in this overarching skill which plays such a huge role in all aspects of growth. For me, it is the root, from which the tree really does flourish. And yes, it takes practice.
The task here then is to bring awareness that your saboteurs are not you, they are separate. This is, in itself, quite momentous and may take some considerable time. They will dodge and weave out from the light that you will be shining. For as long as they can make you believe they are you – well, then they have you and they are driving the car. Where you can, start to look for the critical narrative and when you spot it, name it. Just that – I see you. To give you an example, I started to notice these sort of internal comments: “you idiot” “you are stupid” “they think you are stupid too” “they don’t like you” “WHY ARE YOU ARE SO BORING?!” (last one was always shouted 😉). It’s interesting to note that my critics often call me ‘you’, not something I noticed in the past at all, and they also call me ‘I’, which is especially underhand and normally if they are getting desperate.
I see you. And eventually I find they tend to have a bit of a strop and stomp into the light you are shining in their eyes and give that challenging, belligerent pout. “So what? I’m not going anywhere. I’m right. You’ll see.” Now we are getting somewhere! Because now we know what we are dealing with and crucially now we are at choice. Do we want to engage with them? Remember they are very clever, sneaky little blighters and they know all your buttons – my experience is engagement wasn’t my best play! Choice though, deliberate and conscious choice, with the ‘what’ not being so important, more the fact that you are choosing, you not them. And bear in mind that all the time our little critters with be screaming louder and louder as we step off the well-trodden path into certain doom (according to them!), also known as something different (to the rest of us). The loudest cries often signify that you are really onto something, something that is going to lead to growth.
Will they ever learn? Will they ever be quiet and let us get on with it? Yes, and no. I haven’t found a way to banish them forever, for myself or for my clients and I don’t feel it realistic to say it’s possible. Maybe with time and dedicated practice. However, it certainly is feasible to oust them from the driving seat and strap them in the back seat, like a row of sulky children, so that you have the day out that you want. Every now and again I lob a few toffees at them and remind them, I’ve got this, you can just chew on those and enjoy the views.
If you are interested in how I can work with you around inner critics and beyond, you can learn more about me on YouTube https://youtu.be/B9EiOo-N7qI
And if you want to speak directly, you can book a free (promise I won’t chase you) call here
And I am on Instagram (still learning the ropes!) @start2thrive where I post nuggets I hope are of help 😊