Self-awareness is widely considered to be the most important quality for successful leaders, according to the authors of How To Become a Better Leader. After all, if you don’t know your own strengths and weaknesses, how can you hope to lead others effectively?
But what happens if you feel a little too aware?
What you think is self-awareness could actually be self-sabotage.
As a business owner, chances are you have an 'inner critic'. It’s that voice inside your head that tells you that you haven’t done enough in life, that you don’t deserve what you have, that you look stupid, or that you're not capable of success.
If your inner critic has had you overthinking your decisions, slowing down when you should be speeding up, or reeling yourself in when you should be pushing the envelope, the good news is that you’re not alone.
This voice can be hard to silence, but the better news is, it is possible.
Here, we are going to take a close look at what this inner voice actually is, and how you can stop it from holding you back.
Where does this critical voice come from?
Believe it or not, we might have our early ancestors to thank for this.
Experts believe that our ancestors’ tendency to exaggerate the negative and assume the worst helped them to survive in their environment.
Business coach Shirzad Chamine writes about this in his bestselling book, Positive Intelligence.
“If you’re in the jungle and see the leaves in a nearby tree begin to shake, you would be better off assuming you are in grave danger, even though this assumption would be based on very little information,” he explains.
“It is true that ninety-nine out of a hundred times, this exaggerated negative bias would have proven wrong for one of our distant ancestors, but the one time it was right would have saved his or her life. Those without the negative-leaning inner critic, those who waited to gather more complete and unbiased information before taking action, didn’t survive long enough to pass on their genes.”
Chamine goes on to suggest that each person’s inner critic (or 'Judge,' as he calls it) develops its own particular characteristics in response to that individual’s specific needs for survival. While it may be full of flaws and negative biases, it is often what we use in our early lives to help us make sense of our experiences.
He gives his own childhood experience as an example, recalling how he often lacked care and attention from his family. He explains that the more rational and accurate assumption—in his case, that he was being raised by flawed parents who weren’t able to provide the care and attention he needed—doesn’t always solve the problem in our minds.
“This would have forced a terrifying realization and made my emotional survival more difficult. I depended on my parents for my life. Instead, the Judge came to the rescue,” he says. “The Judge’s solution was that I was deeply flawed and unworthy of my perfect parents’ time: Why should they show any more affection for someone so undeserving?”
So if it’s us who made our inner critics, then we also have the power to unmake them—or at least, to tame them.
But more on that later…
What does this mean for business owners?
If our inner critics go unchecked, they can have a huge impact on our lives—and that’s why they can be so dangerous.
Increased risk of burnout
Business owners are some of the most driven and dedicated people in the world, putting their blood, sweat, and tears into their venture to bring it to life. So for some, this critical inner voice can manifest subtly in the form of perfectionism, or unrealistic expectations.
If your inner critic is always nagging you that you aren't working hard enough or that your best isn't good enough, you're likely to work longer hours, push yourself too hard, and ignore your well-being needs to try and make up for it.
But the truth is, the results we want are very rarely waiting for us at the end. Instead, we open the door to stress, mental and physical exhaustion, and ultimately, burnout.
Among the long list of effects associated with burnout, it can wreak havoc on your focus, productivity, and your ability to lead your business effectively. This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, fueling your inner critic even more while you sink further into stress and exhaustion.
Lower value in your business
When so much of your success rides on your confidence in delivering a quality product or service, it's not just your well-being that takes a hit when negative self-talk creeps in, but your bottom line, too.
With a critical inner voice constantly comparing you to others and shining a spotlight on your flaws, you may find yourself undercharging for your services or selling your products for less than they are worth. These self-critical thoughts can also hold you back from marketing yourself effectively or reaching out to new customers or clients, missing valuable opportunities for growth.
While it's important to stay competitive in your industry, your business still needs a healthy cash flow in order to survive.
Poor decision-making and risk-taking
As a business owner, you have to deal with more uncertainty and risk than others in their roles, and you're responsible for decisions that could make or break your business. Unfortunately, such pressure is a breeding ground for your inner critic to thrive.
If your critical inner voice has been undermining your confidence and sowing seeds of doubt, chances are you'll overthink your options and second-guess yourself. You'll find yourself focusing on worst-case scenarios, rather than the potential rewards from seizing new opportunities or trying innovative new strategies. This leads to indecision and inaction, both of which are major roadblocks to success.
Negative thoughts can also distort reality and create a false sense of how severe a situation is. You're more likely to overreact or take action based on fear rather than rationality.
On the other hand, your inner critic might adopt a more subtle approach. This inner enemy might speak to you in a gentle, soothing voice to try to convince you “Things are fine the way they are now—why take the risk?”
It may sound more like a trusted friend than a harsh critic, but don't be fooled. This is still very much the voice of a saboteur, threatening your self-actualization and self-fulfillment by keeping you from leaving your comfort zone.
So whether this voice is critical or comforting, it can seriously impact many areas of your professional life. It can stop you from reaching your full potential and achieving the results you deserve in your business.
Luckily, there are some handy tricks to help you hush that little voice whenever it opens its mouth to speak...
Three ways to overcome your inner critic
If you have listened to your inner critic so much over the course of your life, it can be challenging to shut it down completely. Nevertheless, it's crucial to know how to manage your inner critic so that it doesn’t sabotage you or your success.
Here, we have three expert methods that will help you do just that.
Arguably what makes our inner critics so destructive is that it’s easy to mistake them for our own thoughts. We accept their insults as facts.
However, it’s crucial to remember that our inner critic is not our true self. Rather, it’s simply a voice of fear and insecurity. If we can learn to recognize our critic for what it truly is, we can start to break free from its harmful influence.
Experts agree that one of the most effective steps is to be mindful of each time this critical voice makes an appearance. Single them out, and clearly distinguish their negative statements from your own thoughts and opinions.
“By their very nature, (inner critics) do far greater damage when they do their work while hiding under the radar, pretending they are your friend or that they are you. Observing and labeling them blows their cover and discredits their voice,” Chamine explains. “Notice the difference between saying ‘I don’t think I am capable’ and ‘the (critic) doesn’t think I am capable.’”
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This is another useful technique if you struggle to separate your inner critic from your own inner voice or conscience. It allows us to take a more observational stance and look at our inner critic from an outsider’s perspective. This helps to build more distance between ourselves and this insidious negative voice.
So just like you would for a recruitment ad or an employee review, write a list of everything your inner critic is responsible for in their 'role'.
- Keeps you safe (and stagnant?) in your comfort zone.
- Promptly provides a list of all the things that could go wrong whenever you want to try something new.
- Acts as a buffer for any praise or words of encouragement that come your way.
- Maintains a detailed database of all your shortcomings.
- Sends out timely reminders to compare your progress and achievements against that of others.
Seeing it all laid out in black and white can really help to put things into perspective. If this was a real employee, would you want to keep them around? Attitudes like this are not how successful businesses grow and thrive.
So whenever this 'employee' tries to undermine you, remember that their aims, objectives, and goals are completely different from yours. Listening to their 'advice' will only serve to keep you and your own business small.
Use your own voice to talk back
When we hear words, sometimes we can’t help but listen. This can be especially true when it comes to criticism. As mentioned above, chances are they’ve been saying what they like to us for many years—possibly our entire lives—and we’ve had little choice but to acknowledge and absorb it all.
But just like a regular conversation, we may not be able to control what is said to us, but we can control how we respond.
Think of your inner critic as a school bully—the longer it goes unchallenged, the longer it will continue to antagonize you. So it’s time to switch up the script and stop this from being a purely one-sided conversation.
Let’s say you are at a networking event. It’s a great opportunity to engage with others in your industry and forge valuable connections with fellow entrepreneurs. Your inner critic, on the other hand, may tell you “Everyone here is much smarter and more successful than you, why are you wasting your time?”. Or, “No one is interested in what you have to say, it’s better if you just keep to yourself.”
Counter this negative self-talk with more honest and reasonable statements. Does your inner critic have any proof to back up their claims? Most likely not. In reality, there’s bound to be far more objective evidence that proves them wrong.
You might also find it helpful to imagine the same was being said about a friend or loved one. How would you respond then?
Whatever you do, the trick is to not stay silent whenever your inner critic tries to tear you down or hold you back.
What's the bottom line?
As business owners, our inner critics may well be some of the worst enemies we encounter on our entrepreneurial journey.
A critical inner voice can build feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, and fear, sapping your motivation and keeping you from taking risks. These negative thoughts and feelings tell us that we should give up when things get tough, rather than push forward and see how far we can go. Plus, it's so much harder to take the action needed to achieve great things when your inner critic keeps you stuck in a cycle of excuses and procrastination.
Remember, don't believe everything your critic tells you! It's essential to recognize these thoughts for what they are and try our best to work against them in order to reach our full potential.
They're not always easy to ignore, but with the right strategies, you can reduce their power and regain your self-confidence.