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Women And Leadership: Negotiating With The Inner Critic

3 min read

Wow, you are really unprepared. What makes you think you could do this?” “I’m sure they’ve already thought of that, it’s so obvious.”

My name is Kate and I have an Inner Critic. Mine is a first cousin to the devil that sits on your shoulder and whispers bad things in your ear. Instead of prompting me to commit devilish acts, however, this devil says bad things about me to me, and at the worst possible times.

When I am in the middle of a high stakes presentation, my Inner Critic/Devil will say something like, “Wow, you are really unprepared. What makes you think you could do this?” Or when I am sitting on a great idea in a meeting, he will say, “I’m sure they’ve already thought of that, it’s so obvious.”

I’m not talking about your superego, which is the part of your psyche that keeps you from doing really inappropriate things at inappropriate times, like screaming in frustration in the middle of a meeting. I’m also not talking about a healthy self-awareness of your strengths and weaknesses, which can be useful.

The Inner Critic is an overly-critical voice in your head that is rarely based in reality. It can be a replay of something critical that was said to you years ago by your boss, mother or teacher. At best it keeps you from being present and at worst begins a downward spiral into I-am-no-good-land. Which, let’s face it, is never useful.

I have no empirical evidence that women suffer from this phenomenon more than men; I just know that when I reveal my struggle at women-only leadership programs and ask if anyone else in the room can identify, most of the hands go up. And I am at the point in my life where I am less interested in why I do this to myself or why women may be more self-critical than men; I am more interested in whacking that devil off my shoulder and watching it sprawl in the dust.

Here are some techniques I use that have helped me:

  • Fake it ‘til you make it. Here’s where the acting comes in: act as if you are the smartest, most valuable member of your team and everyone is sitting on the edge of their seats to hear your ideas, even if your inner critic tells you differently. For behaviors that support this version of you, see the “Presence of a (Woman) Leader” post.
  • Get a second opinion. Ask a trusted colleague to give you honest feedback. Be very specific about how you are trying to develop and insist that they tell you what is working and where your opportunities lie. Have them observe you in action and take notes, if possible.
  • Focus on others. The advice used to be, picture your audience in their underwear. I wouldn’t recommend that. Instead, focus on your audience and what they need, or what you need from them. If you want their buy-in, focus on inspiring them or winning them over, and then watch them carefully to see if you are succeeding. Focusing on your audience gets you out of your head (and gets the Critic out, too).
  • Be kind to yourself. In comedy improv, there is a golden rule: Forgive yourself for everything, right away. It’s the only way to get back on stage and try again. Everybody bombs every once in a while; make sure if you have a devil on your shoulder that there is an angel on the other shoulder saying, “It’s okay – tomorrow’s another day.”

Imagine these techniques are Kryptonite to your Inner Critic. Each time you wield them your critic weakens and is eventually replaced by that healthy, helpful sense of self that you deserve. Your Inner Leader will thank you.


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