What story do you tell yourself, about yourself, over and over? Maybe that other people are better than you, more clever and creative than you or that you’re no good at your job or you’re a bad friend. Chances are you’ve told yourself this story for such a long period of time that it feels like the stylus is stuck on the worst song of a really crap album. And it’s hung around for so long, it feels like the truth.
My story is that I don’t have enough energy to try new things or to take on anything that is beyond the limited scope that’s in my head. And once upon a time that story was true. I had suffered burnout after years of flogging myself and working in really unsustainable ways (hello perfectionism!). It took years to recover and during that time I really had to scale back on everything in order to protect and conserve what little energy I had. That meant being really firm about what jobs I could take on and thinking carefully about who I chose to spend time with.
My energy levels are actually pretty good these days. I don’t exactly bounce out of bed in the morning but I can sustain myself during busy times without too much effort and drama. I have a more balanced view of stress and try not to buy into the ‘stress harms’ mindset the way I used to. I’ve come a long way from the ‘tired but wired’ exhaustion of burnout. But the story remains and I have to actively resist the critical voice in my head that keeps perpetuating the same old tale. When the inner critic has won the toss, it presents as me not wanting to accept new opportunities because I feel I won’t be able to physically cope. Or it leaves me feeling reluctant to try something new, even though I know I’ll gain something positive from the experience.
So, what shall we call that little sucker that sits on your right shoulder, tormenting and telling you you’re not good enough or smart enough? Some people call it ‘the gremlin’. I call it my ‘inner critic’. I used to believe my thoughts. After all, they were my thoughts, coming from my brain. If I couldn’t believe those thoughts, what could I believe? So, if my inner critic said something, I paid serious attention.
It was during a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (http://www.openground.com.au/individuals/mindfulness-based-stress-reduction) course I did around 10 years ago (to counter said burnout) that I learned something very profound. Our thoughts are not our reality. To me this was nothing short of a radical proposition. I had spent my entire adult life up to that point believing every single thought that popped into my head. And with this knowledge and newfound perspective, I found ways to silence the inner critic and lead a more peaceful life.
Here are a few things you can do to silence your inner critic:
Number One: Be aware of your inner critic. Don’t judge it but know that it exists and make the distinction between ‘your’ thoughts and the critical voice in your head that is constantly trying to shut things down on your behalf. Negative self-talk is our own language but it comes from the messages we were given in childhood, that have been reinforced over time (like you should always be a ‘good girl’ or say yes to every request because it’s wrong to say no).
Number Two: Understand what your inner critic is trying to do. Is it trying to stop you from getting hurt or being embarrassed in front of others? Is it protecting you from putting yourself out there so you won’t fail? Our comfort zone is comfortable for a reason. But there are lessons to be learned, even from failures. So the question to ask yourself is this. Do you want to stay stuck or move forward, even with the innate risk that things may not turn out as planned??
Number Three: Notice how much airtime your inner critic is getting. Allow positive thoughts to get a good balance of airtime and try to replace negative thoughts with more accurate ones. Which leads to…
Number Four: Finally, throw down the gauntlet and challenge your inner critic. This means looking for evidence that the voice in your head is actually right. Where is the hard proof that you can’t achieve what you want to achieve? Where is the proof that you lack talent in a particular area? Can you find the evidence to back up your inner critic?
I use this trick when the inner critic is trying to dominate my thoughts and dictate my actions. I try and imagine saying what my inner critic says to me to a really close friend. “Yeah, you’re really shit at that. Not talented at all. You’d better give it up”. I mean really! You just wouldn’t say that. Would you?
Remember, the story in your head isn’t really the full picture. If your mental chatter is causing distress and robbing you of happiness and opportunities, consider that it’s hit its expiry date. It might be time to change the record.
Coach Viv XO