Our inner critic, or whatever we may call it—judge, saboteur, superego—has a powerful influence in our lives and on our well-being. The energy of the inner critic is fear and anxiety—and it often shows up in the coaching relationship.
Our work as coaches is often focused on helping our coachees expand from surviving to thriving. And one of the most powerful and empowering approaches is to support our coachees in coming to understand, be curious about, and compassionate with their critical inner voice and thoughts, while at the same time strengthening the voice of their inner sage or champion.
A neuroscientific explanation of the origins of the inner critic locates it in particular parts of the brain.
Scientists have argued that we have a primitive “survivor brain” that encompasses the brain stem, the older part of our brain tasked with attuning to physical survival and the fight-flight-freeze response to danger. It also involves the limbic system and the amygdala, which regulate our emotional responses and can trigger the emission of cortisol, a stress hormone.
The original function of our critical inner voice was to protect us from danger, hurt and pain—to ensure our survival. This included not just spotting and alerting us to danger in the environment, but also the inner work of psychological sense making and constructing narratives to keep us safe.
So the alertness to danger, pain or hurt provided negative feedback that taught us to be aware. The problem arises when we stay looped in that negative feedback, don”t learn and integrate the lessons, and get stuck in the critical messages.
One of the proponents of a “sage” brain is Shirzad Chamine. According to Chamine there are five “sage” brain powers to strengthen:
He recommends we strengthen our sage brain by consciously shifting our activity from our “survivor” brain to the middle prefrontal cortex—the empathy circuitry, and our right brain1. This means a shift toward the energy of expansiveness, and the release of endorphins.
Chamine suggests that one way we can do this quickly and effectively is by centering our attention on one of our senses. His exercises involve focusing for a few minutes on our breath, on near and faraway sounds, or on the sense of touch, ideally repeatedly during the day.
These exercises work because they take us out of our heads, anchor us in our body and the present moment, allow us to empathize with ourselves and others, and reconnect us with our emotions.
Core beliefs help us make sense of our experiences. They also set the “rules” by which we live and determine the tone of our self-talk.
In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the inner critic is not given a specific name. Rather, the focus is on the critic’s output—our Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs).
These ANTs are driven by our limiting core beliefs. These beliefs usually come in the form of rigid “I am _____,” “People are _____” and “The world is _____” statements. And these can be unproductive or harmful.
For coachees struggling with their inner critic, consider offering these two simple but powerful practices:
1 Shirzad Chamine (2012, p. 212). Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours. Greenleaf Book Group Press.
2 Kristin Neff’s TEDx talk, The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion, suggests ways in which we may change our inner self-talk so that it becomes more compassionate—and she also reminds us why we should do so. She argues that self-compassion always trumps self-esteem.
Further Reading & Resources
3 (Added by Emma-Louise). You may also like our free tool: Top 10 Cognitive Distortions List—a handout with 10 ways people limit themselves and (negatively) distort their perception of the world.
Shirzad Chamine’s Know Your Inner Saboteurs TEDx talk explores how his research on positive intelligence can help us recognize and weaken our inner judge and strengthen our “sage” brain instead.
Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself explores how to limit self-criticism and offset its negative effects, which enables us to reach our highest potential and more fulfillment.
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