Quiet your inner critic

By Anita Dennis

"You've messed up again." That's the kind of comment many of us hear from the demanding inner critic in our minds.

No matter how successful or satisfied we are, there often may be a judgmental inner voice that interrupts our thoughts and questions our abilities or achievements. Our fault-finding voice leaves us feeling we're never quite enough. That's a problem because frequent or overly harsh criticism can damage our confidence and inhibit our ability to take risks.  

This intrusive voice may have been there since childhood, inspired perhaps by criticism we received from a parent, teacher, coach, or other important authority figure. These early critiques may have actually been appropriate or well intentioned. "There's nothing necessarily wrong with being criticized," said Hang Zhao, CPA (inactive), a leadership coach with Conscious Public Accountants. "It's how we learn to distinguish right from wrong."

And it's also normal to have ongoing internal conversations about our experiences. "We're constantly talking with ourselves, whether we realize it or not," noted Sarah Elliott, CPA, an executive coach and leadership consultant and co-founder and principal of Intend2Lead. "Those conversations dictate our decisions, actions, behaviors, and how we show up for other people," she said.

"For CPAs, self-doubt is a reflection of our own perfectionism," said Becca Shane, CPA, CGMA, the CFO at Blue Marlin Partners. "There is little or no room for error in our work." While no one is perfect, CPAs are trained to find mistakes, which may make their inner critic a little louder.

The best approach to shutting down the inner critic will depend on each person and situation. Here are some options.

Recognize the voice. Noticing your own self-talk and what your inner critic is saying is 80% of the work, Elliott said. It makes it possible to consider the voice objectively, including realizing that we would not talk to other people the way our inner critic speaks to us. "Once we see that, we can upgrade our self-talk to be kinder," she said. 

Being aware of when we are misreading a situation and engaging in self-sabotage is beneficial, as well. "It's really easy to get trapped in a rabbit hole," Zhao said, by collecting evidence to prove your inner critic right. She cites a client who came away from a business meeting convinced it had been a failure. By pausing and reviewing the actual events and outcomes, he realized he was catastrophizing — or assuming the worst. After that, he was able to see more clearly that the meeting had really been a success.

See the voice for what it is. Try writing down your self-criticisms, but instead of setting them out as facts, frame them in a different way, Zhao suggested. For example, say, "The story I'm telling myself is …" or "I feel …." That frames your negative thoughts as one perspective on a situation rather than as solid truths. "It helps us gain distance from our thoughts," she said. Negative thoughts can thrive in your head, but when you write them down or talk about them to a friend, they will likely seem less accurate and powerful. In addition, giving the voice a funny name, such as "Negative Nancy," drains its power and establishes that it's not the real you speaking, she added.

Other options include taking a walk or otherwise getting into a new environment. "The inner critic gives you tunnel vision, so move out and around to see what's going on outside," Zhao said.

Develop a support network. Numerous clients turn to their CPAs to act as trusted advisers. In the same vein, CPAs need to assemble their own team of trusted advisers who can provide good counsel when their inner critic is out of control, Shane said. "Nine-tenths of the time, someone else has already taken the same journey," she said. As a graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, she turns to a related Slack group where alumni ask for advice and offer solutions. "Use your network to its full advantage," she advised.

Shane also worked with a coach after attending the Leadership Academy. When you solicit someone else's opinion and engage in a conversation, "you later hear their voice in your head, which can be more positive than your own."

Learn when to listen to your inner critic. It's helpful to turn down the volume on your inner critic, but don't silence it completely, Shane cautioned. A voice that plays the devil's advocate can prevent you from making errors or taking unnecessary risks. "The negative voice can pose questions that are useful in analyzing what to do next or how to do it," she said, leading to better outcomes. "It's about finding the right level of listening."

Elliott recommended consciously acknowledging the purpose the critic is trying to serve, saying thank you to it, and choosing what you want to believe instead. "You can keep the inner critic as a passenger, but it can't drive the bus," she said.

"Ultimately, the critic is trying to help or protect us, to keep us safe, looking good, and doing better," Elliott said. Because the critic has served us well in some ways — pushing us to perform at a high level — it can be scary to let it go and even to be kinder to ourselves, she said.

She recommended beginning with small steps to reassure ourselves that it's safe to quiet the voice, such as celebrating wins or accomplishments rather than focusing on failures or struggles.

Manage the chatter

Zhao cautions that addressing our inner critic is not a one-and-done deal. Especially when we're in demanding situations, the voice will return. She likens the experience to meditation. It's never possible to clear our minds of thoughts completely, but the point of the practice is bringing our focus back to the right place whenever it wanders off. "Know your critic will come back and that's OK," she said. "Just try a different strategy and you will learn to be more empowered."

— Anita Dennis is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.

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