We all have a negative voice in our head that holds us back. Here leadership coach Annalie Howling tells us how to silence it
Words Annalie Howling
Illustration Phil Couzens
As mothers we know not to worry about the monsters under the bed. We comfort our children, helping them understand that the monsters are in their imagination and that there is nothing to be afraid of. But as adults it is the monsters in our heads that often get the better of us. The nagging, negative chatter that belongs to what I call our ‘inner critic’.
Quite simply, our inner critic is the voice in our head that tells us that we aren’t good enough. It whispers a constant list of reminders to us as to why we can’t or shouldn’t do things, thriving instead on a foundation of guilt. And it is this feeling that somehow we are not doing the best job that often stops us fully enjoying parenthood.
A recent survey conducted by Water Wipes found that four in 10 respondents said their happiness at becoming parents had been tempered by feelings of guilt, with a further 63% of those surveyed admitted feeling overwhelmed since having children.
It wasn’t all guilt and self-doubt however. The survey also revealed that new mums and dads feel more fulfilled, with 96% saying that having a child had brought them a new kind of happiness. So why, with these extremely high numbers of joy and fulfilment, were so many of those who were surveyed still also reporting greater feelings of guilt?
Many experts blame the media, especially social media, as it offers a 24/7 platform for us to view ‘perfection’ and allow our inner critic to tell us where we don’t measure up. We don’t eat as cleanly as some, didn’t snap back into shape as quickly as others and aren’t breezing through the daily challenges motherhood brings, leaving us to feel guilty about our perceived failures. We can just as easily find ourselves comparing ourselves to friends and other mothers around us. Or indeed simply to the image of ideal motherhood that we create in our own minds.
While the quest for perfection is an exhausting and disappointing struggle for most of us, the inner critic, however, loves our constant battle. It thrives on our sense of consistent failure in not measuring up and is on hand to offer new benchmarks, set ever further from reach.
And no-one is exempt – everyone has an inner critic. I have worked with hundreds of men and women of all ages and every single person – whether in a team workshop or in a 1:1 session – will bring up this internalised negative voice as a reason why they feel that they can’t achieve their goals (although they don’t necessarily recognise it as their inner critic).
Believe it or not, the inner critic should actually be thought of as a well-meaning friend who is a dreadfully unskilled communicator. Our inner critic wants to keep us safe; it doesn’t want us to fail or to be judged and it has often been with us for longer than we can remember. The stream of negative messages is its way of guaranteeing that you won’t fail – by not allowing you to try. So once you have identified this negative force in your mind, you can tackle it. There are many techniques that I use when coaching to create resilience and help people become the master of their inner critic, redefining the relationship.
Firstly, learning to take care of yourself is a good place to start, especially for parents who so often put their own needs and wellbeing last. Self-care is always the key to successfully mastering and transforming the relationship with your inner critic. When you are feeling weak and drained, you are most vulnerable to self-doubt and guilt.
Mothers especially give so much of themselves to other people and things that they often view self-care as a luxury or an indulgence. In fact it is essential. Without being your best self you cannot give your best to anyone else.
Self-care comes in many forms and often involves more than one thing. For any person, it is the things that you need in your life to feel the most fulfilled and your best self. This can include time spent with and without your children, exercise, learning, work, laughing with friends, dancing, walks in nature. Whatever self-care means to you, try to find ways to work these essentials into your day.
Think of a time that you were feeling your best self, yourself at a 10, perhaps it was at a friend’s wedding, a date night, a memory of laughing with your children. Whatever that moment is, stop and think about it. Think about who was there, what music or sounds were there, what the light was like. Make the memory as vivid as possible; this is a peak experience of yours. When you have made some notes, find an image and/or song that instantly takes you to that place and keep it on your phone or somewhere that you can access it quickly to give you that boost when you need it most. It will remind you what you are capable of and push you away from those feelings of guilt and worthlessness.
I have a fabulous client that pulls on a pair of ‘leopard print power pants’ which are workout leggings and heads out for a run before she needs to make a tough call. Another who plays Katy Perry’s Roar in the car to reconnect to that energy from her peak experience. Whatever works for you, do it.
Feel the fear & do it anyway
The inner critic is the loudest when you are about to make a big change. It knows that it is about to lose the battle, so is slinging everything it has got at you. Think about a time when you did something bold and tackled a fear, and remember that the chatter was loudest in that moment just before you pushed past and did it anyway. Remember to look out for this peak in activity and take it as an exciting signal that you are on the precipice of a big change.
Accept compliments. People wish to give them to you as if they were a gift, accept them graciously with a simple thank you. If the inner critic makes it hard for you to accept or believe them, then imagine that they are true. Think about trying on a beautiful gown, you don’t have to buy it, you are just seeing how it looks on you – and try the same with compliments. You will start to see that they suit you.
Look at the time that you use social media and how it affects your moods. If you look through your Instagram feed and feel exhilarated and inspired on a Tuesday afternoon and you have great energy, then fantastic. However, if you find yourself entering a negative cycle of self-doubt on a Sunday evening from the sofa after a manic weekend of birthday parties and social events, then turn it off and invest in a self-care ritual instead.
And finally – just say ‘no’
This is one of the hardest but most rewarding changes that you can make. It is incredibly hard sometimes to just say ‘no’ to your inner critic but you can do it. Recognise the negative chatter when it’s starting and put a stop to it quickly by simply reminding yourself that you don’t have to listen. You are in charge, not your inner critic.