Framework Developed by Rob Orman, MD, Scott Weingart, MD, Ryan Cheney MS, LPC, ACS
The inner critic
You are a high achiever, and like most high achievers, you probably have an inner critic telling you that you are not enough. This is how most of us self-motivate, negatively. And now, your inner critic has set up shop and is not going away. It’s a part of you, but it’s often a destructive and sabotaging part. Chances are it’s played a role in pushing you to achieve but not in finding joy in life or work.
The critic/judge works through negativity and lives in the limbic system. It speaks in judgment, fear, stress, anger, guilt, shame, and insecurity
The inner critic will never disappear. It can, however, become less powerful and dominant in your thinking and physiologic reactions.
The first step to thwarting the inner critic’s power is to be aware that it exists.
You know your inner critic is talking because it’s negative, it drains you.
Inner Critic Exercise 1: Identify it
Where do you feel it in your body? What does that feel like? What does it say, what does it sound like – is it a whisper, normal tone, or loud?
Now, think about what this inner critic might look like and sound like. What is the character or archetype it takes on? A bonus is to give it an aspect that’s a little silly. Making it playful can take some of the negative voltage away just in the awareness stage.
Inner Critic Exercise 2: Build awareness
Take note of the situations where the critic appears. How do you feel, what did you do, how did it go?
Inner Critic Exercise 3: Acceptance
Awareness can give space and slow things down, but often not enough. The next step is to ‘turn toward and lean in’. No need to fight it or run away. Turn toward it and accept that this is what’s happening in the present moment. In this case, you are accepting that the inner critic is speaking. This isn’t defeat, this is deeply caring and embracing. How do you know there’s acceptance? There is no struggle.
Inner Critic Exercise 4: Regulation
When the inner critic is loud or overwhelming, there can be a physiologic response along with thoughts and emotions. One way to turn down the autonomic nervous system is to take over your breathing structure. You can think of this as ‘overdrive breathing’ – akin to overdriving pacing in arrhythmia management. A simple way to do this is to take a slow deep breath through the nose, hold it for a second, and then breathe out through pursed lips.
A few patterns that we’ve found effective are:
- In for 4, and out for 6
- In for 4, hold for 7, out for 8
- Triangle or box breathing
- Double nasal inhalation and physiologic sigh
It doesn’t have to be breath, a body scan with attention to a focused part of your body (find your feet, feel the ridges of your fingertips) or a visual reset focusing on far-field vision can work as well.
We’ve so far been working with our limbic system, the primitive part of our brains where the inner critic lives and there is little to no space between stimulus and response. Now it’s time to supercharge the prefrontal cortex where our inner mentor lives.
The inner mentor
The inner mentor is your wiser, warm, curious, compassionate, and non-judgmental self.
Inner mentor avatar
Imagine this mentor or guide as a distinct being or person. It can be you or an avatar that embodies patience, compassion, warmth, curiosity, and discernment. Where your critic judges you (and situations) and works through negativity, your mentor discerns and is objective and neutral.
Putting it all together
The goal of the process we’ve discussed so far is to gain awareness of our inner critics, turn toward them, and embrace them. Doing this leads to acceptance. When we’re able to accept this voice, and not fight it, it can paradoxically start to lose its power. The final step of recalibration allows you to ask yourself the question “How do I want to show up for myself?” or “What mindset do I want to embody?” “What thought, word and action do I want to model?”
The above sequence is just an example of how this can work. Below is an alternate exercise that can just as effectively turn down the volume of your inner critic.
The Pirate Ship
You are the captain of a ship coursing through the ocean. The question is, who is advising you on how to proceed? When you speak or act, who is it that’s speaking or acting?
The mentor stands next to you guiding you through the waters. “You can get through this, you’ve gotten through other storms like this before.”
You are looking down on the crew, they’re doing their work, swabbing decks, repairing sails.
Then something happens, there’s a trigger and, one of the crew gets agitated or excited or filled with energy and tries to take the wheel. It’s your inner critic! They run up the stairs and try to grab the wheel, taking over the ship. They scream for control. “We’re all going to die! You’re not doing it right, I won’t make any mistakes, I’m going to do this perfectly!”
The mentor says “Stop, you are trying to hijack the ship. Rob doesn’t need to hear this right now. Rob, don’t listen to this guy. Rob, just stay on course, you’re doing great” The mentor is warm, curious, and non-judgmental.
The mentor looks at the critic, “I see you trying to take the wheel of the ship, what is it you’re needing right now? Unfortunately, it’s not going to be the wheel of the ship!”
Is it to be heard, respected, perfect, safe, not judged?