We’ve all been there.
You’re enjoying a day out with friends. The sun is shining and the laughter is flowing. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, you’re comparing yourself to the woman next to you, calculating how much faster/fitter/stronger/better she is. Instantly you’re left with that dreaded feeling in the pit of your stomach and the voice inside your head that says ‘not good enough’.
It happens in other situations too. You’re invited to join a training session or adventure and either say ‘yes’ reluctantly or say ‘no thanks’ for the same reason; the voice in your head has proclaimed you aren’t fit enough and you’re going to be that annoying person who holds everyone up. Again, it’s the voice of ‘not good enough’.
That voice you hear; that’s your Inner Critic. It’s the result of a range of factors; from human evolution, social conditioning and even the way you were raised. It’s the voice that says you aren’t the one to lead, to apply for the promotion, to ask for the raise, to take on a bigger role, to speak up in meetings, to ride the technical single-track, to descend a hill fast on your bike, to enter that race, to try a new sport. It’s the voice that says you aren’t qualified enough, smart enough, experienced enough, good-at-x-enough. Any time you slip into that comparison spiral, yep, you guessed it – say hello to your Inner Critic.
Now, the role of your Inner Critic is to keep you safe and away from anything it considers to be too risky (whether that’s physical, mental or emotional risk). So sometimes listening to your Inner Critic is the smart thing to do. You wouldn’t be here today if your ancestors had ignored their Inner Critic, taken too many risks and been eaten by a sabre tooth tiger.
However, there are times we listen to, and are held back by, our Inner Critic in situations where the real risk (as opposed to the perceived risk) is low.
What’s the real risk to you in the moment when you’re comparing yourself to the woman riding/swimming/walking beside you? Zero.
What’s the real risk to you when you’re invited on a group outing and you are the slowest person? Slim to nothing.
So our challenge is to identify when to listen to our Inner Critic and when to ignore it.
The good news is that everyone has an Inner Critic, so you aren’t alone.
The bad news? You’ll never get rid of it.
This is why waiting until you feel ‘more confident’ or ‘faster’ will leave you on the sidelines of life for a long time. Because if you haven’t developed a working relationship with your Inner Critic, it won’t matter how much faster/fitter/stronger/better you get; you’ll never see yourself as ‘enough’.
A working relationship with your Inner Critic is one where you can hear what she has to say and either choose to take her advice on board, or push it to the side and keep going.
You can learn to live with your Inner Critic, but not be held back by it.
It’s easier said than done of course. But there are steps you can take to quieten your Inner Critic so you can get on with life.
The first step in learning to live with your Inner Critic is to see it as something separate from yourself. It’s a part of you, but it’s not you.
The easiest way to start is to refer to your Inner Critic in the third person; using words like ‘she’ or ‘her’. I often say ‘my Inner Critic is freaking out right now’ as opposed to ‘I’m freaking out right now’. It’s a small, but powerful, change. Another option is to give her a name; ‘Barbara is freaking out right now’ (no offence to any Barbara’s reading!). Anything you can do to see your Inner Critic as a separate identity will help to turn the volume down.
Stick Her In A Box
Compartmentalising your Inner Critic is another good strategy. I picture my Inner Critic as a little gremlin sitting on my right shoulder (always my right shoulder for some reason!). When she’s loudly screaming in my ear, I see myself extending my arm and pushing her away from me. Once she’s further away, her voice isn’t as loud and I’m able to think more clearly.
One client visualises herself locking her Inner Critic in the car when she heads to a race. Her Inner Critic can say whatever she likes on the drive, but she’s not allowed out of the car and she’s certainly not allowed to take part in the race.
Former professional triathlete Lisa Bentley on Sparta Chicks Radio suggested picturing yourself putting your fears (essentially your Inner Critic) in a knapsack and tying it to the top of a tree or leaving it on top of a mountain. You can go back and get it after your race or adventure, but if you carry it with you, it’s only going to weigh you down. How will you leave your Inner Critic behind today?
Don’t Believe Everything You Think
Your Inner Critic is telling you a story; an interpretation of the situation that’s most likely to keep you safe.
So don’t automatically believe everything your Inner Critic says. For example, I’m pretty sure no-one has ever died from embarrassment (but how many times have you thought or said that?). Take a moment and a deep breath, then try to assess the accuracy of what she’s saying. What’s the real risk? Is it true? How likely is it to happen? What’s the real-life worst-case scenario? Take time to examine what she’s saying and then (if it’s going to help you), take her advice on board. But if it doesn’t help or it’s only weighing you down, push it aside and keep going.
Thanks, But I’ve Got This
Once you’ve decided to push your Inner Critic aside and keep going, a simple and easy tactic is to tell your Inner Critic: ‘thanks, but I’ve got this’. Make it your new motto. Remind your Inner Critic – and yourself – that you’ve heard her concerns but you’re going ahead with it anyway because, (repeat after me), ‘I’ve got this’.
The Highlight Reel
We all know this, and yet we continue to do it (myself included). We compare our ‘everyday’ life and our mess to other people’s highlight reel.
We only share the ‘highlight’ reel with the world: the new personal bests, the shoes, the views, the smiles, the post-workout coffee and the times we look and feel good.
We don’t share photos of ourselves sitting on the bathroom floor, snotty-nosed and tear-stained after getting injured, taking a tumble, getting fired or failing to finish a race. So it’s easy to feel isolated and alone in your fears and your tears.
I’m not suggesting that #snottyselfies become the next trending hashtag. But I encourage you to remember you only see what people want you to see. Even those of us committed to #keepingitreal and greater vulnerability still want to be seen in a certain light and control our public persona accordingly. Comparison – whether you’re out on the trail or in the boardroom – rarely serves you. And any thoughts that don’t serve you are only going to sabotage you.
Be More Loyal
When you catch yourself listening to your Inner Critic, slipping into that comparison spiral or saying ‘no’ to invitations you want to accept, ask yourself: What’s more important to me – my goals or my fears?
The human brain was designed to keep you alive and safe from sabre tooth tigers. While that threat no longer exists, the hardwiring is still there, and today it’s dictating whether you’re going to be embarrassed if you’re too slow.
Yes, there are times to exercise caution and play it safe. But don’t assume your Inner Critic is correct or that you need to follow it. Ask yourself: what’s more important – your fears or your goals?
Friends Love and Accept
Your friends have invited you because they want YOU; for your company, for your whip-smart sense of humour, for your laughter and for your ability to solve the world’s problems. And they probably have a fair idea about your fitness and ability (let’s face it – we talk about it most of the time). So if it’s an opportunity that sounds like fun and you want to do it, just say ‘yes’. Don’t overthink it.
Use Facts, Not Stories
If you’re making plans with a group of people you don’t know, use facts and not stories to describe your fitness and experience. For example, “I generally cover x distance in x time”. Don’t share your stories like “I’m really slow”, “I’m at the back of the pack”, “I’m only…”, “I’m just…”.
These stories not only downplay your fitness and ability, they also reinforce (in your own mind) whatever lies your Inner Critic has told you. Besides, they aren’t helpful to someone who is trying to understand your fitness, skills or capabilities.
Learning to live with your Inner Critic takes time. She’s often opinionated and loud. So the next time you’re slipping into that comparison trap, test out some of these strategies. When you learn to live with your Inner Critic, but not be held back by her, it’s much easier to say ‘yes’ to adventure. And there are so many more adventures waiting for you!
Biography: Jen Brown is a Trail Running and Triathlon Coach and the founder of Sparta Chicks, an online community and coaching business that helps women in endurance sports and outdoor adventures to chase their dreams with less fear and more confidence. She is also host of the popular podcast, Sparta Chicks Radio.