Coping with your inner critic and imposter syndrome

Everyone has an inner voice that talks to them -- the part of your mind that constantly judges you and tells you what to do. This inner voice can be your best friend or your worst enemy. It can encourage you to take risks and innovate as your biggest fan, or it can be out of control as your worst critic, berating you every time you make a mistake, sapping your motivation to get up and try again.

Imposter syndrome

“Believe it or not, your CEO may sometimes doubt that she is qualified for her position.

People who work in high-tech often have especially harsh inner critics who tell them they don’t belong where they are, a mind-state which has been called “imposter syndrome.” People with imposter syndrome think thoughts like, “If only they knew the true me, I wouldn’t be here,” “I’m incompetent,” and “I’m not good enough.” They think they are imposters who have fooled everyone around them to get where they are.

Imposter syndrome is widespread at every level in high-tech. Believe it or not, your CEO may sometimes doubt that she is qualified for her position. The VC who funded your company may think he’s just gotten lucky. And your Head of Finance may worry that he doesn’t have what it takes to get your company to the next level.

Where does you inner critic come from?

Evolution has primed us with a default mindset that focuses on avoiding and eliminating threats. Our ancestors would not have survived without it, and the evaluations and judgments that come with it are still essential for self-protection in high-risk situations. However, when we over-apply evaluations and judgments to ourselves, we become the threat we need to control. That’s when the inner critic takes charge.

When we don’t know how to effectively respond to our inner critics, we feel anxious, depressed, and overwhelmed. Learning to cope with our harsh evaluations of ourselves can bring us a little more peace and freedom, even when life is stressful. The first step is to become aware of our inner critics and accept that they are there.

Self-critical thoughts aren't a problem unless you let them take charge

The problem with self-critical thoughts is not that we have them. The problem is that we let them dictate our actions. If a thought like “I’m no good at this” shows up, do you believe it and give up on what you are doing? Or do you simply notice it and keep moving?

You can learn to become more aware of these thoughts and prevent them from taking charge of your life. This doesn’t mean ignoring them. They will continue to show up whether we like them or not. Instead, it means learning to simply notice them as they occur and not follow where they lead. This skill has many names, but I like to call it “disentangling.”

Disentangling from self-critical thoughts

Disentangling is different from what we usually try to do with self-critical thoughts. You’ve probably noticed it rarely helps to argue with them. You already know you didn’t end up where you are because you’re incompetent. Disentangling isn’t about making self-critical thoughts go away or replacing them with more positive thoughts. Rather, it’s about separating yourself from them so that you can make better choices in your work and life.

Some great disentangling techniques come from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), a science-based treatment for stress, anxiety, and other problems.

Here are a few:

  1. Watch your thoughts.
    Separate from your thoughts by “watching” them from a small distance. Imagine they are leaves floating on a stream or trains leaving a station. Put your thoughts in bubbles and watch them drift by. Treat them like pop-up ads that keep showing up on your computer screen. Treat them like words on a karaoke screen. You can be separate from your thoughts; they are just words, and they don’t need to control you or dictate your actions. More tools like this can be found in Steven Hayes’ book Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life.

  2. Turn your thoughts into music using the Songify app.
    Songify is an app that turns your words into songs. Try singing your negative thoughts to various tunes/melodies. If you keep playing “I’m incompetent” over and over again to music in the background, especially to songs by Adele or Michael Jackson, it will eventually lose its power over you. You can’t just think about doing this, you need to do it to feel its effect.

  3. Use your hands to represent your thoughts.
    Imagine your hands are your thoughts and then cover your eyes with them. Notice you can’t see anything but your hands. Ask yourself what would happen if you walked around like this all day. What would you not be able to see or do? Could you listen to your coworker or connect with your partner? Then lower your hands and look at them from a distance. Notice how much more freedom is possible from this perspective. Your thoughts are still there, but you get to decide whether they control your actions. Learn about this tool in this book by Russ Harris.

We can’t silence our inner critic for good, but we can prevent it from running our lives. We are more than our thoughts, and they don’t have to define us.


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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.