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Who's Talking in There? A Handy Guide to Recognize Your Inner Critic

March 26, 2018

What does it mean to "think to yourself"? Have you ever heard the following in your head:

  • On a bad day: I can't believe I did that... I am such an idiot!

  • On an ordinary day perhaps: I am so tired...

  • On a really good day: I am a rockstar!

Having voices in your head that you identify as "you," or parts of you, is healthy and normal. Some of those voices, which I call the inner critic but who are frequently called gremlin, saboteur, or the devil on your shoulder, provide mechanisms for the expression of our very human risk aversion. When your inner critics start talking to you, they're letting you know that you're moving out of their comfort zone. It means you're changing or trying something new.


In the world we live in today, our inner critics don't have a lot of real dangers to alert us to. They can prove useful in alerting us to risks: You're so right, inner critic! I do want to use bottled water to brush my teeth when travelling to some parts of the world. Or maybe, thank you, inner critic dude, you're right that this person has had several drinks, and I want to call an Uber instead of driving with them. But very often, they try to warn us off doing the things we want to be doing, and they become a detriment to our success, preventing us from pursuing what we really want.


How can you recognize which voices are talking in your head? Here's a handy cheat sheet of red flags that may indicate that one of your inner critics is doing the talking.


Negative self-talk is probably the most easily recognized inner critic behavior. It discourages us from risk-taking by putting us in our place.

  • “I can’t believe I did that… I am such an idiot.”

  • "I'm never going to be successful at this."

  • “I look fat in that.”

Have to / should / need to: These words are among the most obvious red flags for the inner critic. If you stop and think, but why do I think I need to, you may realize that what underlies it is a fear of what happens if we make a change or take a risk.

  • “I have to do this.”

  • “I need to finish this work before I look for another job.”

It’s expected: Self-talk that tells you what others or what society expects of you guides us back to the straight and narrow of what we think is expected of us... regardless of what is really expected of us, and by whom, or why it actually matters.

  • “Everyone has a regular job.”

  • “This is what people do.”

What other people will think: Second guessing others or seeking their approval is a favorite technique of the inner critic!

  • “I will be a nobody if I leave my job and start over on my own.”

  • “I want to start a blog, but what if nobody likes it.”

  • “What would people say if I wore that?”

Inadequate talk: Is the talk that keeps us from starting, and keeps us safe from rejection, by preventing us from trying.

  • “I’m not ready yet... I need more experience before I make a pitch to my boss for an assignment.”

  • “I don’t know enough yet, I'll just wait.”

  • “I don’t have the right skills to apply for this job. I'll build my resume for a while.”

Worst case scenario planning: This self-talk takes real risks or concerns and blows them way out of proportion, into insurmountable barriers, or inevitable conclusions.

  • “I will end up homeless if I lose this job.”

  • “If I take a risk, my ex will use it to get custody of the kids.”

  • “Ageism is real… I won’t be able to find a job after 50.”

I can’t risk it: Just like worst case planning talk, "I can't risk it talk" rules out even considering taking risks... or anything perceived as a risk.

  • “I can’t risk my visa for considering changing jobs”

  • “I don’t know where I will live if I leave my boyfriend”

Don’t lose what you’ve got: This kind of language "talks up" your current situation, and whatever you're not happy with, by making you focusing on the pros of the status quo. This talk likes to team up with "I can't risk it."

  • “Maybe this relationship isn’t so bad”

  • “I know I’m not happy here, but there are good things about my team I don’t want to leave”

Commitments: This talk reminds you of all your obligations, to keep you from changing anything.

“If I leave, what will happen to my team?”

“I ought to finish what I started”

Won’t stop thinking: Finally, the inability to turn off thinking unproductively about work is itself a kind of inner critic self talk, that won't let go.

  • Thinking about all the things you did wrong yesterday…

  • Thinking (unproductively) about the things you have to do...

Once you have identified your inner critics, you can start the work of managing them. Just learning to listen and hear them when they start talking takes a lot of practice. So listen to what's going on, and stay tuned for my next article: "The 'Ridiculoso' Spell and Other Techniques for Managing Your Inner Critic."

Val Sanders is an Awesomeness Coach, helping people to transform themselves to become every bit as awesome as they were meant to be. She is a coach and she has a coach, because this stuff really works!

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