The other day, Mr. Watson expressed some doubts about his career. I knee-jerkingly replied, “Are you kidding? You’re a rockstar.” And he is, by my definition: He holds four patents, is one of a small number of non-PhDs ever to work at HP Labs, and is now a principal software engineer at a funded startup.
“I’m allowed to have moments of doubt,” he said.
“Of course you are,” I responded. “You’re allowed to feel any way you want, but is that how you really want to feel?” It’s so much easier to see someone else’s stuff, isn’t it?
The point is, we all have voices in our heads that tell us we aren’t good enough. I call these voices gremlins and they can do a real mind trip, can’t they? They know exactly what to say to undermine our progress.
Gremlin is just one name for these voices. When I Grow Up Coach Michelle Ward calls them vampires. Author and founder of the Playing Big leadership program Tara Mohr calls them inner critics. Whatever you call them, they’re all manifestations of self-doubt that lead to self-sabotage by convincing us that we’re not worthy to have what we want.
Researcher and author Brené Brown says our gremlins’ messages take two forms, either “you’re not good enough” or “who do you think you are?” Both keep us playing small, the first by reminding us that we’re not going to make it anyway and the second by belittling the wisdom and value we do have.
In her book Playing Big, Tara Mohr devotes an entire chapter to the inner critic. Through it, she shares the differences between the irrational voice of your inner critic and the realistic thoughts you might have instead. Among them:
- Your inner critic is mean, biting, and repetitive. It might, for example, say “You’re just not smart enough… You’re not smart enough… You really aren’t smart enough” despite any objections you voice. When you’re thinking more rationally, you’re better able to consider alternatives and seek solutions such as, “Maybe I don’t know enough yet, but I can learn.”
- Your inner critic makes definite pronouncements while a rational response would entail asking yourself such questions as, “How could I accomplish this?”
- Your inner critic employs black-and-white thinking whereas your realistic self is comfortable with complexity and gray areas.
- Your inner critic may be based on something said to you in the past, perhaps by a parent or teacher or conveyed through societal expectations, whereas your rational voice is generally a calmer, wiser version of you.
Your inner critic or gremlins aren’t really trying to hurt you; they’re there to protect you. Of course, because they keep you from pushing yourself or exposing your vulnerabilities, listening to them may keep you from ever reaching your goals.
8 Tricks for Tackling Your Gremlins
When your gremlins are biting, here are some ways to respond:
- Breathe. First, take a deep breath, focusing on your full inhalation and exhalation. Doing so helps to bring you back to the present and re-centers yourself.
- Acknowledge. Observe that your gremlins are biting. Rick Carson writes in the book, Taming Your Gremlin, “Don’t grapple with your gremlin. Simply notice him or her fully, and then choose to redirect your awareness—or not.”
- Redirect. As Rick Carson suggests, you might need to move on to something else—to redirect your focus—but beware that this can get in the way of accomplishing something important, if you let it.
- Thank them. Tara Mohr writes, “One of my favorite things to say back to my own inner critic…is: ‘Thanks, but I’ve got this one covered.’” She emphasizes her “thank you” is offered in sincere appreciation for her gremlin’s attempt to keep her from embarrassment or failure.
- Change the narrative. As I wrote in last week’s post, sometimes you need to give yourself a pep talk. Consciously engage in positive self-talk, not responding to the gremlins per se but change the narrative and open yourself to seeing new possibilities. For example, if your gremlin says, “You’re a fat slob,” instead say, “Ok, I want to lose some weight; how can I do that?”
- Revisit the love. Read notes of encouragement or gratitude you’ve received in the past. If you keep a win book, as Michelle Ward recommends, you’ll have all of these lovely notes as well as reminders of your prior accomplishments in one place, which makes it easy.
- Analyze it. Brené Brown recommends that you write down the message and then later ask yourself if it’s true. As I shared last week, writing down your thoughts gets them out of your head and onto paper, where you can review them rationally and thoughtfully.
- Rebut. Michelle Ward suggests that you can go one step further by writing down rebuttals, as if you were an attorney arguing in a court of law. While no one suggests that you attempt to rebut the gremlins in the midst of an attack, it can help change your long-term perspective and narrative when you take note of the messages you’re telling yourself and determine whether they’re fair, true, and helpful.
Remember, your gremlins aren’t here to harm you—even if some of their messages arose from unpleasant experiences. Your gremlins are simply voices that keep you in your comfort zone. Once you realize they come from a place of self-protection, you’ll have the power to accept or move past them.
Brené Brown has a sign in her office that reads, “Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to someone you love.” I’d go a step further and say, “Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a beloved child.”
Don’t we all have a part of ourselves that’s still a scared, overwhelmed child? Be kind to her.
For additional resources on gremlins/inner critics/vampires, check out:
- Brené Brown’s interview with Chase Jarvis
- Tara Mohr’s book, Playing Big
- Michelle Ward’s post, “The Upside of Vampires”