But What If I Fail?: How Your Inner Critic Chips Away At Confidence

As we’ve dipped our toe into the waters of GRACE In The WorkplaceTM with our last few articles, we discovered that our Confidence is partly tied to our DNA (it’s as much as 25% to 50% inherited!) We also acknowledged that society provides the headwinds that tend to steer our confidence off-course. These dampers, among others, are inextricably linked to the implicit biases and cultural trends that we’ve been exposed to as far back as our childhood. An intellectual understanding of those two big contributors to wavering confidence, combined with some basic strategy (like practicing that Power Pose), will hone an edge onto your confidence like a steel to a knife.

But to truly sharpen your confidence, it’s necessary to look within. Your DNA and the environment of your upbringing are indispensable parts of your personal history, as are mine. We can change the impact of these “cards we’ve been dealt” only when we realize that there’s a certain internal watchman who’s holding our confidence hostage (Admittedly, it’s a wonder how anyone is fully confident!)

The Wrath Of The Inner Critic

Having interviewed and surveyed thousands of professionals during my career about their emotional health in the workplace, I can confidently divulge that every last one of them has an Inner Critic. I’ve written about the inner critic in the past, mainly as a productivity buster. You can identify yours as that little voice in your head that says, “You’re not capable.” Judgmental little critters, they are. So much so that many of my interviewees independently declared they would never even remotely consider addressing another person with the kind of hostility they subject themselves to inside their heads. To get a feel for this sentiment in action, check out the TED Talk from Guy Winch. When I first heard his story, it gave me the feeling I’d been sucker punched!

The inner critic plays multiple authoritarian roles in our lives. She’s the bullhorn that never lets you forget that you’re not smart enough, skilled enough or creative enough, repeating again and again that “It needs to be perfect to be worthwhile” and “I don’t deserve praise or acknowledgment” and even “Today’s victory was no big deal….I merely got lucky.” Another common refrain from the inner critic comes when you dare to consider stretching outside your comfort zone, and sounds a little something like, “But what if I fail?”. All of these thoughts, of course, are based on zero facts, which should prompt us to ask some bigger questions of ourselves.

Our Critics’ Origins

The inner critic feels emboldened to say the things she does because she learned her form of protectionism and self-preservation from the trusted adults of our past. These are the folks who constantly told us “no” to keep us safe and on the straight-and-narrow.

As infants, we learned by observing and absorbing what those around us did and said. When we began to crawl, we began to hear that “no” word a lot more often. Those “no’s” have now piled up, and are being mimicked (perhaps in Mom’s voice) in our adult heads each time we’re faced with decisions and challenges in our lives and careers. When distilled down, it appears the inner critic (and Mom) are only trying to protect us from pain, embarrassment and disappointment, and sometimes this protection comes across as insanely direct and downright nasty. This chips away at our confidence, and ultimately, at our opportunities. If that seems an unrealistic paradigm for us to endure day-in day-out, you are onto something.

Thankfully, we each have the inherent ability to make peace with our inner critic. You heard correctly! We can address her, tame her, and even reprogram her to become our cheerleader! In the next article, I will lay out the formula to get you there, which will include a bit of brain science (as usual) and A LOT of inspiration through real case studies. Exciting stuff!