The Blog

How to Shake Off That Critical Voice

Recently the actress, Natalie Portman, made a speech at Harvard admitting to feeling like an imposter. It was interesting to hear that someone so successful suffered the self-same anxieties as many other women.

There's been a lot of noise recently around 'imposter syndrome' and the fact many successful women suffer feel they're not worthy. Tara Mohr (an expert on women in leadership) has written a book called Playing Big which offers helpful strategies on how to quieten this sabotaging influence. She describes it as 'the background noise we live with,' and that 'since women don't talk to one another about the vicious things it says we don't get counter arguments or support'. Importantly she flags up that the women we admire most can suffer with it too.

Recently the actress, Natalie Portman, made a speech at Harvard admitting to feeling like an imposter. It was interesting to hear that someone so successful suffered the self-same anxieties as many other women. Mohr points out that the 'inner critic' often becomes more insistent and vocal the more women step up and 'play big'. So in theory the more risks you take, the more the inner critic will try and put you off your stride. One of her pieces of advice is that you give your inner critic a name - that way you can be more objective and understand that this voice isn't you at all. It's just a witch that's taken up residence in your brain.

During my early career the 'inner critic' ruled the roost. It stopped me from expressing my opinion. It made me feel intimidated. And it wasn't unusual for me to say nothing. In fact I attended one really important meeting and didn't say anything for three hours. At the end one of my colleagues said -' Hey thanks for your input Anniki,' (I think their inner critic was telling them to use sarcasm). And the cruel thing was there was a cacophony going off in my head. The argument between me and my inner critic (I've called her Agatha. You don't need to call yours Agatha. It's better if you don't. Agatha is my witch thank you).

Anyway this was the conversation in my head during my 'silent' meeting:

Me: What are they talking about? Oh right I get it. I was reading online about this.

Agatha: You idiot. That's not what they're talking about.

Me: It is. It's a strategy all about the correlation between increased creativity and the working environment. It's right up my street!

Agatha: Nah. Don't think you've got that right. X is making some great points - don't you think? Do you think anyone is interested in you?

Me: I'll say something once I've had this cup of tea. I almost said the exact thing that X just said. Is X reading my mind?

Agatha: Who wants to read YOUR mind? Do some nice bubble writing on your notepad. That's all you're good for.

Agatha sabotaged me. Instead of seeing her for what she was (an unhelpful inner critic who doesn't represent reality), I let her call the shots. But the older I get the less I listen to her. She's also become less vitriolic - she's more likely to point out that my shoes have got bubble gum stuck to them than stop me speaking. And sometimes your inner critic is someone you SHOULD listen to - it's good to interrogate yourself before saying/doing something important. But wouldn't it be good if women didn't have to wait fifteen years till they turned their inner critic off? (if you have no inner critic then I salute you. Well done. Did you know you have bubble gum stuck to your shoes?)

Part of the battle with the inner critic is just acknowledging that it isn't reality. Writing down some of things that he/she says will make you realise just how ridiculous they sound.

Interestingly this feeling of being an imposter isn't just something women suffer from. Men also get the same insecurities. If anything they're worse because they're pushed below the surface and rarely discussed.

A few quotes from some male work colleagues:

"The residual gender stereotype says men have to be strong and not show weakness so we feel compelled to not talk about it."

"I've never quite understood why there is an idea that only women are self-critical! I thought quite a lot of people were - different people respond to it in different ways."

"I would say the ego that man is often accused of having is largely a direct result of his insecurities. The pressure to live up to standards, to provide, to protect... the list goes on."

So we need to acknowledge that this is a problem for both sexes and learn ways to turn the volume down and edit the sabotaging influence of the inner critic out so we can get the most out of our professional lives.

It's also helpful to remember what Bertrand Russell said on the subject of insecurity:

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts"