Emma is an executive in a multinational company. She is 40 years old and her career path is built on a continuous series of successes, brilliant results, a very fast progression, until she was promoted to her last position, as marketing director of one of the company’s business units, a few months ago, crowning a goal she had had since she was young. Very quickly, the new role begins to weigh on her, not only because of the work itself, but also because of the team she is called upon to lead, her colleagues, and the extent of her decision-making, which turns out to be less than she expected. We start coaching after a few weeks in which she has felt the victim of pressure, which she considers unjustified and unhelpful in relation to the results she is asked to achieve. She is full of doubts about the company itself, which seems to betray the declared value system, but also about continuing her career in the private sector. She tells herself that perhaps she should try something more aligned with her values with a greater social impact. After a few sessions, having clarified that she doesn’t want to stay in her current role, we start to explore other possibilities of roles even far away from the one she is doing, because she says she feels like a radical change. And Emma begins to have a particular behaviour in this respect. Every time an idea comes up and she seems to like it, she starts to find arguments against it: “No, I would have to train for years to do this”, “I don’t have the skills”, “All the people I studied with are doing prestigious jobs “, “I won’t succeed and I will have to go back to a company in a less important position”, “I would like to but I am not able to do it”…

The risk aversion bias was identified by Tversky and Kahneman as early as 1973. It is the thought process that links risk to the possibility of losing, and which produces distorted decisions because the possibility of winning is underestimated in the face of possible losses. From the point of view of neurological functioning, the amygdala signals a threat. The striatum, which is responsible for assessing possible losses and gains, skews the perception towards losses; the insula, together with the amygdala, which is responsible for disgust, steers us away from behaviour that is considered risky. Risk aversion is related to our investment decisions, including, for example, those related to insurance. But today we will talk about this bias in connection with a psychological phenomenon that originates from it, the so-called “Inner Critic“. The Inner Critic is that persistent and insistent voice that reminds us how incapable, incompetent, unsuitable and not fit we are; that makes us ashamed even to have thought of doing a certain thing, of speaking in public, of speaking at a meeting, of wanting that role, of doing something we have never done. Always that voice that makes us adopt a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset“, pushing us to see, in an unconscious way, every learning as a risk, highlighting the losses that will be caused by the novelties, activating that ancestral circuit of defensive thinking, mentioned above, that was so useful to us at the dawn of our species, which now only risks to nail us to painful and unwanted situations for fear of the risk of going down new paths.

Basically, we can imagine the internal critic as a kind of little bad guy sitting permanently on our shoulder. On the other shoulder sits a much more benevolent character, the one that Doena Giardella in an article in the MIT Sloan journal calls the “inner champion” or in other literature the ‘inner mentor or coach’ (Tara Mohr), who suggests new ideas, creativity and tells us that everything will be OK. But the spontaneous tendency is rather not to listen to this voice and to let the inner conversation we have with ourselves and ourselves rather be directed by the person who loves us least and to let him guide our actions.

The voices that animate it can be different and come from our past: those who brought us up, parents, reference adults, school educators, sisters and brothers, but also environments that were not restraining, perceived as threatening, in which we could not develop relationships in safety, as happens, according to attachment theory, when we experienced so-called “avoidance” relationships during childhood.

The voice of the internal critic does not speak kindly to us, as one normally speaks to someone who loves us, but labels us “you are not the one  who does this kind of thing”, it can be at the origin of the famous “impostor syndrome”, it reminds us of all our weaknesses, compares us to others always more performing than us, makes us imagine disastrous results in which we feel a great sense of guilt and shame for what we have done. It is the voice of (fake) wisdom that tells us “don’t leave the old road for the new one” ” whoever praises oneself gets cheated” and that, at the moment of acting to transform and regenerate our lives, our role, our company, our family, paralyses us and pushes us to prefer the status quo rather than risk losing something, as in all changes.

It is this voice that the manager Emma in our case heard, loud and clear, as she began to think about going off the beaten path to transform her life towards something more consistent with the vocation she feels at the moment.  When we explored, during the coaching, the voice of the internal critic, some episodes of her childhood that Emma recalled, allowed us to shape the voice: in particular Emma heard the voices of her family, the criticism and advice, recommending her to go towards a course of studies suitable for her environment and social position and then the professional and career choices, the approach to work characterised by extreme devotion and perfectionism. These are voices that she has made her own, and that have often put her at risk of burnout, never making her feel competent enough, good enough, brilliant enough, performing well enough, both in relation to herself and to the other people in the company.

The inner critic risks profoundly undermining self-confidence and trust in others when he or she produces projections onto others, generating a dynamic of attributing bad intentions to ourselves, “it’s their fault, they make me feel bad”, “my colleagues don’t like me”, etc.

What can we do, concretely, about the internal critic?

  1. Tara Mohr, in the chapter of “Playing Big” dedicated to the subject, suggests above all not to reject it outright. After all, if we go back to the evolutionary usefulness of the “risk aversion” bias that lies at its origin, we can link it to the fact that one of the objectives of this critical voice is precisely to protect us from the hostility of the environment. The suggestion, therefore, as in the Jungian theory of the shadow is to welcome it, to be aware of it. A good way is to bring out the confabulation and write down what the inner critic is telling us in order to transform it. Tara Mohr suggests dividing a sheet of paper into two columns with, for example, the internal critic on the left, and the “rational thinker” on the right. In the latter column we can capture the wisdom of the message we are sending, which allows us to, for example, calculate the risks and rewards of the choice in a rational way;
  2. When the internal critic is active we speak to and about ourselves in a mean, harsh way, without empathy. Doena Giardella from MIT suggests that we include this dimension in our internal conversation. Be kind. At a time when there is a lot of talk about “kind leadership“, it becomes essential to start with the self, using compassion and understanding in our internal conversation, in order not to self-harm or self-sabotage in transformation processes. The idea is to use the “inner champion” or “inner mentor” (the good guy who talks to us from our shoulder) to help us reframe criticism.
  3. In the moment when we are acting, for example in relationship with others, and we feel that in our internal conversation we are criticising ourselves, decentralise from ourselves, return to relational connection with others and ask ourselves what they need. The internal critic removes us not only from empathy towards ourselves but also from empathy in the relationship, making us focus only on our unconscious need to preserve the status quo.
  4. In the ex post analysis (of a meeting, of a change, but also of a failure) look for the silver lining, the lesson learned, the sprout of something new that has been born. Allow regeneration, we would say in Nexus.
  5. In a management position we might unconsciously reproduce the familiar script, for example by creating a work environment that can be defined as “avoidance” according to Attachment theory. In this kind of environment the internal critic could correspond to a demand, more or less implicit, for perfection not only towards us but also towards the other members of the team. In the case, for example, of a change we want to promote or of a mistake made, it will be useful to use humility to investigate the causes and the responsibilities, from what is called an “inquiring” position, of benevolent and truly open investigation, instead of resorting to advocacy, to accusation, to soliciting the feeling of guilt and shame in the team members.