Make Over Your Inner Critic

RK 3Last summer, on stage in the preliminary round of a national piano competition, I experienced what is probably the worst nightmare for any performer: My mind went blank and I couldn’t remember what came next or how the piece ended. After some excruciating and dissonant fumbling, I gave up and stopped abruptly. I managed to go onto the second piece and – even more miraculously – still advanced to the semi-finals.

Waiting backstage the next day, however, I kept imagining the worst: What if I had another memory slip, what if my hands froze and my fingers wouldn’t move? What if the audience clacked their tongues in disgust and started leaving in mass exodus? My inner critic was having a field day and I didn’t find it at all helpful.

Then, seated at the keyboard, something clicked inside, and I decided what I really needed at that moment was my inner coach. Speaking to myself in the third person, I started giving gentle encouragement and saying things to direct my focus as I played: “bring out the melody line….that’s it, keep the left hand steady,” (instead of “oh no, your hands are so sweaty and your knees are shaking!”). Hearing the calm, benevolent voice inside my head gave me a warm sense of comfort, and I was able to relax and play without mishap (and no mass exodus by the audience!).

From inner critic to inner coach

So, what about you? Need to make a call you’ve been dreading, or lead the next team meeting? The next time you’re going out on a limb and doing something that takes courage, try these three tweaks to transform your inner critic into your inner coach:

1.    Treat yourself as you would others.

If that negative, whiny voice of the inner critic doesn’t work and it doesn’t feel good, why do we give it so much airtime? There’s nothing wrong with tough love when warranted – this isn’t about taking it easy or lowering standards. But “catching more flies with honey than vinegar” works with yourself too. Switch the critical screech to a kinder, gentler voice (“why don’t you try it again” vs. “why can’t you get anything right!”) The litmus test: Ask yourself “Would I speak to a child or a good friend this way?”

2.    Spin it positive.

In boot camp workouts, the instructor often taunts the participants with: “You’re not tired, are you?!” Of course, everyone is supposed to yell “no!” but, in fact, the only word the mind hears is “tired,” and guess what effect that has on the body. Word choice has a dramatic effect on our physical and mental state, so be sure the words you deploy reflect the result you want. Example: “remember to” (vs. “don’t forget“); “finish strong” (vs. “you’re not tired”).

3.    How’s that working for you?

Hey, our inner critic may very well have good intentions: it sees that we’re foundering and it wants to help us do better. The problem with this approach is it tends to promote fear of failure and stifle action. If I buy into the anxious warnings of my inner critic when playing the piano, I shrink back from taking risks that would make for a more exciting, artistic performance. Still, everyone has to find the balance of strict taskmaster and benevolent teacher that works for them in the various arenas of life. Ask yourself: “Is this working for me? Do I feel motivated to keep trying? Am I growing through this?

This “inner coach” stuff isn’t about Pollyanna-style cheerleading. It is about providing encouragement, perspective and focus by pointing out what you did well and what you could differently. It promotes courage and growth.


  1. Lizzie McGuire Games May 4, 2009 at 9:05 pm

    I’ve been browsing around your blog for a while but I just had to comment on this post, great stuff!

  2. Pingback: Five Habits of High-Achievers : Step Up Your Game

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