High-tech professionals know that their inner critic can be their best friend or their worst enemy. That inner critic is at the forefront for risk taking and innovation while also front and center for making mistakes. Evolution has led us to a default mind-state that focuses on “what’s not OK?” which can be helpful in high-risk situations to protect us. However, it also can undermine us if we let thoughts take control without awareness. There are a lot of names for this mind-state, such as the monkey mind or the negative mind-train, and they all refer to this self-critical thought pattern that focuses on the negative in a situation. When we don’t know how to control our inner critics, our struggles can lead to anxiety, depression, and feeling overwhelmed. Learning to cope with these “not good enough” thoughts is a challenging process, but doing so can lead to the successful building of a more intentional, value-driven life.
Negative thoughts aren’t problematic unless we believe what our minds are telling us and then react to them. We can learn to observe these thoughts and to change our relationship with and reactivity to them. By doing this, we have space from which we can make value-based choices. This doesn’t involve ignoring negative thoughts, as they will continue to be there. Rather, it involves becoming free from their shackles such that we can move in the direction we want to go. After all, we are more than just our thoughts; our thoughts alone don’t define us. We can disentangle from our inner critics and progress in a way that is consistent with our chosen life direction.
The most distressing negative thought that many high tech professionals share with me is their “imposter syndrome.” It involves thinking, “if only they knew the true me, I wouldn’t be here.” The “I’m incompetent” or “I’m not good enough” thoughts can take over and may hold you back from pursuing what’s important to you. Imposter syndrome is widespread at every level, and most people have it at times in their lives. Your CEO may not think she is qualified, the VC who funded you may believe he was just “lucky” to be in his role, and your head of finance may not think he understands accounting well enough to be in his position. So how do you overcome these thoughts?
What doesn’t help is to argue with your inner critic, or to think rationally about these negative thoughts. You already know you didn’t just end up as the CEO or a VP of engineering because you are incompetent. The idea isn’t to “feel better” or to make these thoughts “go away,” although that can happen as a byproduct. Rather, what helps is to observe your thoughts and to separate yourself from them to allow greater flexibility in your behaviors and actions.
The best coping strategies in this situation come from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Some ideas from this therapy include:
- Watch your thoughts like they are leaves floating on a stream or trains leaving the station. Put your thoughts in bubbles and watch them pop. Consider them like pop-up ads that won’t stop coming up on your computer screen. Think of them like words on a karaoke screen. You are separate from your thoughts; they are words, and they don’t need to control you and dictate your actions. These tools to look at your thoughts, notice them, and let them come and go are from Steven Hayes’ book Get Out of Your Mind and into Your Life.
- Use “Songify.” It’s an app with which you turn the words you speak into a song using a songification technology. Try singing your inner critic thoughts to various tunes/melodies. If you keep playing “I’m incompetent” over and over again to music in the background, especially to songs by Adele or Michael Jackson, these negative thoughts will eventually lose their power over you. You can’t just think about doing this, but you need to actually experience it to understand its potential effect.
- Cover your face with your hands. Imagine your hands are your thoughts, and they are covering you. They are saying “you are incompetent,” and you can’t see anything but your hands. What if you walked around like this all day? What you would not be able to see or do? How could you listen to your coworker or connect with your partner? You can lower your hands and have so much more freedom in your life. Know your thoughts are there, but decide to not let them control you. Learn about this tool in this book by Russ Harris.
We can’t silence our inner critic for good, but what we can do is listen to it and choose not to react to it in a way that detracts from valued living. By using some of these ACT strategies, you can form a new relationship with your self-critical thoughts such that they will no longer exert control over your life. Doing so will lead to a life centered more around actions that inspire you and less around your uncontrollable negative mind-train.