Let’s start off this article with a conversation about that voice in your head. You know the one. The voice that keeps coming back with the warning, “don’t say that idea out loud because people will think you are stupid or crazy.” Or, another favorite, “you have to be kidding me, you know you can’t speak in front of an audience – you will look like a fool.” You know that voice… and it has a lot more to say on any number things – and none of it is good. This is the voice of your inner critic.
So what exactly is an inner critic? According to the Good Therapy Blog, the inner critic is “an inner voice that judges, criticizes, or demeans a person whether or not the self-criticism is objectively justified”. A highly active inner critic can be paralyzing – it can take a toll on one’s emotional well-being, self-esteem – and in some cases, it can cause individuals to seek help from a therapist or counselor to help balance thought patterns and change their mindset.
Jerry Seinfeld has done a standup routine where he joked that people’s number one fear is public speaking. Their number two fear is death. So, they would rather be in a casket than giving the eulogy.
And it’s true. Chapman University conducted a recent survey that uncovered America’s top fears. Among those were: corrupt government officials, pollution of oceans, rivers, and lakes, and cyber-terrorism. However, at the top of personal anxieties is the fear of public speaking, well above the fear of death, as Seinfeld joked.
THE RELIABLE INNER CRITIC
That inner critic of yours never goes on vacation – it’s there continually giving opinions on anything and everything you do. In speaking, the closer you get to the time you have to present, the louder and more incessant the critic becomes. For many people, they can get sick from the stress that the critic brings their way. Whether you are in front of an audience or sharing thoughts during a meeting, all you can see or think about are all those eyeballs leveled at you. While at the same time, your inner critic is constantly telling you how you are going to fail. So what can you do? How do you overcome this fear and silence the inner critic?
Improvisation!!! Yes! And by employing the principles of improvisation, you will overcome the fear, and silence the critic every time!
Improv will help you change the conversation in your head and start programming your brain to use “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but…”. Why does this matter? Think about the difference between “but” vs. “and”. Using “but” introduces a contrasting thought and stops the other in its tracks. Using “And” instead, connects one idea with the other – allowing both to be considered jointly. So, for instance, you could be saying to yourself, “yes, you have been asked to give this presentation, but you’ll do awful.” Or, you could turn it into the following, “yes, you have been asked to give this presentation, and you can do it.” Just a slight change in words and tone from “but” to “and” has an immediate and positive impact on your confidence, self-esteem and self- worth.
For example, consider the classic children’s story, “The Little Engine That Could”. It teaches this very principle. Each of the different locomotives in the story could be considered inner critics – each pointing out why the little engine couldn’t accomplish the task at hand. Eventually, the little engine, which had been told she wasn’t fast enough, big enough, or powerful enough, was the best locomotive for an important job. Despite the doubts and criticism, the train, as we all know, repeatedly chanted to herself, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.” And she did.
“You’re not fast enough,” “You’re not smart enough,” “You’re not interesting enough.” “You’re NOT ENOUGH”! The inner critic needs to be reprimanded and corrected for this. And guess what? You have the power to do it. Tell yourself, “I can do this,” and the more times you repeat it, the more you will believe it. This positive programming of the brain is real and can be used to overcome your immediate fears. The more you say it, the more you will silence that droning voice of doom that cycles through all your fears: “You can’t do this, you don’t know what you’re talking about, you’re a fraud, you’re going to fail, something will go wrong…” STOP!
THE PERFECT INNER CRITIC
This last part of the inner critic’s diatribe, “something will go wrong…” is very likely to come true, however. Why? Because we expect ourselves to be perfect. But there is no such thing as perfection. Of course you will make a mistake, probably more than one. Remember however, that most of the time, unless it’s a real blooper, the only person who knows about it is you. Your listeners and audiences won’t see it or hear it – only you and your inner critic.
When you’re overly focused on perfection, you can go into a downhill spiral if you make even a minor mistake, such as forgetting to make one of your less important points. If you maintain your confidence, something like that won’t trip you up. It would be best if you accepted the fact that you will make some slips. Think of them as opportunities to learn to do even better and roll with them… this is what keeps us interesting and interested.
Also, keep in mind, a certain amount of vulnerability goes a long way in winning over your audience. An excellent example of this is a TED talk given by Megan Washington, a premier Australian singer/songwriter. When she opens her speech, you are immediately aware that she has a speech impediment or stutter. She says that, while she has no qualms about singing in front of people, she has a mortal dread of public speaking. Throughout the presentation, the audience watches her struggle from time to time to get certain words out, but it doesn’t matter. Her vulnerability warmed the audience to her, keeping them engaged up until the moment she disclosed a deeply personal fact: you can’t stutter when you sing. At this point, she plays and sings a beautiful song superbly, ending with a roaring applause from the audience.
While we may not have the opportunity to leverage a vulnerability like this, it’s important to remember: the inner critic will tell you far more than you need to know, and it is not true. You will hear what you cannot do or how you will screw up. And here is what you can tell that naysayer: “Yes, I know I will make mistakes, And they will not hamper me. Yes, I will not be perfect, And that means I can only get better.” Even today, whenever I get up in front of an audience, I get butterflies, AND I can control them now and make them flutter in the direction of my choice.
REASONING WITH INNER CRITIC
With all this bad-mouthing of the inner critic – it does serve a purpose. If I were to consider delivering a speech on nuclear physics, I would hope that my inner critic would start screaming at me long before I stood at the podium. However, the critic doesn’t know when to shut up; that’s where you need to train it. You might know enough about a topic to deliver a decent speech, but the critic keeps nagging: “Your nose hair is showing. Your tie is crooked. What a nitwit.” If you pay too much attention, the prophecies of failure could come true. You get hung up on your shortcomings rather than focusing on your strengths.
Sometimes the key is just to confront it: “Shut up! Shut up!” You can accomplish this through the “yes, and…” approach of improv. “Yes, I hear what you’re saying, And I’m going to do it anyway.” The critic may still try to undermine you but not as loudly. You’ll build up self-esteem. You’ll feel confident. Now go and do it!
If you would like to know more and /or discuss on ways to silence your inner critic and become more confident in your presentations and meetings, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.