What Is the Inner Critic? When I talk about the inner critic or the voice of “not-me," I'm speaking about the voice in our heads characterized by the 11 qualities that follow. You probably won't notice all 11 qualities in everything your voice of self-doubt says, but you'll usually notice at least a few of these qualities when it speaks.

1. It's harsh, rude, or mean.

When you hear a voice in your head saying harsh things to you that you would never intend to say to a person you love, you're hearing the inner critic.

2. It's binary.

The inner critic is a black-and-white thinker. You are awesome or you are pathetic. You are gorgeous or ugly. You are a fabulous friend or a horrible one. Your dreams are possible or they aren't. When the inner critic speaks, there's usually no room for gray.

3. Ostensibly, it's the voice of reason.

This voice argues for what seems to be in your best interest, what is realistic and effective. For example, If you go forward with the book, you'll ruin your reputation. Your work isn't ready for that level of scrutiny. Better to hold off for a while. Or You are much better off studying someone else's theories and approach to this kind of consulting work before you pitch potential clients. People won't take you seriously unless you are steeped in a well-known method. Your own ideas aren't enough.

4. It's the voice of “You aren't ready yet."

For women, this voice often manifests as You aren't ready yet. You need another degree. You need more time to prepare. You need more experience.

5. It's the voice of "You aren't good at math/negotiating/ technical stuff."

For many women, the voice of self-doubt shows up most strongly around those skills and activities that are associated with masculinity in our culture and, unconsciously, often in our own minds. This includes quantitative skills, negotiation, technical tasks, financial matters, and — unfortunately — sometimes leadership more broadly.

6. It's the voice of body-perfectionism.

Another common expression of this voice is self-critical thoughts around body, weight, appearance, or aging. You aren't attractive anymore. Oh my God, look at your upper arms. You look fat in this. You need to lose ten pounds, by yesterday.

7. It's the tape.

The inner critic's voice often feels like an audio tape that's running automatically in your head, rather than like thoughts you consciously author and generate. It may even feel as if the critic tape invades and interrupts your own thinking.

8. It's a broken record.

The inner critic will come up with new lines from time to time, but it also tends to rehash a few core narratives it has been repeating to you for decades.

9. It's irrational but persistent.

Often we know that what the fearful voice in our heads says is irrational, yet it still has power over us.

10. It's the one-two punch.

The one-two punch goes like this. Let's say first, the inner critic starts mumbling to you about how everyone else in the room has it more together than you do. Then the critic follows up with Get a grip, get some perspective. Or What is wrong with you? Other people are confident and relaxed … just look over there, at Susan …

In other words, the critic first attacks you with critical thoughts, and then shames you for having those thoughts. That is its one-two punch.

11. The inner critic may take inspiration from critical people in your life.

You may hear echoes of a critical parent, a sibling, or a boss in your inner critic's voice. Or you may hear echoes of the ethos of major cultural forces such as your religion, company, or country. Our outer critics come to exist inside our own heads.

The Inner Critic versus Realistic Thinking

Often women say to me, "But there are things I'm truly not qualified for, or not good at. How do I know if I'm hearing my inner critic talking or if I'm just being realistic?"

That's a really important question, because, of course, there are things we aren't ready for and we all have weaknesses in our abilities. In addition to using the list of the 11 qualities of the inner critic's voice, here's how you can tell the difference between the irrational inner critic and solid realistic thinking.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher from Playing Big, which is available where books are sold.


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