Slay the dragon - take action to tame the inner critic

Karen Natzel, BridgeTower Media Newswires

In a previous column, I wrote about the frustrations leaders face and how to channel them for good. I noted the source of our frustrations is often not others, but ourselves. Passionate, goal-oriented people tend to have a penchant for continuous improvement and often face a demanding inner critic.

We all have an internal small voice that questions and challenges us. If it were to do so productively, it could be an ally. Unfortunately, it often does more harm than good, manifesting not as a worthy collaborator, but as an intense and relentless critic. Instead of a constructive dialogue, it can dissolve into berating and result in a demoralizing mindset and a counter-productive belief system.

It’s a double-edged sword; historically we’ve leveraged that critic to make improvements, to fortify our commitments, to buckle down and get stuff done. It feels like it has served us in getting unstuck and delivering at a higher potential. And it can work, for the short term. We can dig deep and deliver. However, the long-term impact is an erosion of self-worth and a reduced capacity to excel.

The inner critic doesn’t always scream its disapproval. Sometimes the messages are subtler. The general mantra is basically: “you’re not good enough.” The inner critic’s tone often feels chastising, creating a nagging sense of unworthiness or incompetence. What if, however, you could shift the tone? What if you could reframe the inner critic’s message to become a pathway for learning and growth? To do that, we must first raise our awareness of when, what and how the inner critic speaks; we must seek to understand the inner critic’s fears, so that we may earn the true, quiet confidence that comes with self-acceptance.


What’s behind the inner critic?

The inner critic is the fear-based shadow of our ego. We resist making mistakes for fear of looking foolish, being ridiculed or suffering rejection. We place unyielding expectations on ourselves, without tangible benefits that the approach is working for us. We mistake the inner critic bullying as acceptable disciplinary action for our failures or shortcomings. It’s almost as if the act of reprimanding ourselves is somehow proof that we are committed to our betterment.

Giving our inner critic too much air time in our heads diminishes our abilities to be effective, assured and energized. It’s the ego’s way of leading with fear and resistance. How does it show up? We procrastinate, we seek perfection and control, we feel doubtful and indecisive, we employ excuses and justifications, we avoid difficult conversations, we don’t ask questions, and we make others wrong. Ironically, we play it safe by holding back from giving our best, leaving us wiggle room for our rationalizations. Playing small may temporarily quiet the fears of the ego, but it fails to give us the sense of pride and accomplishment that fosters self-trust.

In the book “Do the Work,” Steven Pressfield states, “On the field of the Self, stand a knight and a dragon. You are the knight. Resistance is the dragon.” Resistance is what stands between ourselves and our potential. Slaying the dragon requires dismantling the resistance that prevents us from doing our best. When we decide to change some pattern of conduct in ourselves, resistance rears its head. Pressfield states resistance is strongest when we make an “... act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health or integrity.” He also contends that “you are not allowed to judge yourself” as it interferes with hearing, honoring and developing our powerful creative force.


What’s the risk?

Many people fear that if they befriend their inner critic, they will lose their edge. They will no longer deliver outstanding results, or they will be perceived as “soft” by “going easy on oneself” or even “lazy.” They have been indoctrinated to believe that the most effective path for improvement is tough self-love, cracking the whip, or demanding more of ourselves. Let me be clear: I am a fan of delivering outcomes that inspire my clients. When I nail a coaching session, workshop, keynote, facilitation or organizational assessment, I am on fire! Successfully accomplishing a complex and challenging assignment is immensely rewarding. The real risk is not complacency or mediocracy, but injury to the ego. Negative self-talk sabotages our psyche, putting ourselves in a position of victim rather than power, accountability and possibility.


How can I tame the inner critic?

“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl Rogers


Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at 503-806-4361 or


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