Be like everyone else, but better
The role of the inner critic in our lives and how we can tame it
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At a glance
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The strive of fitting in to stand out and the psychological phenomenon of comparison.
Upward and downward comparison and the impact of social comparison.
The commentator in your head; the voice that incessantly comments on your life.
Taming the inner critic through awareness, acknowledgement, observation and letting go.
Let me know: Who is stronger in you, the inner critic or the inner coach?
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Do you remember your first school backpack? I don’t. It wasn’t a big thing where I went to school.
I also didn’t think much of it before my kids went to school. Then, a few months before the first day of school, some parents with school kids recommended us to buy one from Ergobag. “It’s important to get that exact brand!”
In my case, that would have been the product of choice anyway. It’s a backpack from a company from Cologne, and I know the founders and quite a few people that work there.
Then the first day of school came. I remember it very well. 95% of the kids came with an Ergobag. Wow!
That’s not only amazing from a business perspective, it’s also fascinating from a psychological point of view.
All the parents wanted to make sure that their kids were given the best possible start in life in terms of social skills, as well as making sure they had the "right" brand of backpack for their children.
They all wanted their kid to fit in.
On a related note that seems totally unrelated:
My 9-year-old nephew participated in the BMX European Cup in Verona (Italy) this weekend. The best riders from all over Europe - across all ages - come together to race. He is the reigning German champion in his age group.
For context a quick primer on the competition: The race goes through several rounds of elimination. Each batch has eight riders. The top four qualify for the next round. This continues until the final eight, who then battle for the trophy. Throughout the year, there are six weekends with two races each. The best of all 12 races will win the European Cup.
Naturally, it was the big topic in our family chat throughout the weekend. Every time he was in the race, we watched the live stream and celebrated each round that he succeeded.
On Saturday, he came in third place. On Sunday, he crashed in the final - while in third position - because of an error of another rider. He ended up in 7th place. For him, that wasn’t good enough. He is a competitor that is striving for the win.
He wanted to stand out.
Fit in, to stand out
What ties both stories above together? Can you spot it?
The first one talks about fitting in, the other about standing out. Both are forces pulling in opposite directions of the same psychological phenomenon: Comparison.
Let me explain.
Comparison is a tension between conformity and competition. It is a force that wants us to fit in, to stand out. Rise above others while still feeling part of the group.
We may pursue the same career path, wear similar clothing styles, and drive a similar car. However, we still want to stand out in some way.
But we aren’t just comparing ourselves to anyone. Instead, we are placing ourselves in a group that we perceive as being "alike".
We don't compare our running time with Usain Bolt's. We’d compare it with a friend who runs at a similar pace.
We are not comparing our house to the Taj Mahal, but we do tend to compare it to our neighbors'.
And when at the gym, we are not trying to beat the world record for lifting weights. We are just checking how the person working out next to us is doing.
You get the point.
We tend to compare ourselves to people who we perceive as similar to us in some way, whether it's our age, gender, hobbies, interests, status, or abilities.
These social comparisons can happen unconsciously and automatically, without us realizing it. In fact, even when we don't consciously intend to compare ourselves to others, our minds still make these comparisons without us being aware of it.
It's only natural. We want to measure ourselves against others to see where we stand.
Comparing up or down
Comparisons can be made upward or downward.
Upward comparisons involve comparing ourselves to someone we perceive as better, while downward comparisons involve comparing ourselves to someone we perceive as worse.
We intuitively assume that upward comparisons make us feel inadequate and downward comparisons make us feel superior.
However, that’s not the case. Both comparisons can make us happy or unhappy.
Upward comparisons can inspire or discourage us, while downward comparisons can boost our ambition or make us feel down.
Nevertheless, it’s not evenly distributed.
Several studies have shown that frequent social comparisons are linked to negative emotions of fear, anger, shame, and sadness and feelings of inadequacy, envy, and self-doubt.
There is ample evidence that social comparison can be detrimental to self-esteem and well-being.
We have all experienced how social media can amplify that effect. The platforms are engineered for social comparison and getting validation.
It’s challenging to be active on those platforms and not compare our own lives to the curated, idealized lives of others. Especially, as comparing ourselves to others is not something we can just stop.
But this is not a post exploring the pros and cons of social media.
Instead, let’s look at who is actually doing the comparing.
The commentator in your head
If you pay close attention, you will find that there is somebody else “living” (with you) in your head.
This voice is constantly blathering, nearly without pause. About the rain outside, the new shoes you need, the light bulb you still have to change, the beautiful dress of the woman across the street, how annoying it is that he isn’t writing back, how to respond next time my aunt says that thing, the weird taste you still have in your mouth, how you again didn’t do sports this week, the bill that is due, etc.
It’s an internal monologue, which comments on the ongoing stream of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that we experience.
Often times, that voice in our head doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. It can say something now and contradict itself a minute later. But that doesn’t deter it. It just goes on. The one thing it doesn’t do, is stop. Just like a radio that you cannot turn off.
The commentator in our heads can take on various roles. It can be the narrator of our lives, merely commenting on what is happening around us. This can be the inner critic, which evaluates and judges us, or the inner coach, which motivates and supports us.
It’s not something that we are born with. It grows over time. A by-product of our upbringing, culture, environment, experiences and conditioning that shapes our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors and is thus closely related to our sense of self.
As social comparison tends toward negativity, the commentator, when comparing, often assumes the role of the inner critic that gives negative, judgmental, and self-critical comments.
While the inner critic can be harsh and negative, it often has positive intentions. It wants to protect us from failure, rejection, or embarrassment.
If we look closely, we realize that more often than not, the comments are not a reflection of reality but a manifestation of our fears, insecurities, and experiences. Internalized messages from our parents, teachers, or peers that we are not good enough or that we need to constantly strive for perfection. Influenced by the media and advertising that promote unrealistic standards of beauty, success, and happiness.
Understanding this makes it easier to see how it is often a source of stress, anxiety, and self-doubt.
I would even argue that the inner critic is the main thing that stands between us and experiencing a calm mind. Or - if you prefer those terms - inner peace and happiness.
But how can we tame the inner critic?
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Taming the inner critic
After working with entrepreneurs for 15 years - many of whom have been very successful based on objective measures - I know that they all experience and sometimes suffer from this inner critic. Most likely you will too.
Material success doesn’t seem to quiet the voice in our heads. It can lead us to believe that we are failures or frauds, even when objective evidence suggests otherwise.
What can we do about it?
We cannot fully control what happens in the world around us. What happens inside of us, though, should be in our control.
1) Become aware of the commentator in your head
The first step is to become aware of the commentator in your head.
Just the realization that there is a voice in our head constantly commenting on our life can lead to a fundamental paradigm shift regarding our inner world.
Just recently, an entrepreneur I work with thanked me specifically for that realization. It’s astonishing, as we all have that voice. We just don’t realize the dissatisfaction it can cause.
Once you become aware of your inner critic, you can begin to work with it. The continuous dissatisfaction and silent suffering become manageable. Finally, there is something that can be done.
2) Acknowledge the commentator and start to view it as an object
The shift is simple, but not necessarily easy: Start viewing the commentator as an object.
Realize that it’s not you that is talking. It’s a voice that sometimes says useful things, but most of the time is just blathering nonsense.
Through that detachment, we can begin to disidentify with it. That way, we can take what the commentator is saying less personal.
3) Observe the commentator and let it pass
Once we have fully realized that the commentator is not us, we can work on giving it less importance in our lives.
When the inner critic is taking over, practice observing it without getting caught up in its content. Observe without judgement. Just like you would a commentator on the radio.
To develop this habit of observation, mindfulness techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, or body scans can be very helpful. It will increase your self-awareness, the capability you need to genuinely answer the question “How are you, really”.
If mindfulness practices are not for you, try bringing your attention back to the present moment whenever the commentator is particularly active. Focus on your breath, your surroundings, or engage in a simple activity like washing dishes.
From that place of presence, practice observing the inner critic without judgement.
If you must listen to the voice, then try to do so with a sense of amusement rather than involvement. More of a “look, there it goes again”.
The commentator might not fully disappear, but we will notice that - over time - it will lose its grip on our lives. It fades away like background noise.
Moments that would have led us spiraling into negative self-talk may just pass by. Barely noticed.
In the end, we will realize that the commentator in our heads is just that: a commentator. And that we have a choice whether we want to listen to it or not.
Let me know
Does this resonate with you? Are you aware of a commentator in your head? Which commentator is stronger: The inner critic or the inner coach?
Tell me, by replying to this mail.
Be safe, be healthy, and be kind. 🙏🏽