Silencing your inner critics: making friends with your saboteurs

(Content warning for a small amount of negative self-talk about weight and food).

“I just tried to not let myself go into my head, not listen to those voices that would throw me off.” (A friend talking about staying grounded while doing a performance that wasn’t landing).

And yet, even when I would be finishing 3 hours of high intensity spinning, with energy still left to burn, there was still a part of me that figured that many of the “natural athletes” in the room secretly knew I didn’t belong.” (Nicole, writing about imposter syndrome in a post for this blog a couple of weeks ago).

We all know those inner voices. Sometimes they replay an actual experience from some point in our life — one of mine is a flashback to a guy snottily commenting on how they should “only let fit people on this hike” when I had a hard time climbing up a boulder on a nature walk at a provincial park. Sometimes they’re an amalgam of cultural voices — “sure you can lift 150lbs but you still look like a sausage in that dress, you’re not really fit.” And sometimes they’re a whole carnival we’ve created and perfected that replays until it’s almost an automatic loop.

I’m currently doing a formal certification program for coaching (life and work coaching, not sports), and learning to work with this inner chorus is a big part of our process. In my program, this set of voices is called our “saboteur” — the negative self talk that can show up when you’re trying to change something that matters to you — but that might challenge the “safety” of the status quo. I prefer to use the term one of my friends coined — the “committee of jerks in my head.”

I like labeling these voices jerks, because that’s what they are. They are like those muppet guys in the balcony who sit there criticizing and complaining about everything — the ones who aren’t exposing themselves or putting themselves at risk, just sitting on the sidelines throwing things.

When I’m working with clients and I hear statements like “I’m not as good at this as other people” or “I’m not the kind of person who could be that brave,” I hear a mental “click” that tells me there might be a saboteur at work. Most of the time, saboteurs are linked to pretty deep stuff — our deepest fears about our capability, lovability, fear of being alone. And they help us stay in the places where we might feel unhappy, but we feel safe because it’s familiar.

Statler and Waldorf, the old man muppets, laughing on a continual loop.

Learning to befriend our inner critics is deep stuff. In my coaching and consulting I do a lot of exploring and expanding different perspectives, encouraging people to actually talk back. One way that works for me personally is to be playful with it. Trying to hear your inner self-talk as coming out of the voice of the critical muppets is one way — you can then hold it at arm’s length, see it as something that doesn’t have to be a fixed, intimate part of you. See it as the meme it is — something glib that shows up that you don’t have to give real credibility.

Another thing I personally do is to picture my inner critic — the one who’s always trying to trip me up — is to picture it as a baby hedgehog that’s trying to get under my feet. I made a photo of a baby hedgehog my phone wallpaper for a while — reminding myself that I didn’t have to keep internalizing the fear that was constantly showing up for me, but I could see it as some external being I could have more control over. It’s actually a cuddly little thing trying to protect me — but I can hold it in my hand, be grateful that I’m being reminded that being where I am is “safe,” but I want something different. It actually works.

Cute baby hedgehog I chose to embody some of my deepest fears

I was thinking about saboteurs in the gym the other day, thinking about all of the voices over my life that have made me feel like I didn’t belong there — I’m not a natural athlete, I’m a klutz, I’m fat, I’m slow, I eat too much junk, I can’t translate verbal instructions into physical action, nobody wants me here, nobody likes me.. Fill in your own self-talk here. And then imagine it as a curmudgeonly muppet or a baby hedgehog. And see if that changes anything.

What do you do to silence your inner critics?

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives, works and talks to muppets in Toronto.

15 thoughts on “Silencing your inner critics: making friends with your saboteurs

  1. Great post, Cate. I can relate. And then of course I think Cate’s saboteurs are real jerks because Cate is awesome and strong and works so hard and …! My inner saboteur has one main theme: “you’re not doing enough.” That right there keeps me in a place of disappointment at my efforts unless I stand up to the critic and tell it “I am so doing enough.” Which I do say. But I’m not always convinced.

  2. so, I just started going to a fitness class and I pretty much went through all of the things you wrote the voices saying last night in bed. So, I’m trying to ignore them.

      1. well, evidently they were trying to protect me from a “primary exertional headache” that I got on my second class. Holy cats, I’ve never had such pain. Went to see the doctor about it and he gave me percocet and scheduled a CAT scan.

  3. What a great post, Cate, thanks for sharing! When it comes to fitness, my own internal gremlins like to tell me “You’ve been doing this [insert bouldering, swimming, running as appropriate] for so long now and you still suck/can’t do this/are ridiculously slow”, or “you’ll never be able to do this”. With the latter, I recognise it “protects” me from trying and failing, but what the former is trying to keep me “safe” from, I don’t know.

    1. I have similar gremlins (or hedgehogs!) as the ones you describe. While I’m not sure what they’re trying to “protect” me from, sometimes I’m able to channel my frustrations with not being “good” enough into motivation to work on specific skills that I want to be better at. I also try to remind myself that my standards for myself have gotten higher as I’ve continued to participate in various sports and activities – beginner-me would be impressed at some of the things that current-me thinks I suck at.

  4. I like the idea of thinking of my inner critics as protective but I’m not sure that’s really what they are up to! Where did those voices come from? Where did they get their peculiar script? I’m not sure we just disagree about what’s best for me. But thinking about it. The best posts do that, make us think. So thanks!

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