The Inner Critic: Acknowledging, Accepting, and Taming It

“People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

(I initially wrote this piece in mid December 2022. And then held off publishing it as I feared it might be too personal – i.e ‘sharing TMI’. Upon reflection, I hope it humanizes the struggles that many of us face even when life is really good overall.)

All of us have an inner critic. At times it gets louder. My inner critic slowly and steadily gained strength from October through December 2022. It manifested as very low motivation and not wanting to engage in the ‘responsibilities of my life.’ As a result, I spent much more time on social media (particularly Twitter) and watching television (Netflix or sports).

Two factors influenced the ramp-up in my inner critic and the familiar challenge I am feeling right now.


Heightened Expectations

In December 2022, those heightened expectations were about making ‘the holidays’ special. I suspect the pressure of the holidays applies to most of us who are socially “Judeo-Christian” even if, like me, those who grew up with other traditions. This pressure is particularly acute if you have children, and even more so if you are their mother. We are reminded by the media (TV, movies, social media, advertising, etc.) of the importance of cooking special meals, planning exciting activities, having the right decorations (inside the home and outside), and buying personal and meaningful gifts for everyone. I know I can’t get all of this “right,” even when I try.


Reflecting On Time That Has Passed

The second factor is the year-end. Like a birthday, New Year’s Day is a marker of the passage of time. The passage of time reminds us to take stock of what we have achieved in life. And if you are anything like me, the inner voice reminds me that I have fallen short against several of the goals I set out to achieve one year ago.


Fear of Danger Ahead

The inner critic conveys the feeling of “danger ahead.” For me (and others) that shows up as ‘anxiety’ — the unsettled and strong feeling in the bottom of the chest and top of the stomach that something is wrong. Fear about the future fuels self-doubt. I start to think that regardless of what I do, I will not be able to meet the needs of others I care about or achieve my own goals.


Reverting to the Familiar

Amidst uncertainty and fear, all of us revert to the familiar. For me the familiar is to ‘freeze.’ I defer decisions, procrastinate, hope things will magically happen, or that the perfect answer will reveal itself. For others, the familiar reaction might be ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ or ‘fawn.’ The familiar feels safe (in the moment) even though it is at odds with our goals. I know that doing nothing and avoiding decisions will not help me accomplish my relationship, health, or work goals.


Are Finance Leaders More Prone to the Inner Critic?

The job of a finance leader is to think of what could be, how the future might turn out and what all could go wrong in a business. We know the world is uncertain. And yet, we are regularly asked to forecast the future (some CEOs call it ‘looking around corners’). And then to update the prior forecast with a new, more accurate one when things don’t go according to the plan (which is usually the case). Finally we are given the mandate to put in place processes to reduce or offset future risks.

While I have not seen any data suggesting finance leaders are more impacted by uncertainty, it seems probable given our job is to both recognize uncertainty and then somehow create plans to reduce the negative impacts of uncertainty.

The reality is most finance leaders can not fix or upgrade business execution. At least not directly. We are not directly responsible for building the product (product or engineering), hiring the people (talent) or finding, acquiring, and retaining customers (marketing, sales, customer success).


Top Performers are Their Own Harshest Critics

If you are reading this post, it is likely you have high standards for yourself. For those familiar with self-reviews (part of a performance management process), a recurring pattern is that the ‘best performing’ employees and those with the most upside potential are hardest on themselves.

Finance is a role where mistakes (errors in spreadsheets or in graphs/charts) are usually clear (little dispute that an error was made).  And often these ‘honest mistakes’ appear in documents reviewed by both important insiders (leadership team members) and important outsiders (investors, lenders, tax authorities, etc.) So the pressure to get things right is even greater. Mistakes are also easier to recall.


Acknowledging, Accepting, and Taming the Inner Critic

I am able to publish this piece because I have started the process of acknowledging, accepting, and taming the inner critic.

Acknowledging consists of my sharing with those who ask that I feel unmotivated. And then getting curious about why. Most importantly, letting myself say aloud that I don’t know why and I am unsure what to do to change things. Saying I don’t know relieves some of the pressure to quickly implement a fix.

Accepting involves embracing the uncertainty of life. I remind myself that I don’t know how my future will turn out, and that almost nothing I do right this minute will help me become a better prognosticator. I read a short quote by Ben Carlson recently which captured this sentiment perfectly: Self-confidence…..comes from being comfortable with uncertainty.”

Given my privileged situation, the reality is that things will be ok. I remind myself over the last several days of the line spoken by Dev Patel in the movie called Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Taming the inner critic, for me, involves getting out of my mind. At least for a little while each day. By getting out of my mind, I mean not thinking about the future, what might happen, what I have to do next, and what could go wrong. Instead I work on just feeling what is happening in my body — when I do that I am forced to be more in the present.

My personal hacks to get into my body are:

  1. Exercise at a level of intensity that isn’t too easy, nor too hard. I also walk my dogs two or three times each day.
  2. I leave my phone behind (when it is daylight) and simply try to notice what is happening in nature and put words to my sensory experiences.
  3. I also find a lot of comfort by trying to help others. Being present to witness the suffering of others requires several skills — (i) listening fully without judgment, (ii) empathetic responses involving acceptance of where they are at; and, (iii) reframing or pointing out possible opportunities to make lemonade out of lemons.

The great thing is that these skills are helpful in addressing my challenges (if I can simply remember to apply them to myself). And practicing these skills with others serves as a reminder of my self worth.


Embrace the Upward Spiralinner critic upward spiral

Taming the inner critic does not imply permanently defeating it. The best visual metaphor I have found for my life is an upward spiral. There is progress for sure. And it is important to regularly acknowledge the progress.

But progress does mean that we are moving on a straight line, always up and to the right. Periodically, we will come back around to a similar situation or trigger that created trouble in the past.


Give Yourself a Break and Make a Credit List

I will end by sharing two things I have learned from people close to me which have helped me. 

First, give yourself a break. I recall a saying I learned from Linda during our active parenting years…When errors occurred, she reminded our boys, “Who makes mistakes?…Everyone.” We repeated that phrase aloud. Great advice.

Many of us worry that others are evaluating our behavior constantly. But the reality is most of us are self-centered—daydreaming, ruminating, or staring at our phones. Each of us puts the spotlight on ourselves, much more than anyone else is actually doing.

Second, make a credit list. This is simply a way of remembering all the positive accomplishments we have made in a day, week, month or year. High performers seem to be programmed to take the good for granted. It is a good exercise in self care to regularly make yourself a credit list.

Setting high expectations for personal performance is totally fine. Just remember not to be unreasonable. And to celebrate all the wins along the way. There are always many worth celebrating.

Aditya Dehejia

Adi’s experiences as a CFO and HR leader in start-up companies inspired him to start the CxO Leadership Accelerator. He saw firsthand the challenges in building a satisfying career, the importance of leaders in developing people, and the difficulty in building broad business acumen while excelling in your functional role. Prior to his operating career in start-ups, Adi held roles in a growth capital investment firm and in the corporate development and strategy department at a Fortune 500 company. Adi is an active volunteer mentor in the FirstRound Capital and TechStars networks as well as within his University alumni communities. Adi was born in India and immigrated to the US at age ten. He attended Princeton University (graduated with a degree in Politics) and the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He lives in the suburbs of New York City and has two adult sons and two lovable, crazy dogs.

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