According to Harvard scholars Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, our minds have similar defenses that our bodies do. Faced with change, each of us has something like a psychological immune system that works to maintain homeostasis in the ways we think, feel, and behave. Try to disrupt your habitual patterns, and it will kick in and attack the change like white blood cells going after a pathogen.
Much as we think we're committed to change, our minds are unconsciously committed to staying the same.
In my own work with managers and leaders, I've noticed that one way this type of mental autoimmunity shows up is in the form of an inner critic, the judgmental voice that assesses our worth and compares us to others. "This shouldn’t be so hard. What’s wrong with you?" it says, undermining every incremental effort toward our goal. "You’ll never look like her," it whispers when we hit the gym.
Sometimes, the inner critic sneakily switches its strategy and lulls us into complacency with praise: "You listened so well in the meeting yesterday. Take a break today," or, "It’s good that you gave up. You didn’t need to change in the first place."
Just as a person suffering from an autoimmune disease needs an immunosuppressant, the inner critic needs a psychological antidote to hold it at bay. Nearly 20 years after it was published, author Byron Brown’s 1998 book, Soul Without Shame, is just as useful for ridding ourselves of the inner critic. Here's an adapted version of Brown's four-step process for recognizing those defenses against changing habits and finally getting past them.
The inner critic can be so close psychologically that you don’t even know it’s there. Identifying it takes vigilance and practice. Start to notice when you feel the need to justify yourself and whenever you sense shame, dread, or defeat. Are you being ridiculed by the inner critic, or suffering after it's already nagged at you unawares? Simply recognizing that you’re under attack can help you start to regain some power.
The critic likes to trot out beliefs we've internalized, usually from our early environment, and clarifying the nature and origin of that critique can loosen its grip. What's the nature of the message? Who does it sound like? You may even have an "aha" moment like, "My father gave me a hard time when I didn’t catch onto something right away. It’s like he’s here right now rolling his eyes at me."
People who suffer from autoimmune disease don’t benefit from thinking about, arguing with, or having compassion for their overactive white blood cells. They have to take steps to stop the attack, and that's exactly what we need to do with our inner critics. Once you recognize and identify the attack, defend yourself. Start with short, strong statements like, "Back off!" or "Quit messing with my goals!" You can say it silently in your head, but if you're someplace no one will hear you, go ahead and shout it!
Dr. Amy Cuddy’s recent research suggests that body language can also help you mount a defense against self-doubt. Posture not only impacts the way others perceive us, but the way we perceive and experience ourselves. There's evidence that "power posing"—assuming an expansive, open posture—can raise testosterone, lower the stress hormone cortisol, and lead to more confident behavior. Your inner critic will usually leave you feeling physically deflated or collapsed. So take a stand—quite literally—against it: Get on your feet and move your arms and legs if it feels right. If you’re in a situation where you need to stay seated, you can straighten your spine, roll your shoulders, butterfly your knees, or make some other move that gives you space rather than leaves you feeling hunched and small.
According to Brown, "Disengaging from self-judgment is done specifically so that you can be in a place of greater self-truth. Having defended against your judge, you have the space and safety to be present with your experience, free of rejection, prejudice, or blame." Clearing that murky cloud of shame and self-doubt lets you consider your situation more objectively. Perhaps you did fail miserably at your goal for today, but so what? You can try again tomorrow. You might even discover that you’re doing pretty darn well after all.
Some claim the inner critic is a disguised ally with our best intentions in mind. This is true, in the sense that it's part of our psychological immune system, working to maintain the status quo and shelter us from the risks of change. But when it comes to making the really important changes—the ones that matter most to your health, your relationships, and your success—your inner critic is not your friend.
Christina Congleton, EdM, is principal at Axon Leadership, an organizational change and leadership development consultancy. She has researched mindfulness and the brain at Massachusetts General Hospital.