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3 Steps to Tame Your Inner Critic

Rein in that negative voice and move into action. Plus, tips for leaders.

One of the most powerful findings from our recent research project, The Voice of Women at Work 2023, was that the biggest challenge women are facing when it comes to their careers is confidence and moments of self-doubt, with 53 percent affected. The majority of women said that the most common holding them back from reaching their potential is their harsh inner critic.

We wanted to dig deeper into women’s experience of the inner critic and so we asked the women we surveyed to identify the stories their inner critic was telling them and here’s what they said:

  • I have to prove myself (62 percent)
  • I need to know everything (56 percent)
  • I’m not good enough (53 percent)
  • I’m not smart enough (45 percent)
  • I’m an imposter (35 percent)
  • I don’t have what it takes to lead (35 percent)
  • Nobody listens to me (29 percent)
  • I don’t belong (26 percent)
  • I don’t deserve to be here (21 percent)
  • Men don’t take me seriously (21 percent)
  • My gender holds me back (13 percent)

We know that when women have these critical stories and repetitive negative patterns playing in their heads, it affects the way they show up and the actions they take in the workplace. Here is a simple three-step process that you can use to help tame your inner critic.

Step 1: Catch the Story

Of the 1200 women we surveyed for our research, we all have stories that limit us, send us spiraling into imposter syndrome, and fire up the inner critic.

There are some common patterns that psychologists have discovered through their research particularly challenge our well-being, resilience, and importantly, our confidence. Karen Reivich from the Penn Positive Psychology Center has identified the following stories, finding that we often tell them when things aren’t going as well as we would like:

  • “I’m not good enough.” This can make us feel embarrassed and to withdraw and avoid challenges or conversations.
  • “I’m letting people down.” Or, “I should never have done that.” This leads us to feel guilty and makes us be too nice and over-correct our behaviour.
  • “I’m in over my head.” Or, “I’m an imposter.” This brings us into imposter syndrome, leaving us feeling anxious, over-prepared, and even panicked.
  • “I’m going to be harmed.” Or, “That’s not fair.” This can cause anger and lead us to take decisive action that may have negative consequences.
  • “I’m such a loser.” Or, “It’s all my fault.” This leaves us feeling sad, helpless, and overwhelmed.

Step 2: Challenge the Story by Asking, “Is That True?”

We all experience a stream of automatic thoughts, which much of the time, we are unaware of and may accept unquestioningly. Cognitive restructuring describes the process by which we can re-train the way we think, one traditional approach is that thoughts can be examined for bias or inaccuracy and then replaced with more balanced thoughts.

The way to do this is simply by asking the question: “Is that true?”

The goal in challenging our stories is not to delude ourselves with untruths. It’s to find equally plausible explanations and tune in to how each alternative causes us to think, feel, and act. Then, we can consciously choose to invest our energy in the stories that leave us feeling more genuinely confident.

Step 3: Reframe Into Action

Once you’ve challenged the story by looking for equally plausible explanations and you’ve found an alternative story that has you feeling more confident and empowered, it’s time to take action.

Based on your new and empowering story, what’s the next step?

A helpful thing to know when it comes to taking action is that more important than believing in your abilities, is the belief you can improve your abilities. This is what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck refers to as a growth mindset, and it will be your greatest ally in taming that negative voice and moving into action.

Let’s look at an example to see what this three-step process looks like in practice.

Mary would like to apply for a new role as the head of new technology development at the bank where she works. But she is hesitating from putting herself forward.

As she works through the cognitive restructuring process, here’s what comes to light.

  • Step 1: Catch the Story. Mary: “I only have eight out of the ten skills required for that promotion. I’m not going to apply for the role.”
  • Step 2: Challenge the Story by Asking, “Is That True?” Mary: “Yes it’s true, but I can learn the other skills on the job. And I have other skills that will add value.”
  • Step 3: Reframe Into Action. Mary: “You know, I am capable and worthy of this opportunity. I’m going to apply for the role.”

Tips for Leaders

  • Foster an Open Environment. Encourage open dialogue and assure your team that sharing vulnerabilities or fears is a strength, not a weakness. This will help women express their inner critic stories, making them easier to address and rectify.
  • Provide Constructive Feedback. Instead of just pointing out areas of improvement, provide actionable advice on how to grow. Reinforce their strengths to combat “I’m not good enough.”
  • Promote a Growth Mindset. Remind your team members that skills can be developed over time. Share stories of personal growth and resilience, and encourage them to embrace challenges as learning opportunities.
  • Initiate Mentoring and Peer Coaching. Pairing experienced team members with those who are less experienced can help address imposter syndrome. Peer validation and guidance can diminish feelings of self-doubt.
  • Recognize Efforts, Not Just Outcomes. By recognising and appreciating the efforts, you can prevent team members from feeling like failures when they face challenges. This will support a more positive narrative.
  • Organise Confidence-Building Workshops. Invite experts in positive psychology and cognitive restructuring to train your team. Practical exercises and tools can help women tackle their inner critic stories head-on.

Remember, as a leader, your support can make a significant difference in how women combat their inner critics, ultimately fostering a healthier and more productive workplace environment.


The Women Rising program is a tested curriculum that helps women overcome confidence and inner critic challenges.

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