Rise Up: Taming Your Inner Critic

Sandra works three times as long as she needs to on her files, checking and re-checking and going through countless drafts. She is driven by her fear of making an error. Sandra works long hours in the office but rarely meets her billable target because she consistently edits down her time.

Mary is unhappy. While she enjoys commercial litigation files she is stressed all the time. The partners provide her with positive feedback as do her clients but every time she makes any kind of error she takes it as a sign of failure.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

Some might say the answer is simple. Sandra just needs to take a different approach. Sandra needs to do fewer revisions, record all her time and let the partners decide what needs to be written off.

As for Mary, shouldn’t she just pay attention to the positive feedback from the partners and her peers and realise that she is good at her work?

If only it were so simple.

Sandra and Mary are each in the grip of their inner critic and it is obscuring their judgment.

Home of the inner critic

Your inner critic’s primary habitat is in your brain stem.

Your most ancient neural structure is the brain stem, or “lizard brain”. This rather insulting label reflects the fact that the brain stem functions the same way in you as in a gila monster.
John Media, Brain Rules

Think of this part of your mind as your very own inner reptile.

Your reptile brain has an important role to play. It is the headquarters for the body’s autonomic system which regulates such things as respiration and body temperature. It also has the very important task of watching out for danger. It is on alert to make sure that no tigers are hiding in the bushes waiting to leap out at you.

Your reptile brain perceives danger far before your conscious mind does. In this modern era, when you are unlikely to be wrestling with tigers, it frequently takes a broad view of danger. Danger can become making an error, looking foolish, not being liked, not being respected, losing control and the list goes on.

Once a danger is perceived your body immediately reacts. You might feel tension in your gut, your heartbeat speeds up, and stress hormones course through your body. The reptile alerts the neighbouring section of the brain, the limbic brain or in other words the emotional brain. The emotional brain responds and finally the cerebral cortex becomes aware of the danger.

The inner critic is connected with the reptile brain. To make this connection clear I refer to the critic as your inner reptile. For both Sandra and Mary their inner reptiles are on hyper alert for any potential mistakes. Every error is perceived as a colossal sign of failure.

Reptiles in law firms

Many lawyers I work with struggle with their their inner reptile. The nature of legal practice with high pressure, multiple deadlines and the potential pitfalls of any error, provides the ideal reptile habitat. In my coaching practice at any time about 50% of my clients are grappling with their very own slippery lizards. 

Taming the reptile

If you have a loud and outspoken reptile I have good news for you, you don’t have to live under its power. It is possible to learn to distinguish the voice of your reptile and to choose to ignore it. The following are a series of observational practices you can try out. They function through engaging the power of your cerebral cortex and putting the reptile under the gaze of our reasoning mind. Then you are free to choose if the advice or response you are getting from the reptile is sound or if it is best to set aside.

Here’s how it works:

Naming your reptile

First, name your reptile and find an external representation of it. I first heard of this approach from life coach Martha Beck in her book Steering by Starlight and tried it out. Much to my surprise I discovered that my own inner critic’s name was Charmaine (apologies to all the Charmaines out there) and it was represented by a little brass dragon I had purchased in China many years ago and who had always managed to find a place on my desk throughout my travels.

Once you have named your reptile it becomes easier to distinguish its voice which is important for the next step in this reptile taming practice.

Reptile messages

Our reptiles all have a number of favourite things to say. Take a moment to list on paper the ten most frequent things yours likes to tell you. I know from experience that what ends up on the list can be downright alarming. Examples of reptiles favourite sayings are:

  • I am an imposter; I am not good at my job.
  • I am stupid.
  • I am not interesting; no one wants to hear what I say.
  • I am going to fail.
  • I am going to make a huge mistake and everyone will know I am incompetent.

The whispers of the reptile can be harsh and cruel. They can also be for some very hard to ignore.


Now with the reptile flushed out of its habitat you can begin to observe it. Pay attention to when it is most active. On a nightly basis ask yourself: What did it tell you during the day? How did that affect you? What patterns are you noticing? 

Good intentions

In some cases your inner reptile is trying to help you. The above observation exercise is likely to reveal both when it is responding to some perceived danger and when it is just plain hurtful.

By learning to recognise the voice of our own personal reptile we can separate the helpful from the hindrance. To quote from Harvard Business Review blogger Susan David, take the powerful step of asking it “how will you help me achieve success in the task ahead?” If it is isn’t helping then ask it to retreat.

Now it may seem just a little ridiculous to name your inner reptile, or as one of my clients has called it –gremlin, and yet learning to observe and separate ourselves from this harsh inner voice is a powerful practice. It allows us to make use of our higher reasoning to determine the best course of action. In the work environment this practice has supported me and my clients in taking on new challenges and in finding more joy and satisfaction from our work.

Hold fast to this truth: the inner lizard is just one small part of you, and certainly not the biggest or brightest part. Take steps to lessen the impact of its voice so that you can be free to express your strengths and flourish.

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