Taming your inner critic - Lockdown mental training 101

Already the third instalment of lockdown mental training and so far, we have looked at accepting our situation and setting effective wishes, two important steps in the process of being and staying productive during the lockdown. Before we move on to today's topic, your relationship with your inner critic, and how you can improve that relationship, let's start the same way we did last week: with a small recap exercise for last week's topic and just like last week, I will be participating in the exercise as well.


If you haven't read the other blog posts in this series, you can find them here:

- Comfortable being uncomfortable

- 4 steps to set effective wishes


Recapping wishes and goals should be an ongoing process and therefore continue throughout any period of goal and wish setting. There are two distinct parts of wish setting that you need to reflect on: the effectiveness of the wish and the progress you have been making. The first, looking at the effectiveness, revolves around the process of learning how to use this skill. As I mentioned last week, finding wishes that follow all three of the requirements can be difficult. So in the first part of the reflection, ask yourself this: is my wish following the three requirements in order to be effective? The second part of the reflection focuses on the progress you have been making: have you been meeting any of the smaller parts you identified? I will run through my wish setting reflection as an example.

In my case, I had decided that my wish would revolve around my physical fitness to be able to pick up my old life if I would be allowed to do so. My summers before the lockdown consisted of a lot of physical exercise. Activities like (summer camp) coaching, (beach)volleyball and soccer all contribute to that but the biggest thing by far is cycling. I pride myself in the fact that I don't own a car. Therefore, I use my bike to transport myself to wherever I need to go, an endeavour that can mean up to 50k of biking in a single day. All of these things combined mean that I would engage in physical activities for anywhere between 8 and 20 hours a week, something I wouldn't physically be able to do right now.

My first cycling workout

Now take reflection question 1: is this a good wish? Well, my wish is something I really want: I truly enjoy the fact I can travel around without a car and feel great about myself when I get to move that much. It will definitely be a challenge. Although I have done it before, it will be hard to recreate that level of activity in the current restrictions. And finally, I am definitely in control of my wish. Lastly, breaking down the wish made me realize that I: a) Need to build cycling fitness to a point where I can do 50km a day, every day. b) Need to have strength and flexibility to play beach volleyball at least twice a week. c) Be able to be on my feet for an entire work day (this is one of the hardest things during long coaching sessions. My conclusion after answering these questions: I believe this is a good wish.

My second cycling workout

The second part of the reflection is looking at my progress. I have done reasonably well, I went on two long bike rides to start building towards that goal and have done some workouts at home as well. One thing to definitely improve on is that I still want to sit down a bit too much, so my third goal can use some more work. Overall, setting this wish and going through the process has helped me be very motivated to work towards my wish.


Moving on the today's topic, your inner critic. I am sure we all have been in the position where the voice in our brain can be our own worst enemy. Especially in tough times, like the one right now, this voice seems to pop up more and more frequently. Mine says things like: "what you are doing is not a real job", "you should be working harder" and "just give up" and from my experience I know that some other voices might sound like this: "you are bad", "everyone else thinks you are stupid" and "you are a failure". It seems that the voice in our head is set up to always try and be more pessimistic than we ideally would want to be, something that we call the 'inner critic' in mental training. To start of today's lesson, I want to explain why that is and why it is not your fault.

In order to understand how our brain works, I always start by looking at what our brain is designed to do. Take a moment and ask yourself what that is, in essence, what is the job our brain has to fulfill?

If you answered in terms of: 'steering the body', 'making decisions' or even just 'think', you are right, but the core task of the brain is even simpler: survive and procreate. Remember that evolution takes tens of thousands of years for a small change, so realistically, you are hardwired the same way as your prehistoric ancestors were and their goal was to survive and procreate. Although, this might not be the core goal for us anymore (I would argue that for a lot of people, our goal now is to thrive rather than survive, but that discussion could be a entire blog on its own), it has only been a few hundred years since that has started to change, a period way to short for evolution to catch up and change the way our brain works. With that in mind, we can start to make more sense of why our brain does a lot of things that seem to be ineffective right now, it wasn't designed to live in our current environment. Or in other words, you are trying to FaceTime your friend using a Nokia 3310. If we look more specifically at the inner critic, 10.000 years ago, it would have made sense for that voice to be overly cautious and pessimistic about things. It was better to think that a brown stone as was a tiger and run away 20 times than to think a tiger was brown stone and not run away 1 time. Our brains are hardwired to assume the worst, which gives the best chance of survival. Fast forward to modern times, and all tiger situations have left our environment but we are left with the same mechanism, however rather than assuming the worst on possible life threatening situations like dangerous predators, we assume the worst about what someone might think about your outfit or what your bosses' opinion is about you. Understanding how our brain works allows us to find ways to make it work better in the situation that you are in.

The second thing you will need to accept about our brain revolves around the initiation of the inner critic's thoughts. As I mentioned before, these negative thoughts are a security feature build in to your brain. They are unconscious thoughts designed to try and keep us safe. This means that it is impossible not to think these things. I often hear people say, just don't think about it or you need to silence that inner voice. In my opinion, this is physically impossible. You do not have any control over this mechanism. Think of these thoughts as push notifications that you cannot turn off. Whether you want to see them or not, you will inevitably see the notification if you want to use your phone, so unless you turn your brain off, you will have do deal with the thoughts.


Watch may latest youtube video: "why extreme sports athletes aren't crazy"


So far, I have told you that you are running on outdated hardware with push notifications that cannot be turned off. Seems like a pretty bleak analysis of the inner critic. However, I strongly believe that in order to find strategies and techniques to help effectively deal with them, you need to understand and accept the physical limitations of a system. With that in mind, what can we do to make our relationship with our inner critic more effective?