Do you have a voice of self-criticism that chatters away inside your head? You know the one that says the kind of horrible things you’d never say to anybody else and feel mortified if anyone knew you spoke to yourself in this way? Don’t worry you’re in good company.
Having come to understand the very real cost to our confidence when we tell ourselves these stories, I find it helpful to label these our mean girl voices. After all, we’d never tell anybody else that they “weren’t good enough” or “were a terrible mother and bad colleague” or “that they’d better work hard, or people would discover they were an impostor.”
Studies have found that while both men and women hear these stories, women are more critical of themselves, and engage in more negative self-talk particularly around our ability to cope. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise given the tendency for the female brain to think more, worry more, and do its best to avoid conflict.
The other important difference researchers have found though when it comes to our levels of confidence is what we do with these stories. Generally, our male colleagues don’t let these self-criticisms stop them from taking action nearly as often because they spend less time thinking about the possible consequences of failure. Whereas these doubts about our ability to cope seem to make women more fragile when it comes to dealing with failure, setbacks, and criticism making it difficult to confidently step forward.
The good news is you don’t have to remain stuck in a loop of heeding our mean girl voice.
When it comes to noticing and challenging our stories, Dr. Kristin Neff at the University of Texas, and her colleagues suggest that tapping into self-compassion can help to break our cycle of self-criticism, whilst still allowing us to be honest about our fears. After all aren’t you worth the same kindness, concern, and support you’d show a good friend?
Self-compassion allows us to recognize that those mean girl voices aren’t really trying to harm us, but in their own limited way are actually trying to protect us. In their misguided attempts to ensure our happiness, they’re overly critical and unnecessarily harsh in an effort to get us to act.
Instead of taming, shaming or blaming our mean girl voices for undermining our confidence, by recognizing their clumsy attempt to keep us safe, we’re able to reduce our levels of stress and anxiety by seeing them for what they are; stories about the things that frighten us, and not the truth about who we are or what we’re capable of.
This creates the space for us to start talking to ourselves in our kind girl voices.
These voices allow us to be supportive and understanding. Less dependent on our performance, these self-compassionate kind girl voices help us to believe we are capable and worthy, making us less self-conscience, less likely to compare ourselves to others and less likely to feel insecure. And they remind us that if all doesn’t go to plan, it simply means we’re learning, just like the rest of the human race.
It’s why studies have found that far from being self-indulgent or soft, the deliberate use of self-compassionate talk is an effective means of enhancing our confidence, our motivation, and our performance. They also seem to help us to generate more positive feelings that balance out our mean girl fears, leaving us feeling more joyous, calm, and confident. Now doesn’t that sound like a huge weight off your shoulders?
You can practice getting comfortable with your kind girl voice by:
- Think of a time at work when you’ve hesitated, held yourself back, or dimmed yourself down. Describe the challenge you were facing as objectively as possible.
- What were you saying to yourself in the heat of this moment to justify your actions (try to be as accurate as possible, noting your inner speech verbatim)? What was your tone of voice? Can you spot any recurring themes in this story that often come up when you face a challenge or encounter difficulty? Does this voice remind you of anyone in your life, past or present, who is or has been particularly critical of you?
- What emotions did these stories create? How did these emotions shape your actions?
- If someone who really cared for you and with whom you felt safe, heard the story you were telling yourself in this moment how do you think they would have responded? How might they have acknowledged your concerns but then gently helped you explore other equally believable alternatives? What tone would they have used? How might this have altered your story to help you turn your thoughts into action? How might you have felt and acted after this conversation?
- Was there a difference in the story you told yourself and the story a good friend may have helped you to uncover? If so, ask yourself why. What factors or fears come into play that lead you to treat yourself and others so differently? How can you remember to reach for this kind girl voice in the future?
This article first appeared in Womens Agenda in their Lead Like A Woman series where they’re sharing edited extracts from the new book Lead Like A Woman – your essential guide to true confidence, career clarity, vibrant wellbeing and leadership success by Megan Dalla-Camina and myself. We are taking a fresh, evidence based approach to what it really takes for women to show up authentically and lead with confidence.
You can download the first two chapters of the book for free from the Lead Like a Woman website.