What to do when you can’t stop criticising yourself

Do you remember the first time you thought ‘I can’t do this?’ about teaching? Maybe it was when you were faced with a particularly rambunctious group of kids, or moody teenagers who didn’t want to talk. Maybe it was when your class asked you questions you didn’t know the answer to. Maybe it was your first time teaching pre-schoolers, or an in-company class, and your ‘I can’t do this’ moment happened before you even set foot inside the classroom.

I certainly do. Part way through my first year of teaching, I took over another teacher’s adult upper-intermediate class. In the first week I taught them my lessons seemed to consist of never-ending grammar questions that I couldn’t quite answer convincingly, and I found myself constantly wondering if my class were all afflicted with Resting Bitch Face, or if they actually just hated me. In the second week I taught them I was called into my director’s office, where she gently explained that I would no longer be teaching that group. They had requested a different teacher – any teacher, it would seem, except me.

I didn’t think too much about this at the time. I was 23, had just started teaching, and was pretty willing to just go along with whatever the director of my school said. But several months later when I was given another upper-intermediate class, a snipy, critical voice popped up in my head. ‘You can’t teach upper-intermediate… remember what happened last time? They’re going to ask you questions that you can’t answer. They’ll complain about you if you hesitate too much or you get something wrong. Maybe you shouldn’t have thought you could teach. Maybe you shouldn’t have come here in the first place…’

Sound familiar in any way? Many teachers I know (myself included!) are their own worst critics. It’s easy to say that – flippant-sounding even, but criticising yourself can have a huge impact on your confidence, how willing you are to put yourself out there and say ‘yes’ to new things, and how happy you are on a day-to-day basis.

The good news is that there is something you can do about it. The bad news is that it might not be what you expect.

I was a shy child, and as a teenager, I lacked self-confidence in pretty much every way, shape and form imaginable. Looking back on myself then, I still find it a little surprising that I can now happily stand and talk in front of a class of students! Why do I tell you this? Because I didn’t stop being shy because people told me not to be. 

One common mistake that teachers, teacher trainers and managers make when they’re trying to encourage others to be more confident is to compliment, encourage and try to build up. I’m guilty of this too. A new teacher says they don’t think they can teach kids… Yes you can! You’ll be fine! I believe in you! Does it work? Well, maybe a little. But it’s not the most effective way of helping someone to overcome the inner critic.

Arguing with the inner critic, whether it’s you or someone else doing it, doesn’t helpYour nasty, inner backchat is NOT based on fact or reality (even if you think it is), and logic and facts can’t reason with what is fundamentally an instinctive fear. You can spend hours arguing with your inner critic:

‘You can’t teach this class. It’ll go wrong.’

‘Yes, I can. I’ve planned it carefully, it’ll be fine.’

‘You’ve probably forgotten something.’

‘No, I haven’t. It’ll be fine.’

‘But what about the kids? What if they’re badly behaved? What if you lose control of the class?’

This is an argument with yourself that you are never going to win.

What about looking to someone else for support? A teaching colleague, a mentor, or a manager? This is no bad thing – everyone needs support and having someone to bounce ideas off can really help. However, when it comes to the inner critic, many of its sarcastic, negative thoughts arise in the heat of the moment, and that’s when we make snap decisions without talking to anyone. Also, let’s face it, we don’t tell anyone what’s going on in our heads most of the time (especially the negative, lacking confidence stuff) – it’s human nature to try to act as though we have it together as much as possible.

So, ‘just deciding’ to be confident isn’t going to work. Arguing with ourselves isn’t going to work. And listening to our inner critic is just going to make us stressed out, unhappy, and not doing what we want to do. Don’t worry, we’re now getting to the bit where we talk about the alternative.

#1 Get your head around the idea of the ‘inner critic’.

Part of me always wants to dismiss this idea as being pop psychology ‘woo woo’. But let’s face it, we do all have a voice in our heads that anxiously criticises and undermines our thoughts and attempts to step outside of our comfort zone.

This chart shows some of the differences between realistic, rational thinking… and when it’s the inner critic showing up in our thoughts.

Image from Harvard Business Review

Step one towards beating the inner critic: recognise and notice when it’s the inner critic piping up. This can be as simple as saying to yourself ‘I’m hearing the inner critics worries about this again’ – or even just simply ‘inner critic’.

#2 Look for the motives in what the critic says.

Although it’s not necessarily easy for us to see, our fears and instincts are designed to protect us from harm. The inner critic is no different: it’s usually our mind’s way of trying to keep us safe. Why did my inner critic kick off so badly when I was asked to teach an upper-intermediate class again? Well, although it’s no sabre-toothed tiger, the fear of having the director of my school lose confidence in me is still a threat. My inner critic’s attempts to get me not to teach the class were ultimately attempts to keep me safe.

#3 Visualise getting rid of the critic.

*There are lots of different ways to visualise getting rid of the inner critic, but the one I’ve found most helpful for me is simply to get up and move into a different room or physical space, envisaging that I’ve left the critic behind. Obviously this isn’t possible all the time (it wouldn’t work in the middle of a class, for example), but it certainly does work if, for example, you’re at home planning lessons or preparing for an observation.

#4 Remember that this is a process.

Overcoming the inner critic isn’t about suddenly developing boundless reserves of confidence. Rather, it’s about developing the tools to recognise and then deal with its voice.

This is going to be a process – and one that won’t ever finish. It’s perfectly normal to stop criticising yourself for one thing… only to then hear the inner critic pipe up about something else.

You won’t ever silence the inner critic, but you will get better at dealing with it – and be able to stop taking direction from fear. 


*I’ve encountered and read about ‘the inner critic’ in many different places, but much of my understanding (and some of these ways of dealing with the inner critic) come from a fantastic book called ‘Playing Big’ by Tara Mohr. This book is about confidence, growth, and empowerment – and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s written for women, but in all honesty I don’t see why men (especially those who are introverted or lacking confidence) wouldn’t benefit from it too. Read it if you want to find out more about the inner critic and how to learn to live better with his or her voice!



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