Dancing with my Inner Critic

I am presenting to a room of Vice Presidents and Senior Directors. My palms are sweaty.  I can’t feel my legs.  My breathing is shallow.  My nervous system is convinced I’m being hunted by a predator.  When my brain and hormones have been hijacked this way, it is very hard to show up as the leader I want to be.  

So, I choose to shift.  I reconnect to the sensations in my body by spreading my toes, noticing the pressure of my shoes against my feet, feeling energy rise up through the backs of my legs, allowing my sternum to lift and my shoulders to relax.  Ahh.  Now I have more access to my breath.  I notice and mentally name the emotions I’m feeling: fear, anxiety, even judgment that I’m having this reaction.  I give myself permission to feel all of those things while I continue presenting because denying any part of the experience I’m having makes me less authentic.  I notice that by labeling one audience member as “Vice President with 20 years more experience than me” I forget that this person is also someone I have connected with over family and travel and a movie we both like.  

The inner critic voice in my head has tons of material to work with.  “This was a stretch assignment.  When you mess this up you won’t get another opportunity for years!”  My inner critic, like those of so many people, is a bully.  “It’s okay,” I tell her.  (My gremlin has the voice of a little girl.)  “I hear you.  We’ll get through this.  We always do.”

Okay.  Time for questions from the audience.  The fear isn’t gone but I have more choices now about how to work with it.

One man raises a concern with a tone that I label as disdain: “You’ve quantified the rework happening in this process in terms of dollars.  Implying a cost savings is misleading.  If we eliminate the causes of rework, we won’t save any money by laying people off.”

Alarms go off in my brain along with a lot of expletives.  I’ve.  Been.  Found.  Out. My inner critic takes the controls back and brings up all of my old stories about being an imposter.  “Your entire analysis is flawed!  They know you have no financial knowledge.  They know you’re too young for this assignment.  Whatever you say next will just confirm it.”

These thoughts race through my mind in microseconds but I’m afraid that everyone can see the process on my face.

“They are going to fire you right now in this meeting!” she threatens.  Ha!  I’m so grateful I had that thought.  It is so ridiculous and unlikely that I find humor in it.  Through that humor I pull myself back from the future-trip of my fear and into this moment, this response.  Big breath.

I say, “You’re right that eliminating this rework would not result in cost savings.  I’m describing an opportunity cost.  This improvement would result in additional capacity for projects or time for training that would increase the capabilities of these teams for the future.”  

Woah.  That sounded okay.  They’ve moved on to the next question.  My heart rate slows down.

After the presentation, I feel proud.  I navigated the big emotions that will probably always be part of my experience at work.  I remembered the tools I learned to shift back to the present moment and choose how to respond.  My answer about investing in team development aligned with my values as a leader. 

And my inner critic?  She’s still there.  She always will be.  She is one of the personas who will be my dance partner in this life.  By naming her and noticing qualities about her personality, I can quickly recognize when she has taken over.  The balance that works for me is acknowledging her presence and letting her speak but not letting her make decisions for me.  She wants to take care of me.  Unfortunately, her strategy to keep me safe by never taking risks holds me back.  The more times she sees me navigate a challenge without her, the less grip she has on me.  And when she begins to see how capable I am, there are even brief moments when she cheers me on.