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Academic Coaching & Writing

Inner Critic

Dissertation Survival Skills: Disarming the Inner Critic

When there is no enemy within, the enemy without can do you no harm.

-- African proverb

Haven’t done anything on your dissertation lately? Maybe you’re too busy, or your advisor has not been helpful, or you picked the wrong topic, or you never were a good writer? Maybe you’re worried that you are not going to finish after all these years and all the money that you have tied up into this degree? When you find yourself asking these questions, you are responding to your own Inner Critic.

In talking with dissertation writers, we have found that the pressure from the Inner Critic is what blocks you from taking action on your dissertation. In case you’re unfamiliar with the concept, the Inner Critic is the voice that creates the idea in your head that the dissertation is an amazing, super-human feat that you are not capable of completing. Often this creates performance anxiety that shuts down your ability to engage in productive activity. Somehow, if you can free yourself of self-doubts and worries about how critical your committee is going to be, you may find that you have more energy available to work on your dissertation. So the real challenge is how to manage the Inner Critic so that your own unique Creative Scholar shuts down the Inner Critic and lets you shine!

What is the Inner Critic?

The Inner Critic is the inner voice that we mistakenly believe to be our own. Typically, it develops when we’re quite young to help us get approval and acceptance and to protect us from bad things that might happen to us. It preaches all the “shoulds” and “shall nots” that we grew up with. Often modeled after parents and social norms, the Inner Critic likes to criticize and correct us before others can. Sadly, most people’s Critic has long outgrown its usefulness and, instead, has become a constant nuisance and an insidious self-sabateur.

Here are some basic skills that you should add to your dissertation survival kit:

  • Notice when you’re under attack by your Inner Critic,
  • Name your Inner Critic and identify its strategy,
  • Confront the Inner Critic, and, by all means,
  • Get support from others when you need it.

Notice When You Are Under Attack by Your Inner Critic

The signs that will alert you to an Inner Critic attack include:

  • Mental signs: self-criticism, procrastination, excessive worry, negative thoughts about your options, black and white thinking, confusion, and feeling stuck;
  • Emotional signs: loss of motivation, discouragement, feelings of failure, depression, low self-esteem, fear, feeling powerless; and
  • Physical signs: lack of energy, fatigue, sickness, or injury.

Recognizing these signs also enables you to extricate your identity from that of the Critic and to see it as something separate from yourself. You may hear your Inner Critic saying such things to yourself as:

  • I'm not ready to write until I do some more reading.
  • I'm just not smart enough to do a dissertation.
  • I know my committee is going to reject my work.
  • I'll never finish.

Name Your Inner Critic and Identify Its Strategy

These thoughts are meant to sabotage you by emphasizing your inadequacy or your incompetence. Underneath them, you are likely to find, for example, a basic fear of failure or a fear of rejection and abandonment. These thoughts reflect a way of thinking about the dissertation as the greatest achievement of your life, your magnum opus. In fact, one of our clients refers to his dissertation as The Titanic. And this thinking ignores the value of the dissertation as a learning process whereby you grow into a Creative Scholar and gradually develop into an expert on your topic.

Get to know your Inner Critic by simply observing it for a week or so, and writing down each of its criticisms. By becoming familiar with the messages your Critic conveys to you, you take the first step in beginning to disarm it.

Confront Your Inner Critic.

Develop your own way of getting past your Critic. A cognitive psychologist might advise you to counter each negative thought with a positive affirmation about your true value and your accomplishments. But as coaches, we have discovered from our clients many other creative ways of managing the Inner Critic. If you can approach your Inner Critic in a playful manner, you will diminish the power of the Critic and will be able to concentrate on the task of writing your dissertation. Here are some strategies that others have used to manage their Inner Critic:

  • One of our clients wrote an ultimatum letter telling off her Critic. She fired her Critic.
  • You might also consider offering your Critic a new job description.
  • Another client whose Inner Critic is affectionately named “The Driver,” has learned to send it off to herd cattle in a different state when it becomes troublesome.
  • Another client has tamed her Critic by drawing it and naming it “Maynard.”
  • Another client keeps a whistle handy and blows the whistle on the Inner Critic whenever it rears its head.
  • Or you might consider shrinking it to the size of a mouse (since if you are reading this, there have probably been times when your Critic has taken on enormous proportions), dropping it by the tail into a big jar, and then putting the lid on very, very tightly!

Be resourceful and experiment with ways to face your Critic. Then get into action on your dissertation. Contact us if you would like help confronting your Inner Critic or if you would like to understand what value your Inner Critic represents and how to use that knowledge to empower yourself.

Get Support From Others When You Need It

Assemble an inner support committee of coaches, mentors, and people who believe in you. One of our clients has her grandmother chair this committee! Let this committee give you regular pep talks. Visualize your inner support committee members and take them with you to meetings with your Advisor, to your Orals, to interviews, and to other professional presentations. Imagine them cheering for you.

Let’s face it. There are times in the dissertation process when the going gets rough. You may even become so self-critical that you reach an impasse. That’s the time to seek support from trusted friends or even from a coach or therapist who can help you refute the Inner Critic and reaffirm your own Creative Scholar.

Managing your Inner Critic is a never-ending story but it does get easier with practice. Every time you disarm the Critic, you take one step towards claiming the voice of your Creative Scholar. So why not make this your own Inner Critic Awareness Week!

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