De-Fang Your Inner Critic and Empower Your Inner Sage | by Dr. Sarah Evans MCC

Coachee Investigating Inner Critc with Magnifying Glass

In this article we explore neuroscience-based approaches to de-fanging your inner critic—and empowering your inner sage.

Our inner critic, or whatever we may call it—judge, saboteur, superego—has a powerful influence in our lives and on our well-being. The energy of the inner critic is fear and anxiety—and it often shows up in the coaching relationship.

Our work as coaches is often focused on helping our coachees expand from surviving to thriving. And one of the most powerful and empowering approaches is to support our coachees in coming to understand, be curious about, and compassionate with their critical inner voice and thoughts, while at the same time strengthening the voice of their inner sage or champion.

A neuroscientific explanation

A neuroscientific explanation of the origins of the inner critic locates it in particular parts of the brain.

Scientists have argued that we have a primitive "survivor brain" that encompasses the brain stem, the older part of our brain tasked with attuning to physical survival and the fight-flight-freeze response to danger. It also involves the limbic system and the amygdala, which regulate our emotional responses and can trigger the emission of cortisol, a stress hormone.

The inner critic has a purpose

The original function of our critical inner voice was to protect us from danger, hurt and pain—to ensure our survival. This included not just spotting and alerting us to danger in the environment, but also the inner work of psychological sense making and constructing narratives to keep us safe.

So the alertness to danger, pain or hurt provided negative feedback that taught us to be aware. The problem arises when we stay looped in that negative feedback, don't learn and integrate the lessons, and get stuck in the critical messages.

Strengthening the "sage" brain

One of the proponents of a "sage" brain is Shirzad Chamine. According to Chamine there are five "sage" brain powers to strengthen:

  1. Empathize
  2. Explore
  3. Innovate
  4. Navigate
  5. Activate

He recommends we strengthen our sage brain by consciously shifting our activity from our "survivor" brain to the middle prefrontal cortex—the empathy circuitry, and our right brain1. This means a shift toward the energy of expansiveness, and the release of endorphins.

Chamine suggests that one way we can do this quickly and effectively is by centering our attention on one of our senses. His exercises involve focusing for a few minutes on our breath, on near and faraway sounds, or on the sense of touch, ideally repeatedly during the day.

These exercises work because they take us out of our heads, anchor us in our body and the present moment, allow us to empathize with ourselves and others, and reconnect us with our emotions.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Limiting Beliefs—and ANTs

Core beliefs help us make sense of our experiences. They also set the "rules" by which we live and determine the tone of our self-talk.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the inner critic is not given a specific name. Rather, the focus is on the critic's output—our Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs).

These ANTs are driven by our limiting core beliefs. These beliefs usually come in the form of rigid "I am _____," "People are _____" and "The world is _____" statements. And these can be unproductive or harmful.

A CBT approach to addressing our ANTs is to:

  • Catch them early—ideally as soon as they are triggered.
  • Understand that our goal is to observe the ANTs with curiosity and compassion, rather than judgment.
  • Are the ANTs based in reality or are they "irrational" (i.e., not backed by data or evidence)? Could the ANTs be FEAR (False Evidence Appearing Real) based?
    • Take note of any patterns.
    • What are you noticing?
    • Any memories? Feelings? Sensations in your body?
  • Ask: What's the belief associated with these thoughts? "I am _____", "People are _____" and "The world is _____" statements.
  • Figure out what type of ANT they are (e.g., catastrophizing, discounting, polarized thinking, "shoulds," etc.). 3
  • Respond to the ANTs with challenging questions such as:
    • Where's the data?
    • Would others have the same point of view?
    • What are you afraid of if you didn't…?
  • Develop a compassionate, positive and reality-based response to the trigger that moves away from a critic-driven narrative to a sage or champion-driven narrative.

Wrap-up: Two compassionate mindfulness approaches

For coachees struggling with their inner critic, consider offering these two simple but powerful practices:

  1. Ground yourself with a mindfulness practice. For example, slowly rub your index finger against your thumb, so that you can feel the individual ridges of your fingerprint. Try it for 10 seconds at a time. Focusing on that sensation can help ground you and even disrupt the inner critic's voice.
  2. Kristin Neff suggests a "How would you treat a friend?" approach2: The aim is to speak to ourselves as compassionately and kindly as we would speak to our beloved friends. Imagine how you would interact with a struggling friend.
    • How would you be with them?
    • What would you say to them?
    • What tone of voice would you use?
    • Now think of how you tend to speak to yourself, especially when you're struggling. Most of us will be truly shocked by the difference (I know I was!).


1 Shirzad Chamine (2012, p. 212). Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve their True Potential and How You Can Achieve Yours. Greenleaf Book Group Press.

Kristin Neff’s TEDx talk, The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion, suggests ways in which we may change our inner self-talk so that it becomes more compassionate—and she also reminds us why we should do so. She argues that self-compassion always trumps self-esteem.

Further Reading & Resources

3 (Added by Emma-Louise). You may also like our free tool: Top 10 Cognitive Distortions List—a handout with 10 ways people limit themselves and (negatively) distort their perception of the world.

Shirzad Chamine’s Know Your Inner Saboteurs TEDx talk explores how his research on positive intelligence can help us recognize and weaken our inner judge and strengthen our "sage" brain instead.

Kristin Neff's book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself explores how to limit self-criticism and offset its negative effects, which enables us to reach our highest potential and more fulfillment.

If you like this article on neuroscience and the inner critic, you may also like:

Emma-Louise Elsey Headshot

Contributing Author:

Emma-Louise Elsey has been coaching since 2003 and is the Founder of The Coaching Tools Company and Fierce She's passionate about coaching and personal development. Originally a project and relationship manager for Fortune 500 companies she combined her love of coaching, creativity and systems to create over 100 brandable coaching tools, forms and exercises including 30+ completely free coaching tools. She now serves coaches and the coaching world through her exclusive newsletter for coaches, Coaches Helping Coaches Facebook Group and many other great tools for coaches, plus resources and ideas for your coaching toolbox. The Coaching Tools Company is an official ICF Business Solutions Partner.

Learn more about Emma-Louise & see all their articles here >>

Image of Coachee Investigating Inner Critc with Magnifying Glass by Nicoleta Ionescu via Shutterstock


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