The Inner Critic – managing ‘the voice in your head’
I fell off today.
It strikes me as a rather memorable event, because I came to a few important conclusions as I reflected on the ride as I hacked home after my lesson. Firstly, it’s only the second fall I’ve had after returning to riding just over five years ago, after a break of 15 years. Secondly, I realized I had crossed an important barrier in my riding.
How so? Well, this fall happened while jumping. Over a very scary (to my horse) water tray. So, what’s useful about it? Well, it brought up the conversation that I have been avoiding with my Inner Critic.
Who is my Inner Critic, I hear you ask? We all have a version of this voice in our heads to a greater or lesser extent. The Inner Critic is that nit-picky part of ourselves, that leaps over to offer advice when things aren’t going very well for you. It goes something like this, for me: “What on earth made you think you could jump that!?” And, “You should probably just stick to hacking.” Also: “Come on now, pull yourself together, you are so embarrassing!”
Or, sometimes, when things have gone extremely well, like for example you just won your last class, and that little voice in your head says something like this: “Well, this win doesn’t really count because the class was so small.” Or, “What a surprise – I wouldn’t have won if so and so was competing today.” Or even, “Well, well, you better enjoy this win, its unlikely to happen again soon.”
To be fair, my inner critic didn’t start out so mean. She was originally the voice who motivated me to work harder, and helped me with my discipline and planning. She was my biggest (internal) fan, and she made me believe in myself and my ability to succeed. But gradually, as I started to get better at whatever new skill I was learning at the time, she started to have an opinion on how I could be and should be doing things differently. She gradually started to show up more and more, and she definitely made things less fun. Eventually, I realized that she was running the show, and my confidence was in tatters.
Most of the people that I have coached have had to confront their Inner Critic at some point and remind this voice that although it means well, and it really wants you to succeed, constantly criticizing everything you do is not actually useful, and doesn’t make you do things better. It often makes you feel like a failure, or a fraud, or just flipping lucky to have got where you are – rather than encouraging you and boosting your confidence with small successes.You see, the very trait of our characters as competitive riders that drives us to do our best, to be determined to succeed against the odds and to bravely step up when we are shaking in our boots, is the same little quirky trait that can turn on us and rob us of small moments of joy, and little celebrations of tiny successes. It makes you so focused on producing perfect plaits that you forget to chuckle at your horse’s goofy morning yawns. It can make you all too serious, and destroy your perspective of the bigger picture, while it concentrates on picking every little detail of your ride apart.
As a rather toxic sideshow, it also makes you more critical of everyone else, so if you have a bad round, you end up shouting at your mom, or being irritable with your horse or snapping at your groom….
So here’s how my conversation went, with my own Inner Critic….
IC: You fell off!
Me: Yup – I sure did!
IC: You could have hurt yourself, and where would that leave you? You are too old to be doing this jumping stuff again!
Me: Actually, I thought I did a pretty good job of landing and bouncing, for my age!
IC: Oh come on! Don’t be so silly – you are not actually going to pursue this jumping thing, are you?
Me: Thank you for your input – I need you to take a time out now. I know you care about my safety, and about me looking efficient and professional, but I really love my jumping lessons, and when you whine at me all the time, you take all my enjoyment away. You are not the boss of me.
IC: I’m trying to help you succeed!
Me: I don’t really need to succeed at every single thing – my confidence needs me to believe in myself and remind myself that I’m having fun and enjoying the process. Sometimes you are really hurtful and say horrible things that make me feel incompetent. I want you to back off and sit down please. I will let you know when I need you to comment.
As I smiled to myself and patted my horse on my way home after my jumping
lesson, I thought about all the jumps I had jumped beautifully, and how proud I was of Punchy for overcoming his fear of the dreaded water tray enough to actually jump it, even after dislodging his mom. We ended the lesson on a really good note, and I realized that after much practice, and lots of other experiences, both horsey and in general life, my own Inner Critic is becoming more like a rather tame and friendly dragon. It still has an opinion, but as long as I remember that I’m in charge, it doesn’t breathe smoke and flames over me anymore.