What blocks us from doing our best work? This is the question that Denise Jacobs, author of Banish Your Inner Critic, asks us in the opening keynote of #mtpcon San Francisco. We often think of our biggest blockers being external: a crazy CEO, recalcitrant CTO, surly engineers, or designers who just won’t do what we want them to. But what if our biggest blocks are actually in our own heads?
We all have negative thoughts. We tell ourselves that we’re not good enough, that we don’t know what we’re doing, and that everyone will figure out we’re frauds. These voices take over our mental bandwidth and hijack our decision making. This is our Inner Critic, and it stands in the way of us fully accessing our own brilliance. But imagine a world where we were able to fully show up in our power and be who we truly are, without the self-doubt. What would that look like?
Meet your inner critic
Product managers tend to have strong inner critics. We have to have broad knowledge across business, technology, and user experience, and daily are working with people who are experts in their domains. We have great responsibility, but very little authority. Because of this, imposter syndrome runs rampant. It gets stronger as you progress in your career.
The Inner Critic blocks creativity and creative flow. When we’re in our creative flow, our work feels easy, magical, inspired, and energized. Creative flow is power, so we need to find ways to get into that flow more often.
The Inner Critic comes from the fears that we have about ourselves, combined with the negative things we’ve heard from other people. This combination operates in the background, and drives subconscious behavior in an attempt to protect us. To combat it, we have to first understand how to recognize the voice of the Inner Critic. Denise had the room write down the negative self-talk they hear on a regular basis. People had statements such as:
- I’m not intelligent
- I’m not vocal enough
- I’m incompetent
- I’m too young
- I’m not organized enough
Fighting the inner critic
We all have these kinds of negative thoughts, but we’re born with mental power tools to combat the Inner Critic.
- Neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to adapt in the face of new stimulus. It is guided by our thoughts and what we focus on, and can reshape our thinking.
- Mindfulness: we have the ability to step outside our thoughts, look at them objectively, and shift our focus when we need to.
- Self-compassion: having self-compassion strongly correlates with achieving mastery in our field. And on a physiological level, we produce oxytocin, and reduce anxiety. To access self-compassion, think about what you would say to a friend who has the same doubts you have.
So we know the tools that can help us. But how do we use them to silence self-doubt and do our best work?
Reclaim your brain and stop self-sabatoge
Denise highlighted a story from her middle school basketball team. As a teenager, Denise was significantly taller than other girls her age. When her basketball team played, she would try to avoid getting on the court and hope not to be noticed. She told herself that because she was tall, people would expect her to be good, and she couldn’t live up to their expectations. She was letting her self-talk hold her back.
Denise gave us three strategies to stop this self-sabatoge:
- Remind yourself, just because you’re thinking something, doesn’t mean it’s true. We have to think like a scientist, examining our thoughts and viewing them through an objective lens. We should look for evidence to either prove or refute our thoughts, and not just take them as truth.
- Be intentional with the words that you use. Words like “should”, “have to”, and “must” are words that remove the power from us and place it externally. By thinking about the things we “want to”, “get to”, and “can” do, we are able to make decisions for ourselves.
- Recognize when you catastrophize. Rather than letting our minds spin out of control, extrapolating to the worst possible outcome of our failures, reconsider scenarios to highlight all the positive results that could occur.
Own your expertise and unblock creativity
We’ve established that imposter syndrome is common for product managers. We have trouble internalizing our own successes, assume wins are a fluke, and hold ourselves to much higher standards than we hold others. We don’t see ourselves clearly. But Denise introduced us to the Imposter Syndrome Paradox:
You will only experience imposter syndrome when you are competent and skilled.
It can be hard to recognize in ourselves, but the mere fact that we have imposter syndrome means we are skilled enough to understand the full depth of our field. It is a sign of our own competence. We just need to remind ourselves of this daily.
She also introduced us to the Expert Enough Manifesto to help us realize we don’t have to be the supreme expert on every topic. Having a good amount of knowledge on a topic is enough to accomplish what we need to.
Our negative self-talk is our biggest barrier to success. When our Inner Critic is really active, it means our self-talk has gone awry. To reboot our self-talk, we need to practice “self-distancing” and talk to ourselves like a coach. Good coaches are able to motivate and inspire, while pushing people to be their best.
Step into your power
The potential for greatness is in all of us, but when our Inner Critic is present, it is like someone is snipping the buds off a new plant, and keeping it from growing. We have the power to banish that Inner Critic and grow to be fully magnificent. Banish your Inner Critic, step into your power, and change the world with your creations.