Career & Life Advice

Putting the Inner Critic on mute

Sunday, 16 Oct, 2022

Very few of us are immune to that inner dialogue that’s, shall we say, unhelpful at best, and harmful at worst. It’s an internal voice that shares insights that aren’t necessarily accurate. Have you ever had that feeling that everyone around you knows more than you? That everything you’ve achieved has been down to good luck and not really deserved? Say hello – and farewell –  to your inner critic.

Why would an obviously competent, capable doctor doubt their own ability? It’s actually a scenario that’s incredibly common in medicine and beyond. In fact, many doctors struggle at some point with managing the inner critic – more on that shortly. It contributes to a false sense that they don’t deserve to be there, often when they’re stepping up into a more senior role. One of the reasons it’s so widespread is that it’s associated with being a high achiever or a perfectionist, very common traits amongst doctors. It’s also more common in those who work in competitive or highly stressful occupations and in those whose families placed a high value on achievement and success. Sound familiar?!

So what does the inner critic look like, or more accurately, sound like? In performance psychology circles it’s often described as a pattern of internalised, destructive thoughts that undermine positive experiences as well as invalidate an existing state of being. Sometimes known as Imposter Syndrome, in real world terms, it’s that nagging voice in your head making you question your decisions. It’s dreading that people are going to find out that you don’t know as much as you should. It’s feeling positive that every other intern (or registrar or consultant) has it all together while you’re constantly doubting yourself. It shows up in lots of subtle ways and the really cruel thing about it is that everyone feels like they’re the only one with this voice in their ear, amplifying their worst fears about themselves as people and as doctors.

But it’s incredibly common. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 97% of medical students and doctors experience this at some point in time. Doctors who feel different in some way from their peers, based on ethnicity, gender, sexuality or age, are particularly at risk. Some studies suggest it’s more common in women but men certainly experience it too, although cultural expectations mean that they probably express it differently (or not at all!).

So, how do we deal with this secret epidemic that leaves doctors questioning their abilities and their knowledge?

The first step is acknowledging that while these feelings are real – they are not classed as auditory hallucinations, rather internalised dialogue – but they’re not based in reality. Let’s look at the facts. You’ve got to where you are and achieved what you have through your incredible ability and your hard work.

You absolutely deserve your successes!

Sure, you’re not perfect. Guess what – nobody is. Those doctors who you’re sure have it all together are potentially in that 97% struggling with their sense of self due to their own inner critic. You’re not alone. I work with lots of doctors who struggle to accept their incredible accomplishments and it’s so important that we have open conversations about this. I find that realising just how many people around you have their own mean voice is enormously reassuring.

Recognising the voice of that inner critic and learning how to turn down the volume is an essential step to having a medical career your love. Having external validation, a cheer squad, to pick you up when you doubt yourself is invaluable. My work with doctors offers education, support and encouragement to talk about your self-doubt. The Bigger Picture, my online program for women doctors to live a life they love within a thriving medical career, is a safe space where women doctors can learn strategies to live and work in alignment with their values within a supportive network of women who get it. Find out more here.

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