7 min read

Quarantined With The Critic

On being trapped with your own worst critic (yourself) and how to fight back.
Quarantined With The Critic
Photo by Hiroshi Kimura / Unsplash
This post was originally published on March 22, 2020 on andyellwood.com.

That small voice has never been too far away, but now it feels much too close. That small voice always ready to point out my shortcomings, my faults, and ask me to relive my failures in full color - it used to be under control but now, I’m quarantined with it and its attacks are louder and more frequent than I’ve ever experienced.

I’m quarantined with The Critic.

We all meet The Critic for the first time at different moments in our lives. For some, we can’t remember a time that it wasn’t there second guessing our every move from our early childhood on, giving us anxiety that at the time went by a bunch of other names: disruptive, rebellious, moody, or worse. For me, I was fortunate to operate in the oblivion of good self esteem and an encouraging support system early in life but was later caught completely off guard when the assumptions I’d had about life came crashing down around me. I’d officially met The Critic and had to learn how to deal with it while in battle against its loud and frequent attacks.

A lot of us found different ways to keep The Critic at bay. We’d surrounded ourselves with others who were of a similar mindset that, knowing or unknowingly, were using similar tactics against their own Critics. Different tribes found different unifying themes:

  • The Accomplishment Crew - Find a milestone and devote enough energy to it that any time The Critic chimed in, you could point to your progress and how much closer you were to the goal at hand.
  • The Feedback Loop of Others - any barrage by The Critic could be shut down by the most recent gold star, performance review, or like-count on your last post.
  • The Service of Others - fighting back to any jabs by The Critic with their most recent fundraiser or picture of them helping and a person in need.
  • A Community of Fellow Critics - those who all leaned in and embraced its barbs and turned them from an attack on them to be fodder for their attacks on others, often from behind the safety of their screens.

At a certain point in life, I’d understand that The Critic will never leave me or any of us alone. Maybe I’d grown tougher skin. Or maybe I found comfort in the consistency and we could at least be on the look out to recognize the next attack. I wasn’t happy about it, but at least it was a known quantity.

But then this happened. This wildly disruptive pandemic that will leave no one untouched of unaffected. And as the realities of this time in world history are just beginning to be revealed and I’m just getting a handle on being sent to home for quarantine and the reality sets in that The Critic is headed there with me.

I’m quarantined with The Critic.

All of the structures and daily norms that I’ve built, all of the tactics and strategies for this warfare, each and every protocol that I’ve previously counted on now has a different set of variables for me to consider. And I know The Critic thrives in uncertainty and has been moving faster than me to take ground in this new normal. The Critic is using the unpredictability of the moment to play its top hits.

  • The Critic is revealing my lack of confidence in areas I previous thought I had on lock.
  • The Critic is showing where my plans for the future come up short.
  • The Critic is bringing me face to face with how close I’ve been to the edge and it’s pushing me closer.
  • The Critic is playing with my fear of the unknown and putting all of the pressure of the new unknowns on full display.
  • The Critic is boldly challenging me that I have the ability to react to this situation with any kind of success.
  • The Critic was made for moments like this and wants me to believe that I wasn’t.

So I take a deep breath.  I acknowledge that some or all of these things attacks are happening to me now. This is not something that has happened before, but it is something that I am going to have to deal with head on because it is not going away any time soon. And even when it does, everything will be different than before. That leads me to believe the right question to ask right now is this: Will the differences in that future be better or worse than the way things were before?

I know I can’t escape The Critic, I never have. I also know I have to meet it on this new battle field. It is more personal than its ever been and I don’t have our normal arsenal of weapon and I need to move quickly.  Here is what I know and what am doing to fight back:

  • I Am Not Alone - This week I’ve been a part of dozens of conversations with corporate executives, start up founders, and other fellow executive coaches that have made it clear to me, no one is immune. Anyone moving with an air of superiority right now is just a better actor than me. Some of the conversations I’ve had this week have looked a lot more like AA meetings than corporate strategy conference calls. Each time I’m having even the slightest moment of doubt from The Critic, I am going to take a moment and reach out to a friend or a colleague because I’m sure that they are dealing with this too.
  • Name It and Claim It - When coaching, clients often start our sessions what’s immediately bothering them and taking the most of their energy that week. The further we drill into the topic at hand, the more specific we get about the root of the cause. By naming the root cause, we take ownership of whatever piece of it is ours and also claim victory against The Critic by cutting through and moving past the fake symptoms, the decoy distractions, that it was throwing in our way. Humility and honesty about the real things I am feeling, and that I have what it takes to deal with them, that is the win I’m going to claim.
  • Own What You Control - The moments after the reading of The Serenity Prayer are often soothing and ones of comfort. In this moment specifically, I’m going to make them a call to action. I am more viscerally aware of the things I don’t control than ever before. But in that knowledge, I’m going to choose to focus on the inverse, use that insight to clearly define what I do control and pour all of my focus there.  This is where the milestones are, this is where the feedback loop is valuable, this is the foundation of rebuilding my defenses against The Critics.
  • Hustle While I Wait - Some of the top executives and founders I spoke to this past week were already playing offense. They were empathetic to the situation at hand and had done all they could for their teams and companies to be prepared to ride this out, but they were moving quickly to build “that thing we’ve never been able to dedicate the time or resources to” projects. For some it was rebuilding a part of their website or updating marketing materials, for others it was experimenting with a new feature or pushing forward a product to beta. This is a chance to push forward innovation, new ideas, and claim a victory down the road because this time was used wisely.
  • Fight Your Own Battle - Everyone is going to lean into this time differently. The things that keep me sane are almost exactly opposite from what keeps my pre-quarantine equally active girlfriend sane. An introverted friend of mine told me that she is calling all her extroverted friends to check on them because no matter what their social media says, they aren’t doing as well as they want everyone to think. Truth. You don’t have to get into shape, start a new diet, read every new article, take every Masterclass, or write the next great self-help book. You need to learn and do the things that keep your mind and body healthy.
  • This Too Shall Pass - I am uncertain how the next few weeks and months play out. It will play out differently for everyone simply based on where you are in the world. But I do know that there is an end to the current speed and spread of uncertainty. Every day is one day closer to the stemming of the tides and the beginning of the rebuilding of our world. I will not miss the chance to be overly prepared for when that tipping point occurs and know what I am doing to help bring my world back to stability as quickly as possible.

I know we are all going to handle our battle with The Critic differently. But none of us will escape this moment in history without this very personal fight. It will look and feel different for you than it will for me, but it will be equally challenging even if in different ways. But one thing is for sure, if we can each have the humility to acknowledge our Critic and its amped up antagonist role in the days and weeks ahead, we will find the strength to face it head on. Now is when I am working to be even clearer on its role in my life and working through my plan to come out of this time with a new found freedom and have done the work keep The Critic in quarantine long after I’ve been released.

If this rang true for you and you’re feeling like The Critic has you up against the ropes and you’re not sure how to fight back, let me know and I’d love to see if there is something I can do to be helpful.

For Corporate Challenges: I worked with a team at Sub Rosa to put together some white papers on employee engagement, acting with empathy while staying on brand, how to work remotely with good professional hygiene, and more. Would be happy to send you a copy and see if there is anything else we can be doing to help think through future proofing your business.

For Start Up Teams: My coaching firm The Velocity Group, has been offering free group coaching session for start up founders and their teams. If you think you or your team would benefit from drilling in on the challenges at hand and working with a coach to put a plan in place, we’d love to make ourselves available.

For Individuals: My inbox and my call back list are uniquely up to date. Want to find a time to chat and jam on beating back The Critic? Let’s get some time on the schedule asap.

If I can be helpful to you in anyway, shoot me a note and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.