07/09/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Hard Economic Times Invoke Our Harsh Inner Critic

When we live with stress, we seem to get more critical of ourselves rather than more compassionate. Unfortunately, if one has a harsh inner critic lurking in the psyche, it comes to the fore when things get tough.

The economic crisis is wreaking havoc on some peoples' self-confidence and raising the voice of their inner critic. In my therapy and coaching practice I'm beginning to hear more and more people talk about regretting decisions they made and feeling anger at themselves for past "mistakes." I'm hearing people talking about what they "should" and "shouldn't" have done to have averted their personal crisis and to have prevented diminishing retirement funds.

One coaching client of mine, a business consultant who has been very successful in his past, is saying that he "failed" because he couldn't provide the ultimate financial security he has expected of himself. He and his wife were planning to downsize from their large suburban home anyway, but now that they need to, the move is experienced as a "failure." Another client, a formerly very successful woman who ran a construction company, is going bankrupt. Her company worked for years by borrowing large sums to handle large projects. It all worked when the economy was doing well. But now, given the way her company's finances were structured, she will loose everything. Living from one panic attack to another, her identity has disappeared and she feels like a failure. Her internal dialogue tells her she is a "loser," a message she had gotten as a young child.

When we are stressed or frightened we do emotional reasoning rather than logical reasoning and we make cognitive distortions. We take one instance and blow it out of proportion: "If I only hadn't said that one thing, the deal would have gone through." We take things personally: "I know she was singling me out at that meeting when she said...." We believe our emotions represent truth: "I feel like a loser, so I am one."

Under stress we simplify complex realities and distort them. My business consultant client and I peeled back his assumptions about "failure". Born to an emotionally compromised mother and an alcoholic dad who left when he was 12, he decided early that he would make it on his own, ask for nothing, and disregard any soft feelings that would bring him down. Ambitious, bright and willing to work hard, he dedicated himself to excellence and success in his sphere. Now, in his mid 50s, his work opportunities are limited and his savings have dwindled. In feeling badly about his circumstances, he is telling himself stories that are not necessarily true. He "should" have saved more...he "should" have seen it coming because he read all the journals...he "shouldn't" have told that CEO 10 years ago exactly what he thought...etc. Regrets for past decisions and self incriminations were my client's daily mantras.

My client needed to take an objective look at his many successes, the current economic realities, what has been in his control and that which is entirely out of his control. We talked about how a long and successful career involves lots of "mistakes," risks that work and don't work, and opportunity for learning and moving on. As we took the pieces apart, he could see that it was his inner critic that was doing his career analysis, not his more rounded intellect that can take into account lots of factors and different work contexts. He could name that his current situation is not because of poor decisions, but just outcomes of circumstances over time and the twists and turns of fate. And most important of all, he could see the legitimacy of his sense of loss and disappointment as separate from his "fault."

Many of us live with the voice of a harsh inner critic that keeps us focused on what we haven't done, haven't yet accomplished and makes self demeaning commentary. This voice can be powerful, but can also be countered by developing a the voice of an internal coach. Here are some ways that an inner coach can help you:
1) Raise awareness of your critical voice. Awareness is the first step in the change process. Get clear on the ways in which you beat yourself up.
2) Begin to interrupt the critic's voice every time you hear it. Be prepared with a counter-position that works for -- a neutral or positive statement that is the voice of reality.
3) Practice using this new voice even when it is uncomfortable. It will be unfamiliar and remain uncomfortable for a while; that's why we practice.
4) Eliminate the words "should" and "shouldn't" from your vocabulary.
5) Examine the cognitive distortions that are thought patterns you carry.
6) Consider whether or not you believe that your inner critic is your most productive guide -- it probably is not.
7) Find a good therapist or coach to help you both understand how your critic got to be so strong, and then to help you practice counterbalancing it.
8) Investigate other ways to work with your Inner Critic through