01/20/2012 11:28 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Confidence: Is it Your Inner Critic Talking, or are You Just Being Realistic?

How do I know if it's my inner critic telling me I can't do something, that I'm not good enough, I'm bound to fail, I'm not ready? How do I differentiate between that inner voice and the voice of reason?

Meet Claire.

Claire was a client of mine who dreamed of being an entrepreneur. For over two decades, she worked in senior roles in various retail companies, knowing that her real passion was starting her own business some day.

Her inner critic regularly chattered in her head about how she didn't have what it took to be successful and that pursuing her dream would be financially irresponsible toward her family.

Her musings about this possibility had, for many years, sounded like this:

I would love to start a retail business, I would love the independence and the challenge it would give me. I feel like its what I am meant to do ... but I don't have what it takes. People who start businesses need much more experience and a broader skill set. I don't have the access to capital either. And doing this would be irresponsible to my family. I would be putting them in great financial risk.

How do we know if this is her inner critic talking or if she's making a good assessment of the situation? Clearly, everyone doesn't have the skills to start a successful retail business. There is such a thing as rationally evaluating our deficits and weaknesses.

It turns out we can recognize this voice as the inner critic in Claire by picking up on a few clues:

• It is making a definite pronouncement, with very little evidence to back it up. It's interested in "the way things are." (This is always a red flag!)
• It's undertaking a premature evaluation of the question "Is it possible, or not?" rather than wondering, "What could be possible?" or, even better, "How can I make this possible?"
• It's stuck, repetitive. No real action is inspired by it.
• The energy behind the mental chatter is one of self-critique rather than self-care.
• The intention is shutting down forward movement, rather than opening up problem solving. There's no searching for solutions or good ideas.

Here's how thinking on the same topic could go, without the inner critic:

I would love to start a retail business, I would love the independence and challenge. I feel like it is what I am meant to do ... but I don't know if I have what is needed. Hmmm ... I wonder how I could find out what is needed and see how that fits with where I am. I wonder how I could start acquiring what I need. I'll do x to learn more about that this week ... feels exciting! I'm really committed to supporting my family financially. I wonder how I can do this and maintain that support. That's important to me and I really don't want to give it up.

In the second example below, you can hear curiosity, investigation, creativity and generative thinking.

Isn't it interesting that the second line of thought is actually much more rational than the first? There is an interest in real information gathering. There is a focus on the topic itself -- not on ego issues about one's own worth or merit. The second way of thinking rapidly leads to action, because no self-sabotage is standing in the way of the path forward.

You can recognize your critic by how it speaks to you. It's it making grand proclamations about reality or about the worst-case scenarios? It is repeating the same thing over and over again? That's the critic. Good, realistic, sound thinking examines the situation with a light heart and a focus on solutions. Feel the difference?

Tara Sophia Mohr is writer and teacher on women's leadership and wellbeing. She is the creator of the Playing Big women's leadership program and of the free10 Rules for Brilliant Women Workbook. She has been featured on The Today Show, and her work has appeared in ForbesWoman, USA Today, Big Think, Ode Magazine and numerous other publications. She is also the author of Your Other Names: Poems for Wise Living.