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Coaching to Flourish #075: Working With the Inner Critic

May 26, 2023 by Coach Training EDU

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Raj Anderson and guest experts answer your coaching questions each week!

In Coaching to Flourish #075, host Raj Anderson and CTEDU Founder John Andrew Williams explore all about the inner critic and imposter syndrome. Inner critic tools, insights about following the larger mission, and loving all parts of yourself are some of the main components of this inspiring episode. 

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Live Transcript (Edited for clarity)

[Raj Anderson] Welcome everyone to the Coaching to Flourish podcast, and I am your host, Raj Anderson, executive life coach and Coach Assessor. And I'm here with John Andrew Williams, the founder of Coach Training EDU. I hope you've been joining us every week. We answer your coaching questions. We also look at hot themes, trends, and topics in the coaching industry. And to remind everyone as well, if you do have coaching questions, please send them in to us at contact@coachtrainingedu.com. We'd love to hear from you, and we'd love to answer those questions. So, how are you, John?

[John Andrew Williams] Good. Yeah. It feels like a lot, but that's my job is to handle it. So yeah, good. But here we are. Happy Tuesday everyone. Happy Tuesday. 

[Raj Anderson] Happy Tuesday. In part as a territory, isn't it, in owning a business? 

[John Andrew Williams] It's fascinating. I feel like when I first started this journey I was a teacher, and there was a journey from being a teacher to being a full-time coach. The idea of being self-employed. Then now going from self-employed to owning and operating an organization. I feel like there's another leap of, building an organization that could essentially run on its own. It feels like I'm spending a lot more time organization running than actual coaching, but I still have this background and I love it. And this podcast, and hopping in on sample training sessions, or subbing every now and then, it does feed the soul.

But it's a really fascinating progression. A lot of it comes from this idea of the bigger game, which is from Laura Whitworth and Rick Hamlin. This idea that if you have a mission or vision or something that you're trying to create, you can allow that mission and vision to let you know what you need to do in order to fulfill it. And the quality of your leadership depends on the quality of the mission and vision you choose to undertake, and how well you listen to what needs to get done. 

So I think it's a useful flipping of the paradigm of leadership, or preparation for it. Which is, our traditional school system says, let's prepare you for everything and then send you out there. This way looks at, okay, let's look out there and then ask, what preparation is needed for that specific out there? And that's what I've been spending a lot of time today. 

[Raj Anderson] And John, how do you continue to listen to your inner wisdom when there's so many things going on? 

[John Andrew Williams] I'm not sure I do a great job with that all the time. I feel like there is definitely an element of clarity at times, where I think, this is very clear. A lot of it is measuring things, getting numbers on things. And then I was working with a coach and he said, make sure that your emotion is not too far ahead of the numbers. I love that idea. Because we have all these situations in our mind, you go back and forth, you think, should I do this, should I do that?

Then you just say, let's look at numbers. What do the numbers say? And that's not a small thing. Looking at numbers can be very scary. It takes a lot. Sometimes it feels like, okay, you're gonna slay this dragon. I'm going to go, and I'm gonna spend some time getting all the numbers that I need to do, or I'm gonna metric this out. That is sometimes very challenging. 

[Raj Anderson] I have questions around the inner critic and imposter syndrome today. And what about you? How does that show up for you? 

[John Andrew Williams] Imposter syndrome. I feel like I didn't - it never got me. And I think a lot of it is because I knew that the fundamentals of the field were strong from a client standpoint. My introduction to coaching was as a practice client. Amoise went through it. I was a guinea pig for a lot of her people. I loved it, and I knew from a firsthand experience how much I got out of a coaching session. So I knew that the fundamentals of the field were correct. 

I think a lot of people who come to coach training, they've never had a coaching session. The design of the program is literally designed for people to be coached in the two hour training sessions, so that they can understand, Akay, this is amazing. Like, I really like this part, when my coach interacts with me like this. I know I got so much value from being coached, that it's really baked into the whole experiential, engaged training program.

So my hope is that alleviates the imposter syndrome of the people going through the program because they feel, Oh wow. The practice works. It's worked on me. I know what it feels like. And then, to be able to deliver coaching on a weekly basis as well. There's just so much practice time and repetition and try different things, that simply showing up and listening and asking those powerful questions, doing a lot of the things that we talk about in the training, it provides so much value. There's so much value created in that setup.

So then the next biggest leap I feel like is the imposter syndrome around getting clients, establishing a business, or getting hired. And that is something that a lot of people take on with trepidation. I can understand that. I was financially month-to-month for years, just making by with only coaching clients.

I feel that, I know what that pain feels like. It's scary. It feels like a lot of uncertainty, a lot of taking deep breaths. However, if you're doing it for the sake of a larger mission and vision - again, going back to the thing we talked about in the beginning - imposter syndrome is a luxury that you simply can't afford.

That's fine, you may feel that way, but the mission is requiring this of you. So step up and do it. If it's not you, then who's it going to be? Who is going to have these conversations that change people's lives, if it's not you? You almost have a responsibility to get out there and do the thing that needs to get done. So go do the thing! And imposter syndrome, lovely, but it's a luxury to feel that. The mission requires different. 

[Raj Anderson] So I'm hearing a tip there for people. I work with a lot of leaders who face imposter syndrome as well. Focusing on your why, and the vision and mission, can help you to kind of overcome that imposter.

[John Andrew Williams] I was working with Marshall Goldsmith. We were in Dubai. We had this amazing session, where after we had given our presentations, he asked a couple of the presenters to hang out. You know, it's one of those surreal moments, is this really happening? How many more surreal-alities can we add to this, this soup, right? 

And he stopped me dead in the tracks. He said, okay, here's the deal. This is not about you. Full stop. And the the sooner you get this is not about you, the sooner you're able to roll up your sleeves and do the work that needs to get done without yourself in the way. 

From my experience, when people are establishing a coaching practice, myself included, getting yourself set is a full 50% of the work. And most people assume that they can set themselves. That that should just be the assumption or the given or the taken for granted. But it's not. You matter so much in your mindset, your heartset, the way that you show up for the sake of the mission, that the mission requires you to get over yourself, to do the thing that needs to get done.

And month after month I lived that, on the financial precipice, with a one-year-old and then a three-year-old, and another one-year-old. And it was - did I get the client, did I make the pitch? Did it work? And in that space, month to month what happened after a period of time, there becomes such a trust in the process, such trust in your work.

And that's where I feel like, how do I keep myself grounded? How do I find that insight? How do I stay with myself? As long as I'm working, I know that things are going to be okay, that we're gonna be safe. And that feels intense, and maybe it is, but that's what worked for me, and it continues to work for me.

So when faced with these really hard decisions, when faced with different directions, different opportunities to go, the place I go is, what does the mission require? It's not about me. It's not really about anybody. It’s about, what’s required out there. 

[Raj Anderson] And the mission is bigger than you is what I'm hearing.

[John Andrew Williams] Absolutely. One of the things about a bigger game too is, the idea is you're not really playing a bigger game. If you were to disappear and everything would stop, that's intense. Are you really carrying on a mission that has a larger vision, even larger than you? That's an exciting invitation. It really is. And I was fortunate enough to get that at the age of 27, embody it, and get it from one of the founders of the fields of coaching Laura Whitworth. And to have her  literally hold my hand and say, Go, you're ready. Go. Do the thing, change education, make it work. I can still remember that conversation very clearly.

[Raj Anderson] That's powerful, John. Thank you, thank you for sharing. You've created some really great tools and contributed a lot to the coaching industry. I know one of the tools around this is the inner critic tool. What led you to create that? 

[John Andrew Williams] It comes from - it's a long history of tools that are repurposed and used. My understanding of the inner critic - in counseling it can be called the parental voice, I forget what it's called in NLP, like the Inner Gremlin, I think it was a Gremlin, tame your gremlin at some point in time. Sports psychology, the inner game of tennis. Galway, I forget what he calls it. It might be inner critic. 

There is this idea that if you personify the critical voices that we tell ourselves, then you can create a little bit of distance between yourself and that inner voice, that negative inner voice. And then you can make it different characters. And when I was trained in inner critic work, gremlin work, we were really encouraged to make it really scary and big and huge, things to really personify the visual aspect of the pain it creates.

But when I was working with students, I realized very quickly that that was not going to go over very well. And a couple of students I was working with, they come home and their parents were very concerned. Like what did you, basically you create a monster, and now my child is talking about some - what is going on?

And I talked to the parents and explained why and where, and  that's when I realized no,  I can't just take this tool and use it as is. When you're working with students, let's modify and make the inner critic all like small, cartoonish. Do some of that work already of transformation, the inner transformation work. When I did that, I realized students liked it more. I stopped getting concerned parents calling me, I could explain to parents a little more like what was happening, and why it's working. 

Then I started with the executives doing the same things. I was like, we don't need to create these huge monstrous things that, some 400 pound gorilla in the corner that is just sitting there. Even though it might feel like that, take that 400 pound gorilla and make it four pounds and even make it less, like make it four ounces and make it sit over there. Or four grams, or whatever metric system you use, whatever measurement of mass you use.

It's better because, it even plays into theory. You're taking something that is extremely challenging and close to us, and we often identify with, and then you're putting all of that into a handle and then you're moving it out just slightly. And then facilitating a conversation with something that's already been diminished, something that is small and already somewhat transformed. It was even more effective. And the students liked it. And that was the tool, that was the modification that was needed. 

And now, I got a couple. I chat with them every now and then. It's interesting, they become friends after a while. I mean, if you're not in coaching this sounds bizarre, but it does. It becomes like, oh, you again, that's cute. Here we are dealing with the four gram gorilla again. Oh gosh, Raj. It goes on and on. 

[Raj Anderson] Yeah. You have a whole team, don't you? A whole team of, you got your future self there, and inner critics and inner wisdom. Mine is Regina, Snow White’s stepmother. She likes to show up, that character. 

Sometimes I get asked John, why a fictional character or a cartoon character, and people are often tempted to say, Oh, my inner critic is my mother or a teacher. Why personify it as kind of a fictional or cartoon character? 

[John Andrew Williams] Well, it's similar to when people use real people's names for a concept or a meme, and then you happen to have that name. It's really unfortunate. And, same ideas, you know? I know that, for instance, someone named their inner critic Sam, or Bob. Then you meet a Bob, you go, Oh. 

[Raj Anderson] There's an association there, isn't it? 

[John Andrew Williams] And okay, that's not great. So that's one. And that reason alone is enough. I mean, just don't do it. And it's so easy to not do it and then just create a different name, you know, create a different thing for it. And it's more useful too, to have a cartoony name, because it makes it a little more playful. It's just another element of play that you want to have with it that just avoids a pretty serious trap if it comes up. 

[Raj Anderson] And some people have strong internal dialogue, don't they? So it really depends on how the world is represented for you. Some of us are highly visual, some are highly kinesthetic, others are auditory. And I've heard people say before, I don't have inner dialogue, or I don't have a voice. Yet they are stuck or there is a block. So how would they identify an inner critic?

[John Andrew Williams] Yeah, that's a good question. I haven't run across much of that, of people who said they don't have an inner dialogue. But I mean, in our own minds, there's a certain separation, privacy. There's a certain place where there's only one set of footprints, it's your own. And there's work that only you can do. And my experience is that everyone has some dialogue, some image. It mostly shows up as words, but not always. But there is something that, it's a regulator. You know? It's a way for our brains to keep us safe. It's a way for us to not do every idea that pops in our head. So there's a real valuable use to the function of an inner critic, and it's a necessary part of us.

I've come to terms with, it's a part that deserves love and respect, like all aspects of self. But it's also one that needs to be used mindfully, in a certain way at certain times. And when there's that love and appreciation for that part of us, then we take away the judgment of it. And then you get out of the cycle of judging yourself harshly because you're judging yourself. And then, Oh no, I'm judging myself harshly again. Ah, stop judging, I'm judging my judging. And then people get into a judging-judging cycle. And that's what coaching stops. 

And people judge themselves, judge everything so much. And what coaching does is it replaces judgment with curiosity. That's an amazing thing. That's an amazing thing. And then when you do that with your inner critic, the places where you judge yourself the most, you just for five minutes take away that judgment and instead bring curiosity, this is where lives get changed. Those five minutes might change your life.

It's revolutionary in the sense that people might go their whole entire life with a private judgment that they've never actually said out loud. They've never actually told another human being. Might go their whole entire life. And when you're working with a coach, you have the opportunity to say it out loud. And knowing that when you're working with a coach in that space, they're not gonna judge you. If they're a coach that's trained, they're gonna approach it with curiosity. They're gonna ask, Okay, let's explore it. And then how do you want to use it? How do you want to even empower yourself in this part of yourself? Yeah. Make friends.

I was talking to a friend, and she was having a hard time with something. She handled a situation not the best, wish she had handled it differently, and was beating herself up slightly for it. And we're just talking about it, and she got to a point saying, this part of myself, like this is how it shows up. And the question was, okay, so what happens when you love that part too? And you could just see it, you could just feel the - it's almost like the thought train just just threw the break on. 

And that's what you get when you're in a coaching session. The whole thought train - I mean, that thought train may have continued the rest of her life. Just chugging away, hugging away. Just zooming by, zooming by. At least just stop for 30 seconds. And the track will never be the same again. That question, once asked, once experienced, you can't ever be the same after it. You maybe go back to an old habit, sure. But there's still a little bit of a habit of breaking that thought train. That's what you want, and that's what coaching sessions do. 

[Raj Anderson] That's huge, isn't it. Really shifting habits and programs and belief systems with that. So replacing judgment with curiosity. And as I was listening to you, John, talking about the brain, and how it's designed to keep us safe. And I read a meme once that said, don't believe everything that your brain says. I mean, something a bit more colorful than that, but it stuck with me. It really did. So how would you summarize your thoughts from this, John?

[John Andrew Williams] It's helpful to have a compass. Especially for big decisions, to have a strong decision making process, or at least a benchmark. And for me it's mission based. Like, what does the mission require? What does it require of me, what does it require for other people? If really truly doing this, it requires people to be all in. 

There's a certain energy that gets created when it feels like everyone is - the term that we call is a hundred-hundred. It's when you know you're giving a hundred and the other person is giving a hundred, you can feel it. And there's a certain level of, giddy excitement. And there's a certain level of like, you're rowing, I'm rowing. Like, we're in this. 

And when inner critics come up in that space, even hundred-hundred space, they don't hit the same way. They don't hit the same way. They become more like, Huh, that's interesting. Oh, that's here. How can I use it? They don't become Huh, the inner critic’s right. I'm just gonna shrink and become smaller and go away, and yeah, this mission is too big for me. I'm going over my head.

That's when imposter syndrome creeps in. That's when you feel like, unsettled, you know, that kind of thing. I go there sometimes. But the tools and the robustness of the people and the organization around me, it's like a buoy. It just pops back up in the water. It can't stay down long. It just can't. You can't. The mission doesn't require it. And it's not a toxic positivity. It's not like, Hey, the mission requires this so that it requires me to stay positive and all the time.

It's not that, it's not one answer, or trying to tell people not to feel a certain way. No. Sometimes you gotta feel the sad, you gotta feel the hard, you gotta feel the anger, you gotta feel the feels. That's what the mission requires. But it's a really lovely question to ask and it's one that I really do lean on a lot.

[Raj Anderson] And what I'm taking away from this is to have grace with yourself. It's human to experience imposter syndrome. It's human to experience the inner critic. You mentioned yours, and you are very successful. And some of the most successful people in the world - I read a quote, Einstein experienced imposter syndrome. Maya Angelou, there's actually a quote from her where she said, I've written 11 books, but each time I think, uh oh, they're going to find out now, I run a game on everybody and they're going to find me out. She never let it stop her, did she? She continued with the mission.

[John Andrew Williams] The mission required her to keep going. And it's so lovely that it's not about you. It really is. It's so lovely. Because it's like, you get the opportunity to take risk. You have the opportunity to take risk. I was looking at this one thing - and then, I know we’re over-time. But this one study, it boiled down to, you can't experience flow unless there is an opportunity for failure. How are you doing giving yourself opportunities for failure? Isn't that amazing? 

[Raj Anderson] It is. Thank you, John. Some great words of wisdom. So you can't experience flow unless there is opportunity for failure. So, yeah. And you learn so much from that as well. And maybe we'll pick more of this up next time. This has been a great conversation, John. Thank you for sharing your words of wisdom and knowledge with us today. 

[John Andrew Williams] Thank you, Raj. Thank you for the creating this space and letting me do my thing, and say things that I’ve been reading and researching, and feeling and thinking about. It's really a lovely opportunity to put words to a lot of what I feel like I've been exploring week to week. And it's so fun to do these and appreciate you, appreciate this audience and this space. 

[Raj Anderson] Thank you, John. We're grateful for you, grateful for the audience. Send us your questions and we look forward to seeing you next time. Thank you. Bye.

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