Your Inner Voice: Friend or Foe?
One of the least talked about aspects of owning a business is that pretty much everything starts and ends with us—the business owners—whether we're a company of one or many. Someone intently judges what we say and do, the choices we make and those we don't, our comings and goings—even if that someone is us. Like a spotlight following our every move, that level of scrutiny can weigh us down. The irony is this: we sign up to be business owners and accept the risks as part of the deal. No one drags us kicking and screaming to register our business name and sign the documents that give us control of our business. The desire to become a business owner often comes from a deep-seated need for independence. We want to call the shots, to no longer be at the whim of a boss. Then the reality of running a business hits, and it boils down to managing people—customers, employees, contractors, vendors. And of course, we make mistakes, especially when things move fast. With no one to report to, our inner critic takes charge of our performance review—setting up camp in the passenger seat as we drive to and from work and by our bedside as we attempt to fall asleep each night. Rarely, if ever, do we hear "this is what you're doing well." Areas where we can "improve" quickly become areas where we "suck." Of course, good times have a way of erasing the criticism of the self that typically accompanies down turns. The high of winning a big client, perhaps even a string of strong financial quarters, takes the pressure off. We breathe a little easier knowing we can make the payment on the bank loan, that we can make payroll. Heck, we might even achieve a profit for the year. But of course, we don't want to get ahead of ourselves—"optimism can be dangerous," our inner voice warns. What if our inner voice doesn't have to sound like that? What if it could be more cheerleader than critic? What would it take for self compassion to be the norm rather than self criticism? I didn't know it could be any other way until about four years ago. Perfectionism was the standard set by my inner voice as I built my businesses. Riding me hard seemed the best way for my inner voice to ensure I delivered excellence to my clients. It took being knocked flat on my back by a spinal cord injury to learn this lesson:
Self compassion is a better way to heal than self criticism.
My body recovered better when I encouraged my efforts with, "Come on legs, you've got this." Learning to walk again went a lot smoother when I led with optimism and faith in my ability to heal. There was no place for perfectionism; only cheering my wins, even when they were tiny. On some of my darker days, the accomplishments I celebrated were things I used to do effortlessly—brushing my teeth, putting on my clothes, making my breakfast, arriving on time for a physical therapy appointment, putting one foot in front of the other. There was no place for multi-tasking or rushing mindlessly through, so I did one thing at a time with my full attention. Like a Buddhist monk, my daily activities became moving meditations. As I pieced together my business nine months post injury, I wondered if a kinder inner voice could yield better results than my more critical one. When I focused on what I "could" do rather than what my inner critic thought I "should" do, my body was lighter, my mind more content. Since then, I've learned that I'm not alone in this revelation about the role of the inner voice. While listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Happiness Lab, with Dr. Laurie Santos, I've run across several experts who advocate for self compassion over self criticism as a means of self improvement. Here are three episodes to add to your queue that offer ideas on how to encourage positive self talk: 1) Dr. Rachel Turow, author of The Self-Talk Workout: Six Science-Backed Strategies to Dissolve Self-Criticism and Transform the Voice in Your Head, recommends a daily “self-talk workout” to do alongside squats and push-ups. You can learn about her exercises on The Happiness Lab Podcast and in her book. 2) Ethan Kross, author of the book Chatter: The Voice in our Head (And How to Harness It), offers strategies to help your inner critic steer away from negative self-talk. You can learn about his strategies on The Happiness Lab Podcast and in his book. 3) Dr. Kristin Neff, author of Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, offers tips on how to dump your inner drill sergeant and turn on your kindness coach. Take her self-compassion quiz and learn about her tips on The Happiness Lab Podcast and in her book. As you can probably surmise, practicing self compassion will be one of the key focus areas with my business owner clients in 2023. It fits nicely in our intentions for self care. A great place to start is a simple practice I learned on the podcast with Dr. Rachel Turow. She recommends focusing on the breath and saying to yourself the following mantra. Inhale → "Breathe in, my friend." Exhale → "Breathe out, my friend." Repeat for 10 breaths. The breath is our most powerful and accessible tool for bringing us to the present. So give this practice a try. Notice how you feel when your inner voice sounds more like your best friend. My hunch is that you'll find a little more peace after those ten breaths. That's what happens to me. Let me know how it works for you.