Five Ways to Shut Up Your Inner Critic

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By Sally O’Dwyer

Dressage riders are too hard on themselves, mostly because they tend to be type A people, ambitious and determined in their quest for the ultimate flawless performance. While we have some fabulous attributes, our desires to achieve and compete in a challenging sport can lead us to frustration and self-criticism, no thanks to our inner critic. 

The inner critic is loud and obnoxious, especially when performing. A liar and a bully, the inner critic puts you down, nitpicks, and demeans you. It blows things out of proportion, preys upon insecurities, undermines accomplishments, and replays mistakes over and over.

The inner critic screams untruths like: “you stink; you are an embarrassment to the sport of dressage; you are too old and look ridiculous; you have no talent whatsoever; with all the training and lessons you take, you really should be doing a much better job”. 

The inner critic is not based on fact—it’s based on past feelings of shame, guilt, and embarrassment. The inner critic is formed during childhood, born out of everyday negative incidents, such as bullying on the playground, harsh words from parents, or teasing by siblings. This is a natural part of growing up.  Everyone has an inner critic, even if they had a wonderful childhood, because these feelings are perceived, and often not even real.

Do not catastrophize like me! I recently competed in a dressage competition where my horse was nervous and tense. I became stressed out, and our performance quickly fell apart.  As I struggled to keep us together, my inner critic went berserk. I froze under the weight of the negative chatter, rendering me incapable of addressing the problem.  I completely lost perspective. Since then, I have been working on shutting up my inner critic…we can train our brain and free ourselves to do what we want to do.

5 ways to tame your inner critic:

Meet your inner critic head on and tell it you are onto it!

Even though the inner critic is in your head, once you recognize that it is just your inner critic making drama, you can choose to ignore and separate yourself from it.  Evaluate your inner critic in a non-biased way, challenge the fake news, and tell it to buzz off. Just because it is screaming its head off at you does not mean you have to believe it.   

Interview your inner critic

Trainer Mary Wanless suggests that you interview your brain since, basically, you are allowing it free rein to coach you. Asking questions will  help you conclude that your brain has no business telling you that you stink.

A few questions to ask your inner critic are:

How did you come to be an expert in dressage?

How much theory have you studied?  What are your training methods?

Are you a Grand Prix rider?  How many horses have you trained to Grand Prix?

Have you been to the Olympics? Where have you shown?

Replace it.

When the inner critic starts its crap, fight back with your supportive, loving “friend brain”!  Your friend brain believes in you and knows about the progress you have made.  Using the positive soundtrack in your brain can drown out the inner critic.  You can raise the volume of your friend brain by practicing gratitude. Remember how fortunate you are to have your horse and be involved in the amazing sport of dressage. Mary Wanless suggests that you shut down the inner critic when it gets loud by saying “NEXT!”  Or, you can say, “Blah, blah blah. Here we go again!” Share your feelings with your friends—no doubt they can relate!

Redirect your inner critic by attacking the problem, not yourself. 

Take time to reflect on your performances and challenges and come up with solutions. Having a plan is empowering and shuts down your inner critic. Maintain a positive mindset, you can seize the opportunity to improve. Talk to your trainer or vet, and come up with a plan to mitigate the challenge at the next show

Give your inner critic a silly name. Mine is “BOGUS”.

How about naming yours “nag”, “chump”, “witch”, “the big blab”, or “mean girl”?  Think of your inner critic as a cartoon character with a high pitch cartoony voice. 

Get to know your inner critic and the stories it is telling you—remember they sound like exaggerated failure talk that is loud and mean. Be vigilant and kick this nasty beast out.

Shrink your inner critic by practicing self-love, affirming yourself, and staying positive.  We all have doubts and fears, but whether we let them get in the way of our riding and competition, is up to us. Know that your inner critic does not have the facts, is inaccurate, and works against you!  Its criticism is not constructive-its destructive. The sooner you realize this, the sooner you can turn it off. 

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