Tools To Quiet Dancers’ Inner Critic
with Ashley Mowrey
In my last post, we explored 4 things that get in the way of a dancer’s healthy mindset. These included perfectionism, stress, fear, and negative self-talk. Today, let’s dive deeper into negative self-talk, often referred to as the inner critic and tools to quiet it.
In an article exploring negative self-talk, PsychAlive says, “The critical inner voice is an internal enemy that can affect every aspect of our lives, including our self-esteem and confidence, our personal and intimate relationships, and our performance and accomplishments at school and work. These negative thoughts affect us by undermining our positive feelings about ourselves and others and fosters self-criticism, inwardness, distrust, self-denial, addictions as a retreat from goal-directed activities.”
For years, as a competitive dancer and then a dance teacher, I struggled with negative self-talk. I was constantly directed by that voice that told me, “you’re not good enough, you’re not ready, you are embarrassing yourself, you’re a disappointment”. I thought my inner critic was my true voice, and I thought I was the only one struggling with it.
Surprise, surprise…turns out I was wrong on all accounts. My inner critic isn’t my true voice, and I’m not the only one struggling with it. In fact, we all have an inner critic to some degree, even profoundly successful and talented people. In her book, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life, Twyla Tharp writes about her fears before each creative endeavor. She writes, “There are mighty demons, but they're hardly unique to me. You probably share some. If I let them, they'll shut down my impulses ('No, you can't do that') and perhaps turn off the spigots of creativity altogether.” It was refreshing to read that even a dancer and choreographer as accomplished and brilliant as Twyla Tharp still has this voice of self-doubt and criticism. I’m not alone, neither are you, neither is the dancer you compare yourself to.
Like me, you might be wondering, “but what if my inner critic motivates me?” Ah, yes. This pesky voice can, in fact, be quite motivating. It sure drove my perfectionism for years, which from the outside looking in may have looked like I was thriving. But inside was a different story. Licensed Professional Counselor, Rachel Eddins, says “It is a cultural norm to believe that criticism or guilt-induced comments will motivate behavior. Perhaps the thinking is that if you realize that your actions aren’t good enough or ideal, you’ll want to change.”
She goes on to say, “Unfortunately, this type of communication is anxiety-provoking and shaming, which is the opposite of motivation. It triggers us to avoid, reduce anxiety and stay safe. Avoidance (reducing anxiety) is not the same as motivation to change. Avoidance generally includes things such as procrastination, addictive behaviors (such as overeating, grazing when not hungry, drinking, smoking); behaviors such as constantly checking your smartphone, or watching excessive TV; or even avoiding the source of the criticism or shame such as the person, activity, place, or even yourself (i.e., staying busy to stay out of your own head).”
Before we learn tools to quiet it, let’s take a look at how to recognize our inner critic’s voice. For most of us, this voice is such a part of our automatic inner dialog that we don’t notice it. We can even believe it’s our true voice or just realistic thinking. Check out this list from Life Coach and Author Tara Mohr for common qualities of the inner critic. You may not have all 11, but see which ones you can relate to. For me, my inner critic is definitely black and white, harsh and rude, the voice of perfectionism, and loves a good 1-2 punch, which is when your inner critic attacks or shames you for the critical thoughts it put there. This 1-2 punch might sound like your inner critic convincing you to not go to the front in an audition for fear of not being ready. Then it follows that up with, “Wow, I can’t believe you didn’t get in the front. I told you so. If you can’t do that then you’re not good enough to be here”.
Once you have an idea of the qualities of your inner critic, then it’s time to start quieting it. The first step is to simply notice and label your inner critic. Grab some paper and jot down when you hear your inner critic the loudest and what it most commonly says. This will bring awareness to your automatic thoughts and give you some insight into your inner critic. From there, when you hear it, say to yourself, “There’s my inner critic.” You can even compassionately acknowledge it but saying something like, “I hear you, inner critic. But I’ve got this”.
After you’re able to notice and label your inner critic, spend some time trying out these tools from Tara Mohr. Think of it as an experiment, as some will resonate with you more than others. Try each out a few times and see which works best for you. My favorite that has been my go-to for years is to personify my inner critic. Now when I hear that voice, I can picture it as the character I have created and imagine turning down her volume. To hear me doing a demo of this tool from Tara Mohr’s methods, check out dance education expert and fellow Apolla Blog Contributor, Erin Pride’s Dance Boss Podcast Episode 58. At about 23:30 minutes, I walk Erin through a few inner critic tools including describing the inner critic, picturing it as a character, and shrinking it. I even made a free, digital version of these tools for you to download and save that you can get in the podcast’s show notes.
While we’re exploring what to do to quiet your inner critic, let’s also touch on what not to do with your inner critic. It may be an automatic response to argue with your inner critic or meet it with anger, but it’s not effective and can even make it worse. In her book, Playing Big, Tara Mohr says that we can think of our inner critic as a small child acting up because of fear. Yelling or communicating out of anger will not acknowledge the scared feelings of your inner critic, and will likely agitate it more. She also advises that arguing won’t work because our inner critic is a master at coming up with 1,000 reasons to keep us stuck. Tara says, “You don’t have to win the argument with your inner critic; you simply have to step away from the conversation”. The best way to do that? Practice, practice, practice those tools above.
Whether you’re a dancer, dance teacher, or dance parent, I hope you will take these tools into your daily life and remember your inner critic isn’t your true voice and doesn’t have to direct your life.
If you’re interested in my work, head to my website to learn more and see how we can work together to build your healthy mindset to navigate the dance world at your best. You can also find me on Instagram for more free tools, resources, and inspiration.
Ashley Mowrey is a Performance Mindset Coach located in Fayetteville, AR. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from The University of Arkansas and is a trained facilitator in Tara Mohr’s Playing Big Leadership Program for Women. Ashley trained as a competitive dancer out of Dallas, TX before teaching and eventually directing a company and dance studio in Fayetteville, AR. It was during those years that she felt drawn towards the dancer’s mindset and the need for training and tools in the dance community. Now, as a Performance Mindset Coach, she is also a dance specialist with Dancers for Doctors. Ashley has also recently been featured on Dance Studio Amplified Podcast, (Ep. 14), Dance Boss University Mastermind guest presenter, and episode 58 of Dance Boss Podcast.