Dealing with harsh inner critics and core beliefs of ‘not good enough’

How can we pave the way for kids and teens to learn and grow – whatever the outcome?

This newsletter is written with a joint focus – for parents and teachers. We all have learned about Dweck’s research on fostering a ‘Growth Mindset’ – so that our children and pupils are looking at, benchmarking and celebrating their process rather than outcomes. This relies on two things:

  1. The capacity to internalise positive experiences – to mark progress along the way, notice it, recognise it, savour it, build on it…
  2. The emotional agility to respond to disappointments, imperfections, and shortcomings with resilience. To be able to take the hit, feel the pain and bounce back – OR to be able to give oneself a soft landing when experiencing those shortfalls between aspiration / expectation and result.

And this is something that parents and teachers work hard at doing. I know from my experience as a former Deputy Head, how much time is taken in creating and refining assessment policies so that the feedback given is as constructive as possible.

Building tolerance for distress and discomfort is central for mental health and wellbeing. It’s the conundrum of being able to accept our imperfections, learn and grow from them without developing harmful coping strategies that have the effect of amplifying distress such as the avoidance of school refusal, or the avoidance of criticism through perfectionism.

Nonetheless – and this will be familiar to many of us…it is all too often that we see young people being fixed in an attitude that is like Velcro for criticism, and a non-stick pan for praise.

Right now, mock exam results are in for GCSE and A Level students alike. Options are being considered, and parents’ evenings had…Year 6 parents are awaiting the outcomes of entrance exams, banding tests, scholarship applications…And how will these outcomes be processed – as work in progress? Second best? A major threat? A failure?

How can we encourage them to foster that inner generosity and develop that secure base to take in the good, in order for them to learn and grow whatever the outcome? To pick themselves up and as Beckett famously wrote – to try again, fail again, and fail better…

Much has been said in previous newsletters about the quality of our self-talk being pivotal to our wellbeing. Our relationship with others, and our relationship with our work, is contingent to a good degree on the relationship we have with ourselves. Quite often we have grown up with the point of view that criticism gets results. That we have to spur ourselves on.

Seasoned readers know that I enjoy horse racing, in particular Jumps racing. And there is that moment in a race – usually towards the end – when jockeys start to work the horse harder. And the use of the whip is very strictly regulated and increasingly limited. It is meant to be used for safety, and encouragement. And only 7 times in longer jumps races – which are often 2-3 miles long.

Freud made the comparison between the mind and the control of a horse in his 1927 paper, The Ego and the Id. This was the model that he published in the earlier part of the 20th Century, with its legacy of the Victorian era. He made the analogy to a carriage as a vehicle for direction and action. The horse was the ID – the instinctual, more primitive and animal self that is nonetheless the powerhouse behind the way we activate. The Ego was the driver of the carriage, the rational part of the brain that would repress the urges and desires of the more primitive ID that are taboo – but the driver is ultimately never in full control. He compared the superego to a father, sitting behind the driver or ego, giving a critique…

Now it is worth considering how we operate as parents and teachers – and consider how we are essentially back-seat drivers in the futures of the children we care for. Our skill and agility in managing feedback, will have an influence on how that young person relates to themselves – whether they are heavy on their inner whip, or able to nurture their drivers in different ways, using softer, and typically healthier approaches.  

It is always helpful to attune to the temperament of the child or teen we want to galvanise into growth. So interesting that I defaulted to the word ‘galvanise’ there – which means shock or excite into action, or to coat with a protective layer…It makes me pause and question. Are we wanting to galvanise or encourage…there’s a slight harshness in-baked that is so ready…

We know that perfectionism, and impostor syndrome are very much on the rise. We will also see a lot of procrastination, and avoidance as a response to the potent sense of fear that we all have deep within – that we’re not good enough. For some young people, those fears – of being different, or insufficient, can be truly incapacitating. Seen in the rise of school refusal.

From the moment we’re initiated into the verbal world – and probably beforehand, we all seek attention and approval from our caregivers. And we have hundreds of thousands of interactions with parents, caregivers, and teachers that shape us and shape our inner critic.

We learn very quickly, that if we present as being calm, quiet, happy, able to focus and perform the tasks we are set, we get praise. We also learn very quickly the distaste for us being disruptive, sad, angry, or outside our zone of tolerance and unable to be receptive. And we adapt and seek to be our childish and teenage projection of what we think is wanted. In the teenage years, there’s often a rebellion and testing of those spoken and unspoken expectations as the developmental process of reworking attachments gets underway.

This can result in exceptionally testing behaviour for parents and schools. Boiling down to core questions – do you love and care for me enough to limit me? Will you love me, even though I’m different…am I loved and lovable as I actually am?

From time to time, these questions can be real sticking points, leaving parents and teachers feeling pushed and pulled out of their chosen roles – eg to be more authoritarian and punitive. Or to have to slow down, meet the young person where they are at and demonstrate again and again, a commitment to them. As a school leader, I would spend a great deal of time focusing on how more troubled youngsters could internalise the notion that they were indeed needing limits set. AND there was still a place for them to come back from the disciplinary line and invest, find belonging, grow, and thrive.

The human condition is such that we are wired to promote our survival rather than our sense of happiness, wellbeing, and satisfaction – to paraphrase Forrest Hanson in the ‘Being Well’ podcast he shares with his father, author and Clinical Psychologist, Rick Hanson. And here’s the rub, our inner need to be attached, and our fear of being rejected as not good enough, often means that many pupils, our children, are in effect using the whip inwardly the whole time.

One of the problems with the inner whip being over used, is that sometimes we can see those effects externally – in the perfectionist burning the midnight oil…in frenetic activity. But sometimes it’s just too too much. The over-whipped horse will not approach the start line with ease and confidence. The opposite is often what we see, an inability to take action.

How do we want the children and young people we are nurturing and educating to be?

Driven by fear? Flogging themselves with ever more harshness that there is always more they can do, they could have done better… And we know the some of the results of these inner scripts – burnout, or avoidance, like a jittery horse that won’t even make it to the start line…Or someone who will grow to find difficulty in praising and finding the good in others…dissatisfied, critical, blaming, nothing’s ever really good enough. It’s always the fault of some other circumstance…someone else, the teacher not being good enough, the school not being right…

Or is there another way, where we can help young people, our pupils and our children feel called to action by something more intrinsic…After all, it is interesting to note that when Freud wrote about the Ego, Id, and the Superego, he did so at the dawning of the era of the car. In modern psychology, we know more about the science of motivation, and the weaknesses of relying on willpower – which all too often is really ‘won’t’ power. I won’t be bad at maths, I won’t be a smoker, I won’t be lazy, I won’t be X, Y Z, whatever it is I want to change.

What can we do to give them experiences that might help them tilt towards that ideal where they really, deeply, in their core, can give themselves the permission and safety to try, to fail, to partially succeed? To feel within themselves that they are enough, and that they can feel and decide for themselves, when they have done enough. This is where psychology in the 21st Century takes that leap from the age of the horse, to the age of the car…where the research tells us that being able to give ourselves soft landings and exercise compassion and bring nurture and loving kindness to our failings, forms the best possible platform for growth and progress.

We need to help distinguish between destructive pain, and the sort of pain that promotes growth – like lifting weights at the gym…Brief episodes of stress, successfully managed are helpful for growth – they are important. The lessons from those experiences are important – if we can allow them to land, rather than constantly look beyond at ‘all the things they are not yet’…The truth is, most pain…most psychological pain particularly…has no gain. So we need to help our kids feel and find the pleasure of engaging with their learning and growth…

MOST PAIN HAS NO GAIN.

The pain of being and feeling in deficit, the psychological pain a harsh inner critic layers on to the lived experience “…wears down the immune system, disrupts the gastrointestinal system, impacts on the nervous system and leads to depression. It’s not good for us chronically.” (Dr Rick Hanson, NICABM, Tolerating Emotional Distress, Module 3). https://www.nicabm.com/program/distress-tolerance/?itl=store

So we need to lead the way in articulating an inner coach, rather than an inner critic. When I am doing a coaching session, I want my clients to emerge feeling they CAN. I want them to feel taller, more capable, more committed than when the session began.  

This is a world where we are almost constantly encouraged to the side-eye comparison. Post something online? How many likes did you get? How many people looked? Do you want to boost that? Here’s someone you might like to follow who is doing this so much better… Kids know from an early stage – no matter how hard teachers try to hide it, who is at the top of the class, and how that academic and social pecking order works.

In family life, there’s always the older or younger sibling who aces it in terms of effort, talent, outcomes. Or it’s a cousin…or family friend who is constantly achieving and at the swipe of a screen is celebrated for their compliance with ‘success’…The narrative of ‘not good enough’ doesn’t necessarily come from a single source.

Many people feel very rejecting of the Freudian emphasis on the parent input. However, it’s the polluted cultural water of ‘never good enough’ that we are all swimming in, all the time. And the anxious times we are living in amplify that sense of needing to be more, have more, be better, in order to survive. This is more connected with what the trauma and addiction specialist Gabor Mate describes as the toxic culture we live in and grow and educate future generations into…We need to be able to challenge and question the constant deficit drive more in order to get back to health.

If we are cultivating a garden, we don’t impoverish the soil and make the conditions harsher for growth do we? But why do we wittingly and unwittingly collude in sliding away from the good stuff and into the Velcro of criticism…

Speaking as an educator and through the more in-depth 1:1 work I get to do as a coach, quite often when pupils are stuck and unable to progress to move towards the change you want to see – and they claim to also want- there is some blockage or fear at the core. Top down, the brain says yes…I’ll change…but the little inner child in the basement is going ‘No way!’

There can be deep roots to this – that they have not internalized enough of a stable core of feeling worthy, good, capable, accomplished, in a fundamentally unconditional sense. Instead of “I’m OK / quite good – but not as good as….”. Feeling satisfied feels like being on thin ice – you could crash through at any moment – so is ever contingent on the next performance. There’s a fundamental difficulty in holding onto moments that sustain.

Something on core limiting beliefs…Summarising highlights from John Prendergast’s article ‘Inquiry into Core Beliefs, 2019 http://Heartfelt Inquiry into Core Beliefs (wisebrain.org)

  • These tend to form in childhood and are often outside or on the edge of conscious awareness. Which is why working with stuck pupils can be so frustrating. Same for parents trying to help their children engage with challenge. Often having to repeat the same advice that the young person simply isn’t ready or resourced enough to follow.
  • Core beliefs affect how we relate to others, how we engage with work, and how we care for ourselves.
  • The closer these orienting beliefs are to a more objective truth – the more useful they are.
  • They are a lens through which we see ourselves and the world – if we see the world as hostile, we either gird up or become invisible. This will be dependent on our temperament and also affected by our social conditioning. The alternative, is to become invisible. If we see the world as fundamentally benign, good, and nurturing, we let down our guard, and are able to shine.

Mindfulness practices around core beliefs…

These processes can be taught in facilitating, empathic conversations with parents, teachers, care-givers…Conversations that help initiate and explore a softer inner voice, and give encouragement to dial down the inner critic and dial up the inner coach can be so helpful, take time, but can be really effective when professionals at school are able to work with parents to give the same messages…that you learn and grow better, quicker, and faster, when you are kind, not cruel to yourself.

  • Slow down. Take your foot off the gas of ‘doing’ and ‘solving’. As when driving in dangerous icy territory, steer into the skid when difficult feelings, fear, harshness, shame, guilt seem to be present…Use short simple sentences to feel the way into the fear… ‘It seems to me there’s something else going on here around how you’re feeling about X…’ ‘Sometimes we tell ourselves things that we wouldn’t say to a friend, or anyone else we care about… These can be messages that are meant to protect us. But actually they get in the way’. ‘Maybe it’s thinking ‘I am not good enough’.’ ‘Or that something is wrong with me.’ ‘I don’t belong.’ ‘I don’t deserve to do well…’
  • Suggesting a core belief that lands will have a strong emotional charge and a contraction in the body – according to Dr Prendergast and many other practitioners
  • Notice the impact and hold the space for that recognition to take place. Share the impact without discussing – or arguing with the belief itself. Feel the feelings and sensations without fighting them or trying to change them. Notice if there is a tightening of muscles. Let that bodily reaction be felt, pay attention to it, and usher in a more nurturing sense. Take that tightening as an invitation to soften, slow, and deepen the breath.
  • Be curious about the beliefs that go along with this. This is a way of looking at some of the inner drivers that may be serving you to some degree, but may be getting in the way.
  • Question, what do I know about this belief? Stay with it and notice.
  • Filter it through the following gateways…is this belief true? Is it kind? Is it helpful?
  • Notice difficult emotions and intrusive ruminative worries. Recognise them and learn to turn towards them with compassion and curiosity. Ask – what is needed in this moment? Reframe them as an invitation to self care, warmth, and the need to nurture the self.

Wanting to avoid young people nurturing debilitating inner critics isn’t about being indiscriminate with praise, as much as it’s about being discerning about the critique and about balancing the attention on the internal recognition of value – appropriate self-worth. There can be biological origins to this as much as a cultural input. Hormonal changes of adolescence – or even later in life in the menopause, and ADHD, have links to challenges with serotonin metabolism making it harder for beneficial influences to have traction.

From time to time, we could do to remember, both as parents and educators, that if we’re scratching our heads for adding to our feedback on something that’s really good, maybe we shouldn’t. Sometimes, where the energy and investment is really high, we need to think whether our advice about what they could do even better next time, is really going to make any incremental difference – or is it actually going to detract from the moment.

I have recently been in touch with a number of ex students from long ago via LinkedIn. And in our correspondence I asked a good many of them about what sort of feedback they had had over the years that had really made a difference. One of them, who had been in the uncomfortable position of fighting her way up from a C to B grade at A Level in a group where most were performing at A / A* level recalled a seismic shift in her confidence when I had marked an authentically outstanding essay she had written.

I had written something across the top of it which did not actually conform to the marking policy. It was, however, targeted at giving her the joy of achievement and permission to succeed. I remembered it too, etching in pink capitals a reference to Strictly Come Dancing… “In the immortal words of Bruno Tonioli…YOU’RE ON FIRE, BABY!” A well deserved full-marker. Well-targeted unequivocal praise. She never looked back. Essay after essay followed suit at the upper end of the top band.

That was a bit of a fairy story – but it was true and I have others, similar. But equally, in my 25 years of working with young people, I have noticed that encouragement is a more sustainable rocket fuel than fear. And yet how often does our anxious time travel and desire to minimise risk and uncertainty make us more anxious, more controlling, more micromanaging…more critical…focused far, far more on the gaps than on the fundamental soundness emerging structure? Why do we know it’s a marathon and not a sprint, but still want them to have finished the race already…? As a parent particularly it can be about separating out what’s my stuff, and what’s my teenager’s stuff. His GCSEs, her A Levels. Mum or Dad being the homework and revision police can ironically absolutely get in the way of the stepping up that will be required.

Observing both sides of the parents’ evening conundrum, how many times have I seen a reluctance to just go with how marvellous someone is doing, to want to incorporate and linger on what they could do better. Why don’t we ever just shake hands and go – yes the kids’ doing great without that touch of surprise and doubt… And as a parent, have I not also felt in a way slightly short-changed at the brevity of the teachers who are in our daughter’s fan club.

The evil eye is an ancient superstition that goes back millennia and is common to cultures both in Europe and Asia, that we need to ward off the negative energy of envy – we need to feel the threat of our own goodness. If we are going for growth, we need to encourage children’s ability to be changed by rewarding and enriching experiences. If young people have a sensitivity to reward and enrichment, as well as to challenge and difficulty, then they have the capacity for huge change at both ends of the spectrum.

Ways to help:

Spur reflection on good feedback – and linger on it. “Grow the good” – Dr Rick Hanson”

Conversations starters and sentence stems to use…for parents and teachers…

  • What are the high points here? (eg post exams) What went well?
  • What are the strengths you showed that enabled this? What were they, and how did they come in to play in how you operated?
  • Describe for them, and get them to describe, how moments / episodes / trends of growing confidence and engagement feel… ‘I noticed how energised you were when you were playing your part in the group work today…you were leaning forward, contributing, and operating as an equal with the others in your group…’ And from the home front… ‘It was so great to see how your eyes shone after doing that Physics quiz. How rewarding is it to know that just 20 minutes can make such a difference?’… ‘It’s so great to hear you recognise the progress you’re making…Every penny that drops counts!’
  • What do you notice you did more skilfully this time? Eg than 2 years ago. They will find it hard to notice the small increments – zoom into these with your observations – but start with a larger distance.
  • What have you learned? What do you need to take in from that?
  • What do you want more of in terms of the process you’ll be able to adapt and use in other points of challenge?
  • What will help you get more of what you want? What resources will you need – practically, internally, and from others…
  • It’s basically all about what Rick and Forrest Hanson work on in their book Resilient – growing the good.
  • Focus on building their capacity to care, and their capacity to dare…instead of stepping into that vacuum with advice, monitoring, and involvement… This is very in step with the approach taken in William Stixrud and Ned Johnson’s game-changer of a book: The Self Driven Child – the science and sense of giving your kids more control in their lives. Also their follow up book ‘What Do you Say? How to talk with kids to build motivation, stress tolerance, and a happy home.’

Notice and challenge the swiftness to minimise and pass over the good stuff…

  • Challenging embarrassment about progress or successes small or large.
  • Encourage ownership of results and progress, values, process, strengths, emerging skills.
  • Encourage the easing of the distrust in achievement progress, or even maintaining standards…And as I write I not that I put the word ‘even’ in there…Because if maintaining standards isn’t good enough, what are we saying?
  • Concentrate on the learning, the self-awareness, the recognition of gaps in skills and needs and really encouraging the observation to be received and articulated kindly.
  • Be curious, when a pupil / your child puts themselves down, don’t just argue with them…dip into curiosity…ask them about what evidence they have that supports and doesn’t support what they say.

 Accept and acknowledge differences.

  • Use active, constructive praise to articulate a sense of who they are, their strengths, their struggles – champion them as they are.
  • Ask questions to invite them to reflect that back…’What do you think?’ ‘What are you taking away from this?’ ‘How does that feel, to say it and own it?’
  • Recognise unique needs and habits with acceptance and compassion.
  • Plan ways to resource around those differences. Who can they partner with, where can they get help? Who can they talk to when…

Use the observer effect on the self-critical, self-doubting voice inside.

  • Psycho-education. These negative self-critical scripts are just thoughts. They are not truths.
  • We cannot observe a thought and be in its thrall simultaneously…we don’t have to believe everything we think…Increase observation skills… help them see their ‘fear-speak’. Give it a character, a sound…I love to call it parseltongue…hissing, serpent-like, tempting…How is it serving you today? How is it serving you generally…? ‘You’ll never do it…You’re not good enough…Your teachers don’t mean it when they say that was good work…’
  • Invite agency around creating their own story. What’s the story that they are telling themselves? Release attachment to it. What if you didn’t believe that story? How would you rewrite it? What if another character told your story from their perspective…how would it go then?
  • Make a distinction between productive an unproductive worry. What’s in their control, and what’s not. Help the feeling land and for them to move through and accept what’s out of their control, and then concentrate on all the things that are in their control. Even if they bombed their mocks in January – there is a world of difference that can be made between now and May / June – with the right mindset.

Praise productive questioning. Classroom teachers AND parents…

  • In class, when teachers praise the questioner, it gives permission to ask and check. This is important because of the unseen percentage of the class who are white-knuckling through a lesson, a module, and wasting time re-teaching it to themselves online rather than being seen to ‘not know’ and ‘not get it’ in class. ‘That’s a great question’… ‘I’m really pleased you asked me that…’, ‘That question is spot on / so relevant / extremely perceptive…’ Really make it safe – and even rewarding to ask questions. This will help develop psychological safety in your classroom and help reduce the impression management that gets in the way of unsticking engagement and learning.
  • At home prompt productive questioning around identifying what learning / study habits really work for your chid…Spoiler alert – these may be really different from what worked for you when you did GCSE and A Level… This helps reduce ruminative worry and second guessing, and embedding a deeper sense of what feels good and works well when doing that independent work.

Exploring ‘enoughness’.

  • What do they want for themselves? When they go to open up the communication giving them their result, what would they like to be able to feel?
  • How do they / would they know if they had done their best?
  • How do you know when you’re not able to do your best? What might be happening. What might they be doing and feeling? What’s that telling them about their needs or skills? What can they do about it?
  • Give them permission to cap their efforts. When they are doing a large number of subjects there’s not a blank cheque on time. ‘How many past papers do you think will be enough to feel ready?’ Just because there are loads of resources online does not mean they have to do them all. This is about returning to their agency, and developing their ability to judge sufficiency. Trust in their inherent good, their inner strengths.

Trusting and giving them control.

And – full disclosure. I know – and our daughter certainly remembers – one of my parenting lows…When I basically tried to make my fear, her fear…She was probably about 7 or 8. And I was ill-advisedly trying to ‘help’ her with her maths, having way to much baggage from my own struggles as a child…I was trying to galvanise her… Yes. That word. Again. I was not seeking to encourage actually, I was looking for leverage. I tried to tell her how necessary Maths would be for getting into the right stream at secondary school.

Even at that tender age, she got the subtext. You’re not good enough at Maths, and if you don’t shape up, you’ll be lumped in with a load of other kids who are not good enough either. Your opportunities will be reduced. And your future will be over.

Whip of parent frustration and fear, in heavy hand…It’s been interesting to notice that it has only been in the wake of quite a lot of my own inner work, to manage that better, that actually her self-drive has been able to awaken, grow and flourish. We need to step back in order for them to step up. But also we need to be aware of our own core limiting beliefs in order to model the softness, the encouragement, and compassion, that we all need to grow.

On the teaching end of things, we also need to use our understanding of possible consequences carefully. Threatening someone in Year 8 that their punctuality report will affect their university entrance does not pass muster for being something that is objectively true, kind or helpful. Does my intervention here increase safety, hope, optimism, or reduce it?

I hope this has been a helpful exploration of the concept of the inner critic, and how we can show up in the lives of our children and pupils, and foster self-drive, engagement, acceptance and enrich the soil that is needed for growth.

This article may spur further questions, or invite you to think about your own inner critic and its operations. Feel free to get in touch if you are interested in bespoke coaching, or training. contact@emmagleadhill.com

With love and gratitude,

Emma.

Linked articles:

https://emmagleadhill.com/articles/talking-about-feelings/

Working through stuck-ness with problematic pupils… – Emma Gleadhill

Psychological safety in classrooms – Emma Gleadhill

Online course – Motivation and making meaningful change

Motivation and Making Meaningful Change – Emma Gleadhill

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