Relax. Reflect. Resolve.

Having a harsh and critical "inner supervisor" can make it harder for you to be your best self both at home and at work.

Just last week I was speaking to a large group of employees and I asked them to think about their current supervisor, manager, or leader. I asked them where they might place their supervisor on a continuum from supportive, motivating, and encouraging on one end to harsh, critical, and shaming on the other end. Most people were able to reflect on how their supervisor talks and acts and could easily place them on a specific spot on this continuum. It wasn’t surprising data at all; they already had a good sense of the kind of leader they have.

Then I asked people to consider their “inner supervisor”, the predominate voice inside their own head that talks to them when they make a mistake, experience a setback, fail, or are having a hard time. I asked: “where would you put your inner supervisor on that same continuum?” There was an audible gasp in the room as most people acknowledged that their inner supervisor is harsh and critical, demeaning, and sometimes even cruel.

For many people their “inner supervisor” tends to use shame and criticism as weapons of mass destruction. When I asked if their inner supervisor magically manifested into an actual person, would they ever want to work for this person. The resounding response was “No way!” Yet in reality, we walk around every day more at the mercy of our inner supervisor than any other person.

A few years ago I started learning about shame resilience and mindful self-compassion. These two theories are now very ingrained into the blueprint of my clinical practice, but back then I was just learning how to recognize and navigate the emotion of shame. As I started to notice when a person in my life was using shame to maintain power and control over me, I began to recognize when I got “shame triggered” and acted out of alignment with who I most want to be in the world. I became increasingly skilled at noticing and deflecting shame grenades that were thrown at me and began implementing new boundaries in those relationships. While I could protect myself better from shame coming at me from outside-in, it took me much longer to notice when I was shaming myself. My highly critical “inner supervisor” was still fast at work, and it was taking a great toll on my spirit, physical health, and work effectiveness. As Dr. Brené Brown states “shame corrodes the place in us that is capable of change”. As a result, shame is never an effective way to motivate a person towards healthy and sustainable high performance. Whether it is your actual supervisor or your inner supervisor shaming you.

When I talk with people about the possibility of firing their shame-based inner supervisor they are usually hesitant to let go of this harsh but trusted voice in their head. Most people think they need that voice to be productive, get things done, and drive themselves towards success. I used to think that a harsh inner voice kept me in line, and helped me be accountable to do my best. Then one day I made a simple mistake at work and it forever changed the way I talk to myself.

I had scheduled a client for an appointment time outside of my normal work hours. I had intended to go conduct a webinar for a work team dealing with some grief issues, and then come back to my office at 5:00 pm to see the client before heading home for the day. When I was done with the webinar I absentmindedly went home rather than remembering to go back to the office. It was a simple enough mistake, something I would never intend to do. When I realized what I done my initial reaction to myself was anything but kind and understanding. My inner supervisor instantly began screaming obscenities at me, calling me names, making me feel just terrible. I noticed that my heart began racing, my face got hot and sweaty, my ears were ringing, I couldn’t think clearly and I could barely breathe. I felt very small and very alone.

I had been learning to notice when I was shame triggered and I realized I had just created a massive shame storm for myself. No one else was around. No one else was criticizing me. In that moment, because I recognized that I shamed myself, I was able to do something I had never been able to do before – I interrupted my inner supervisor in mid-sentence and said to her: “Hey, don’t treat me that way. I didn’t mean to do this. I just made a mistake. It could happen to anyone.” I was able to help myself calm down and catch my breath.

Once I was steady, I asked myself what was the next best thing to do. I calmly called the client who I had failed to show up for and sincerely apologized to her. I offered to see here at 7 am the next morning and she accepted. By 8:00 am the next day the client had been taken care of and the clinical note was in the file. I felt so great about how I handled the mistake.

It turns out you can hold yourself accountable, without being harsh and abusive. I marveled at how I resolved the situation so much more effectively with self- compassion and integrity instead of shame, blame and judgment. In the past I would have felt horrible, went home and numbed my shame pain with some bad T.V. and some cake like products, and probably would have avoided calling the client because I felt so bad. The contrast between the two approaches was stark and clearly I was more effective with this alternate approach.

Over time I was able to fire my long serving, shame-based “inner supervisor”. My new inner supervisor holds me “lovingly accountable” and encourages me to be brave, admit my mistakes, take accountability for the consequences of those mistakes, and take value guided action to correct the mistake as soon as possible.

I don’t mind sharing this story with you, because I don’t think I am the only one who struggles with inner voices that try to convince me that I am not good enough, smart enough, doing enough, or perfect enough in just about every arena of my life. In fact, having a relentless inner supervisor is how so many people get trapped in the feeling of being a fraud and is one of the reasons why anxiety has become a major mental health concern in the United States.

For more reading on this pattern check out the article:The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women or read the book by Valerie Young called The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women.

What’s up with your inner supervisor? Is it time for a change? 

We can help with that.

If you are affiliated with Michigan State University as a faculty member, staff member, retired employee or graduate student employee you are eligible for short term counseling with a licensed counselor. You are also eligible for services if you are the partner/spouse or benefits eligible family member of someone who is meet s the description above.

For more information about how we can help you say goodbye to your unhelpful inner supervisor contact the MSU EAP today.


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