As human beings, we all have an internal voice – an inner dialogue that narrates our everyday experience, helping us to determine what is happening in our environment and dictating how we respond to the events unfolding in our life.

Our ability to have awareness of our internal dialogue is distinctly unique to the human the experience. We have evolved beyond our animal counterparts, to develop what we call in psychology, “metacognition” – or an awareness of our own thoughts and thinking processes. Monitoring our own thought processes, the way we think about ourselves and our life circumstances, is a key component to cultivating good mental health, and an integral part of conquering fear and anxiety.

In this article we will discuss three common “voices” that often arise in the face of fear: The Critic, The Coward, and The Coach. This article is meant to further develop your metacognition, helping you label and become more aware of the dialogue that consume your mind when you’re anxious. With this awareness, you can then intervene, fostering a healthier and more effective inner voice.

The Critic – This inner voice is “demanding” in nature. It has high expectations of what you “should” be able to do. In moments of fear and anxiety the inner critic can be brutal force, shaming you for what you are not capable of, which often leads you to mask your emotions, push too far beyond your limits, and eventually burnout. The inner critic is associated with an exaggerated “fight” response, except the person you are fighting is yourself. Therefore, rather than building you up, the inner critic breaks you down, leaving you less capable of approaching and conquering your fears.

Example: “You can’t speak up to your boss, he is smarter and more experienced than you. You need to work harder and establish yourself before your even qualified to voice your opinion.”

The Coward – This inner voice is “protective” in nature. It senses a threat in your environment and encourages you to step down or step away to avoid any potential pain. In moments of fear and anxiety the inner coward tells you to “be small and stay small” as means to avoid conflict, challenge, and other forms of distress. The inner coward is associated with exaggerated “flight” response, holding you back from confronting situations that could lead to your personal growth. Therefore, rather than stepping up, you step down, holding you back from achieving your potential.

Example: “You can’t speak up to your boss, if he senses any confrontation from you, he could fire you or let you go. It’s better to keep these thoughts to yourself.”

The Coach – This inner voice is “supportive” in nature. It is the balance of the critic and the coward. The inner coach responds to fear and anxiety by breaking down the threat, , assessing your skills and capacity, and providing practical steps forward on how to bridge the gap between you are capable of and what is required of you. The inner coach provides an honest evaluation of what you can currently do, while recognizing your future potential. Therefore, rather than being too hard on yourself, or to easy on yourself, the inner coach provides the necessary feedback, support, and encouragement you need to face your fears, find growth, and become all you can be.

Example: “You have feedback for your boss, but he has more knowledge in this area. You should do some research first and come to him with a list of questions related to your concerns. This will be hard but not impossible. I know you can do it.”

As you read this, I hope it became clear that the goal is to develop a strong and healthy inner coach. Therefore, when facing fear and anxiety, you want your inner dialogue to do what all good coaches do:

  • Assess the situation – Objectively break down the feared situation and the tasks that need to be completed.
  • Assess your skill set – honestly appraise your strengths and weakness as it relates to managing the feared situation.
  • Create a plan – provide practical steps that can support you in approaching the situation with confidence.
  • Express confidence – provide yourself positive encouragement and remind yourself that you are capable of growing and learning through practice and experience.

Additional Tip: If you are fortunate enough to have encountered an effective coach and are looking to further develop your own inner coach, it may be helpful to reflect on that experience and to try to channel their voice until you have become more effective at making that voice your own. If you have never had the experience receiving support from an effective coach, expose yourself to the ideas, principles, and practices of effective coaches presented in common media (books, movies, podcasts, etc.)