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Dissertation Survival Skills: Disarming the Inner Critic

Dissertation Survival Skills: Disarming the Inner Critic
When there is no enemy within, the enemy without can do you no harm. African proverb

Haven't done anything on your dissertation lately? How familiar does this sound? Maybe you're just too busy, or your advisor has not been very helpful, or you picked the wrong topic, or you never were a good writer? Maybe you're worried that you are not going to finish after all the years and all the money that you have tied up in this degree?

What I have found in talking with dissertation writers is that pressure from the Inner Critic is what really blocks you from taking action on your dissertation. In case you're unfamiliar with the concept, the Inner Critic is the one who makes up that the dissertation is some amazing, super-human feat that you are not capable of completing. Often this creates performance anxiety that shuts down your ability to engage in productive activity. Somehow, if you can free yourself of self-doubts and worries about how critical your committee is going to be, you may find that you have more energy available to work on your dissertation. So the real challenge is...how to manage the Inner Critic so that your own unique Creative Scholar shines out!

What is the Inner Critic?

The Inner Critic that I am referring to is the inner voice that we sometimes mistakenly believe to be our own. Typically, it develops when we're quite young to help us get approval and acceptance and to protect us from the bad things that might happen to us. It preaches all the "shoulds" and all the "shall nots" that we grew up with. Often modeled after parents and social norms, the Inner Critic likes to criticize and correct us before others can. Sadly, most people's Critic has long outgrown its usefulness and instead has become a constant nuisance and an insidious self-sabateur.

Here are some basic skills that you might consider adding to your dissertation survival kit: notice when you're under attack by your Inner Critic, name your Inner Critic and identify its strategy, confront the Inner Critic, and, by all means, get support from others when you need it.

Notice when you're under an Inner Critic attack.

What are some of the signs that might alert you to an Inner Critic attack?

  • Mental signs: self-criticism, procrastination, excessive worry, negative thoughts about your options, black and white thinking, confusion, feeling stuck.

  • Emotional signs: loss of motivation, discouragement, feelings of failure, depression, low self-esteem, fear, feeling powerless.

  • Physical signs: lack of energy, fatigue, sickness or injury.

Name your Inner Critic and identify its strategy.

This step enables you to extricate your identity from that of the Critic and to see it as something separate from yourself. Your Critic is the one that bombards you with thoughts like:

  • I'm not ready to write until I do some more reading.

  • I'm just not smart enough to do a dissertation.

  • I know my committee is going to reject my work.

  • I'll never finish.

These thoughts emphasize your Inadequacy or your Incompetence. Underneath them, you are likely to find a more basic fear such as a fear of failure or a fear of rejection and abandonment. These thoughts reflect a way of thinking about the dissertation as the greatest achievement of your life, your magnum opus. In fact, one of my clients refers to his dissertation as The Titanic. And this thinking ignores the value of the dissertation as a learning process whereby you grow into a Creative Scholar and gradually develop into an expert in your topic.

It is often helpful to get to know your Inner Critic by simply observing it for a week or so and writing down each of its criticisms. By becoming familiar with the message your Critic is conveying to you, you take the first step in beginning to disarm it.

Confront your Inner Critic.

Develop your own way of getting past your Critic. As a cognitive psychologist, I might advise you to counter each negative thought with a positive affirmation about your true value and your accomplishments. But as a coach, I have discovered from my clients many other creative ways of managing the Inner Critic. There are endless possibilities. One of my clients wrote an ultimatum letter telling off her Critic. She fired her Critic; you might also consider offering it a new job description. Another client whose Inner Critic is affectionately named The Driver has learned to send it off to herd cattle in a different state when it becomes troublesome. Another client has tamed her critic by drawing it and naming it Maynard. Another client keeps a whistle handy and blows the whistle on the Inner Critic whenever it rears its head. Yet another client sends it off to a desert island. Or you might consider shrinking it to the size of a mouse (since if you are reading this, there have probably been times when your Critic has taken on enormous proportions), dropping it by the tail into a big jar, and then putting the lid on very, very tightly!

These are some possibilities for managing your Inner Critic. I'll leave it up to you to find a resourceful way to face your Critic and then get into action on your dissertation.

Get Support when you really need it.

Let's face it. There are going to be times in the dissertation process when the going gets rough. You may even become so self-critical that you reach an impasse. That's the time to seek support from friends or even from a coach or therapist who can help you refute the Inner Critic and reaffirm your own Creative Scholar. The best advice I can give you is to assemble your own inner support committee of coaches, mentors and people who believe in you. One of my clients has her grandmother chair this committee! Let this committee give you regular pep talks. Visualize your inner support committee members and take them with you to meetings with your Advisor, to your Orals, to interviews, and to other professional presentations. Imagine them cheering for you.

Managing your Inner Critic is a never-ending story but it does get easier with practice. Every time you disarm the Critic, you take one step forward towards claiming the voice of your Creative Scholar. So why not make this your own Inner Critic Awareness Week!

The author Dr. Sally Jensen is a dissertation coach and consultant and can be contacted by e-mail at drsally@dissertationdoctor.com

Dr. Sally Jensen
Phone: 760.635.1545
Fax: 760.635.1001