Managing your gremlin: Transforming your inner critic into your biggest cheerleader

The gremlin is the voice in your head that keeps you playing small. It’s one of the four internal energy blocks—gremlins, assumptions, limiting beliefs and interpretations—that disrupt and distract us from going after what we want. Today, I’m talking about what the gremlin is, why it’s here and how we can transform that voice in our head from a scared protector to our biggest cheerleader.

What is the gremlin?

The gremlin is the voice in our head that keeps us playing small, under the guise of safety. It’s also known as our inner critic. The gremlin whispers “what ifs” in our ears to dissuade us from taking risks. The gremlin’s main message is usually around “not enough.”  The gremlin says we’re not good/smart/experienced/pretty/confident/knowledgeable enough to do or accomplish something. Or the gremlin suggests we might not like the results of what we do. If we let our gremlin be our chief advisor, we step back from challenges, maintain the status quo and may become ruled by fear.

Why do gremlins exist?

Your gremlin is not your enemy; it’s here to protect you from harm. Except your gremlin labels everything as dangerous: flubbing your lines during a presentation, going after a promotion that would challenge you, speaking up about what’s right. Your gremlin thinks any experience that could lead to embarrassment or failure is as dangerous as a man-eating tiger sneaking up behind you.

This is because the gremlin exists in the amygdala—the part of the brain that manages threat responses. Its job is to keep you safe by keeping you under control and away from new experiences that could be dangerous. The amygdala is also called the lizard brain and it’s not sophisticated enough to tell the difference in danger levels between swimming in a rip tide and asking your CEO a clarifying question.

Your gremlin has our best interests at heart but because it comes from the amygdala, how it protects our best interests is limited. Once we know and accept this, it’s much easier to deal with whatever our gremlin tells us.

Three ways to manage the unhelpful voice of our gremlin or inner critic

You can turn your unhelpful gremlin into your biggest cheerleader by:

  1. Acknowledging your gremlin.
  2. Exploring the worst-case scenario.
  3. Reframing fear or negativity into positivity.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these steps.

Step one: Acknowledge your gremlin

It’s important to acknowledge your gremlin and recognize why it’s there. As I said earlier, the gremlin is trying to keep you safe. But how your gremlin shows up is often unhelpful and not aligned to your bigger goals. The gremlin tells you to play small and stay in your comfort zone.

Pushing your gremlin away doesn’t help (trust me, I tried for years). Instead, acknowledge and be grateful for what your gremlin is trying to do (keep you safe by controlling you). You can say, “Gremlin, thank you for your concern. I appreciate you looking out for me and I hear you but I’m doing it anyway.”

Some people name their gremlins and you might want to do this too. I know gremlins called The Lizard Brain, Dick and Queen Bee (she’s my gremlin). When I did my coaching certification, we brought our gremlins to life; Queen Bee is made of a toilet paper roll, she has a crown and, of course, she wears lip stick. While this sounds silly, that’s part of the point; it diffuses the power of the gremlin. What our gremlins say is often beyond ridiculous!

Once you know where your gremlin is coming from and you start talking to her (or him), it’s easier to take your gremlin’s advice with a grain of salt.

Step two: Explore the worst-case scenario

Your gremlin might be onto something or it could be nothing. Explore the situation by thinking of the worst thing could happen if you ignore your gremlin and go for whatever you’re working on.

For example, Jessica applies for a new job that includes a knowledge test and her gremlin says, “Well, what if you flunk this test and embarrass yourself?” After Jessica thanks her gremlin for the concern, she makes a list of the worst things that could happen. She could fail the test and not get offered the job. She could pass the test and realize she doesn’t want the job but accept the offer anyway. Exploring the worst-case scenario helps bring the truth to the surface. In this case, Jessica discovered she didn’t even want the job! And as we’re able to say no to things and decide what we don’t want, it helps us determine what we do want.    

In many situations where the gremlin wants to keep us playing small, the worst-case scenario isn’t so bad. And, even if it did happen, we could handle it. Exploring the worst helps you put your gremlin’s fears into perspective.

Step three: Reframe fear or negativity into positivity

In the above example with Jessica and her gremlin, Jessica realized that she didn’t want the job. This is great but it’s not the only thing that can come out of questioning a gremlin. Questioning a gremlin also lets us reframe fear and negativity into positivity.

Let’s look at how this reframing happens:

  • Jessica’s gremlin says, “Well, what if you flunk this test and embarrass yourself?”
  • Jessica says, “Why would I flunk this test? I have a degree in this subject matter—with honours—and six years of experience?”
  • Jessica’s gremlin starts to stutter, and the voice is no longer as convincing as it was just moments before!
  • Jessica’s gremlin concedes Jessica’s point and says, “Jessica, you can do this! Go for it! You’re so smart and you’ve got this! Put yourself out there and take a chance.”
  • Jessica aces the test, gets offered the job, declines it and builds her confidence.
  • Jessica’s gremlin adds this scary test and interview scenario to the “safe” list instead of the “don’t let Jessica do this” list.

Over time, Jessica can train her gremlin to become her biggest cheerleader by asking positive questions like, “What’s the best-case scenario if you went after this experience/position/dream?” This gets Jessica thinking about her strengths and goals and past accomplishments, which builds her confidence and quiets her gremlin’s worrying that shows up as “you’re not enough.”

If it feels too strange to have a conversation with your gremlin, that’s okay. In that case, you may be more comfortable talking to a coach who knows how to identify, befriend and call out the sneakiest of gremlins. (That’s what I do every day and Queen Bee can vouch for that.)

Turning your gremlin into a positive and supporting voice can help you take the steps to achieve your goals, whether they’re personal or professional.

If you’d like to befriend your gremlin and quiet down your inner critic in a supportive community environment over the next 12 months, become a member of the WIL Empowered program today!  


Hi, I’m Vicki Bradley, an executive coach in Toronto and the Founder and CEO of Women in Leadership Empowered.

I work with women pursuing success in executive leadership roles and the presidents and CEOs who understand that strong businesses are built with strong, diverse leadership.

WIL Empowered is a year-long program where we use all four aspects of leadership development: coaching, networking, peer to peer mentorship and skills development. Our mission is to help women develop the skills, motivation and accountability required to succeed in their business and personal lives.

Take our five-minute leadership quiz to discover where your leadership skills are now and where you’d like them to be this time next year.

To discover more about the WIL Empowered program, visit the website.


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