Develop Your Confidence (3) – Switching Submodalities on the ‘Inner Critic’

Building on last week’s question of “How is it possible that you are not confident?”, let’s examine one of the most common strategies that you might be using to undermine (unwittingly) your confidence: the ‘inner critic’, also known as ‘the chatterbox’ (Susan Jeffers in Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway), ‘Self One’ (in Tim Gallwey’s The Inner Game of Work) and in life coaching circles as ‘the gremlin’.

These characterisations all describe an ‘inner voice’ which nags, criticises, or otherwise distracts you from performing at your best. You may recognise this from your own experience – or you may be saying to yourself “Internal dialogue? What’s he on about?”

For some people, for whom this inner critic is the ‘introjected‘ voice of a critical parent, it can make their life an absolute misery. For others, the inner voice may be no more than a distraction, and may even be supportive. Notice, though, that even if it’s saying pleasant things, internal chatter is a distraction from noticing what’s actually going on around you, so it will impact your performance whatever you are doing.

Approaches to dealing with a troublesome ‘inner critic’ range from trying to ignore it and focus instead on the sensory information relevant to what you want to accomplish (Gallwey) to challenging what it is saying (the Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy approach). Of course, if you have to challenge everything the ‘gremlin’ says, you now have two internal voices going!

A neat NLP technique allows you to defuse the ‘inner critic’ without having to challenge the content of what it’s saying. It relies on (NLP jargon alert!) changing the ‘submodalities’ of the inner voice so that it has less emotional impact.

‘Submodalities’ in the NLP jargon are the qualities of an image, a sound or a feeling. In the visual ‘modality’ these are qualities like size of the image, colour or black and white, bright or dim. In the auditory (sound) ‘modality’ the qualities include volume, pitch, tempo and location.

Why is this worth knowing? Because submodalities are like codes which tell our brains how much importance to attach to something. So we usually pay more attention to things that are close to us than to things that are far away, more attention to moving objects than still ones, we notice bright colours more than dull ones, and so on. You can see how this prioritisation of attention would have evolved as a survival mechanism.

This means that we can alter the emotional impact of a critical inner voice just by changing its qualities, without having to try to challenge what it is saying. I’ll explain next week why challenging the content or trying to get an inner voice to alter what it is saying can be counter-productive, and is definitely doing things the hard way.

So, if you are aware of having an ‘inner critic’, try this: changing one quality of the inner voice at a time. After each change, put the voice back how it was so you can be sure which individual changes have the biggest effect. If you don’t like the results of one of the changes, change it back straight away.

  1. Notice where the voice is located. Most people find it’s in their head somewhere. So would the voice have the same impact if it was coming from your left big toe instead? Or outside of you altogether, maybe on the floor in front of your foot?
  2. What would happen if the voice was saying the same things, but in a very high-pitched voice?
  3. Now here’s an interesting one. What happens if you turn the volume up? And what happens if you turn it down? Or even off?
  4. What would happen to the impact of the voice if it was saying the same things, but in the voice of a cartoon character? Most of the books mention Donald Duck at this point, but you may prefer Eric Cartman or Stewie from Family Guy.
  5. What if it said the same things, but in a humourous tone, with a chuckle in its voice? Or with a kindly, nurturing tone?

So, which change worked best for you? Most people in my workshops seem to find either changing the location or the cartoon voice has the most positive efect, by making the voice seem either irrelevant or ridiculous. Everyone’s subjective experience is different, so it may be another change that does it for you.

By the way, if the instructions had just said “Move the voice to your left big toe”, many of you might have thought “I can’t”. By asking “What would happen if the voice came from your left big toe?”, the question makes you try this scenario out in order to answer it. A bit sneaky, but it’s for your own good!

Let me know how you get on at – I love to hear your success stories.

Previously in this series: How to establish your credibility
Develop your confidence by rehearsing success

Next in this series: How to develop your confidence with positive reference experiences


© 2008 – 2021, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.


  1. Opening possibility in self-talk 4: disarming the 'inner critic' - Coaching Leaders

    […] In the previous post I said I was going to write an article about how to play with the tone of voice of the inner critic so you don’t have to take it so seriously, using an NLP idea called “submodalities”. It turns out I’ve already written the article, a couple of years back, in a series on how to develop your confidence! So click on the link to read how to switch submodalities on your inner critic. […]

  2. Brian

    I found putting a chuckle into the voice turned my initial tone from rejecting doing certain tasks because of a negative feeling, to becoming interested in the task.

  3. NLP Submodalities and Personal Effectiveness

    […] or “gremlin”. Since I wrote a perfectly good article years ago covering how to silence the inner critic with submodalities, I’ll just invite you to go and read that  one, and (please) try out the exercise (you may […]

  4. Kate Gladstone

    I’m trying to follow your instructions, but I don’t know how to. I don’t know how to change the location or tonality of “the voice.” Everything I’ve tried, to change features of the voice, hasn’t worked. Please help. Please tell me how to change it.

  5. Kate Gladstone

    Here’s wha5 happened when I asked myself: “What if the voice came from my left big toe?” I ended up with TWO voices: the original one, and a duplicate coming from my left big toe, and I haven’t been able to get rid of EITHER of them! So now it’s worse than before … I’m worried that trying the rest of the steps will just give me ADDITIONAL indelible voices, which I don’t need and do not want.

  6. Andy Smith

    Hi Kate,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I hope your comments will remind other NLP practitioners, as they reminded me, that everyone’s experience is different and that unexpected reactions sometimes happen.

    I have edited the question in the first step to read ‘would the voice have the same impact if it was coming from your left big toe *instead*?’ to make it less ambiguous.

    I also emailed a reply to you a few days ago to the email address you supplied with your comments.

    Best wishes,
    Andy Smith

  7. Kate Gladstone

    I don’t think I received your e-mail message in 1920: I was having e-mail problems throughout 2020 and early 2021.
    Please reach out again, this time to the e-mail address: given below. (I may have given you a different one before.
    For the record: I still don’t know how to change a submodaility. Whatever I try, to change it, doesn’t work. My efforts become just another thing the Inner Critic ridicules me for failing at.

    1. Andy Smith

      Hi Kate,
      Thanks for letting me know about your experience with an inner voice. I have not heard of a result like this before, in all the years the ‘thought experiments’ in the article (and similar ones on other sites and in many NLP books) has been available, but every human being is unique.

      I’ve re-sent the email from 2020 so I hope it will get through this time.


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