Quashing Your Inner Critic, Growing from Self-Reflection

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Last month, Winning the Brain Game author and innovation strategist Matthew E. May (@MatthewEMay) wrote an interesting piece about something every single one of us suffers from in some way and, usually, at some point every day: giving in to that self-critical inner judge and not lending our thoughts, actions or forms of expression any real validity. Titled “3 Simple Steps to Silencing Your Inner Critic: Neuroscience explains it, but psychology offers the fix.” I know I’m not alone here when I say this, but anytime I see the words “neuroscience” and “psychology” in the same sentence, I tend to go a little bit cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs.

Although Mr. May references a business scenario, this inner critic is with us all the time, whether we’re shopping, cooking, eating, working, speaking to a stranger – even when we’re being amorous. (Okay, okay, okay. I have to admit I’m exempt from that final category.)

Here’s the neuroscience angle, per Mr. May’s post:

“fMRI studies have shown that our threat-protection system is triggered even when there is no actual external threat, but just us being self-critical. Researchers at Kingsway Hospital in the UK concluded that if we are overly self-critical, we may attack ourselves, put others down, or seek some form of escape to, as they put it, “flee from the knowledge of our own faults.”

I’m obviously biased when I say this, but I really don’t think there is another industry that suffers from the inner critic implosion on a more regular basis – and more spectacularly self-harming way – than art. It’s one thing to doubt your business model, your scientific hypothesis, your argument in court, or your assessment of where to plant that new tree in your backyard, but as most artists will tell you, the critical difference is that to be successful as a painter or writer, for example, your work and its very success will most likely be judge by the world in terms of how much of your soul you have put on display for everyone to see in its most vulnerable, innocent and naked form. It’s an overwhelmingly daunting feeling, and I say that from much experience over many years.

But, just as Matthew E. May promised in his title, psychology has an answer. Sweet! I love answers to problems I haven’t even asked a question about!

After consulting with a professor of psychology at HARVARD, Ellen Langer (@ellenjl), the HARVARD professor said there are three steps to addressing this in a positive and constructive way.

1) Understanding that doubting yourself involves making an unwarranted assumption in your head. Something bad will definitely happen if I follow through with this idea of mine.

2) Flip the logic here and come up with a few reasons why your idea might not be rejected. By doubting your doubt you open the door to the possibility that it might not be such a crazy idea after all. It’s possible people will hate it, but equally possible that people will embrace it. I can’t predict which one it will be.

3. Come up with a few reasons that could explain how good things will happen even if your idea is rejected.  Like if you play that demo for a record executive and get panned, or patent your technology and it goes on to sell exactly 5.6 units in the next six months, perhaps you’ll realize something you hadn’t considered before or meet someone during this process who can further your idea or initiative in a way you hadn’t thought of previously. Essentially, as long as I can put my fragile ego aside for a moment, I’ve got nothing to lose by doing this and the world to gain.

I’ll close this post of my mine by bringing up one thing which Mr. May does not address: self-loathing. There is a very fine line between being self-critical and self-loathing. In the case of the former, you necessarily grow because at least you have been constructive in your approach; with the latter, you will do nothing but bat yourself down the ladder of life one more rung and not contribute to bettering your idea, your confidence or your self-worth.

As a professor from HARVARD (born in Canada?) might say at this point, “How do ya like ‘dem Havad apples, eh!”

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