Tranquilizing the Inner Critic

Ahh, the inner critic! The voice inside your head that worries what other people think of you, tells you everything that might go wrong, reminds you everything you already did wrong, and loves to debate why it’s right!

(My apologies for the delay between posts, by the way – I’ve been experimenting with emotion-hacking for the last two months, which I’ll be very excited to share with you soon!)

Today, we’ll discuss two major types inner-critic talk, and how to tranquilize it in each instance.

But first, let’s start with something a little more cut-and-dry:

Handling the outer critic.

(As we’ll soon find, if you can handle the outer critic effectively, you’ll be much better equipped to handle your own inner critic.)

Now sometimes, when you bring up a new idea to people, they like to jump in and immediately tell you why it won’t work. (Or at the very least, why it will be difficult, and come with a lot of problems.)

Have you ever had this happen to you?

People seem to really like to “do you the favor” of pointing out problems for you.

As Tim Ferris put it in The 4 Hour Workweek: “Everyone has a damn opinion.”

Which brings us to the first of the two types of “critical talk” that we will address here:

1. Problem Anticipation.

e.g.– “Oh, you want to try that??? Well, this might go wrong, and that might go wrong, and, you know, I have a friend who tried it once and he said it was awful, and I’d also be worried about so-and-so if I were you…”

Ugg.

“Problem anticipation” is defined as, well, just what it sounds like: reflexive musings about everything that could go wrong with an idea.

Often, when people “problem anticipate” for you, they’re just trying to be genuinely helpful. If you’re reading this and thinking “that kind of talk doesn’t sound particularly helpful to me” – you’re right! It’s not! But for some reason, by listing things that could go wrong with your idea, people think they’re helping. Why?

Because at very specific times, problem-anticipation can be useful.

When you problem-anticipate, it can lead to very important insights and help protect against risk. Sometimes, when someone “problem-anticipates” for you, they help you discover a valuable point that you hadn’t considered yourself.

ALTHOUGH – and perhaps you can relate to this – the vast majority of the time, I find that when people “problem anticipate” for me, they’re just redundantly point out potential risks I’ve already considered.

Also, I have to say: out of all of the different ways to pitch in ideas and “help,” people seem to gravitate toward “problem anticipation” WAY more than is actually useful.

Here’s the thing about this “problem anticipation”:

To be truly effective, problem anticipation has to be done for a very specific purpose, at a very specific time, during a very specific, constrained phase of a planning process.

(Otherwise it’s just random fearful thoughts about everything that might go wrong, coming in perpetually, from multiple directions.)

In other words, problem anticipation has to be intentional, and somewhat constrained.

And here’s an important point: If it’s coming from others, it has to be solicited.

I’ll just say that again, louder:

IT HAS TO BE SOLICITED.

Otherwise, it’s just unsolicited advice. Actually, it’s unsolicited problem-anticipation, which is worse than unsolicited advice.

And unsolicited problem anticipation is toxic to new ideas.

When coming up with new ideas, it’s important to give them room to breathe. (You don’t want someone immediately pointing out everything “wrong” with them – not while you’re still just brainstorming!) So while problem anticipation can be useful a little bit later on, it has no place in the early brainstorming phase.

So here’s my first tip: if you’re considering helping someone else, by pointing out something that could potentially go wrong with a new idea they have, just respectfully ask permission first. See if the time is right.

(e.g., “May I offer some constructive criticism at this point?”)

And be willing to happily accept a “no.”

***that’s a crucial little detail: you have to be perfectly willing to happily accept “no” for an answer***

(And if you lend others this respectful courtesy, it’s reasonable to request they do the same for you.)

Now this whole time, we’ve been talking about problem anticipation and other people.

But that’s not even the real point.

Who’s the worst perpetrator when it comes to unsolicited problem anticipation?

You are.

Your own mind loves to problem-anticipate endlessly.

If you thought it was irritating when someone else jumped in to point out everything that could go wrong with your idea, realize that you do the same thing.

You problem-anticipate, for yourself, WAY more than is actually useful. Your mind will pop up with unsolicited advice – unsolicited problem-anticipation – in much the same way that an irritating colleague might.

So here’s what I want you to do, when you’re tempted to problem anticipate for yourself:

Politely ask permission first.

Treat yourself with the same respect that you treat others.

And practice happily accepting “no, not right now” for an answer.

If it sounds like your inner critic may not be able to accept “no” for an answer, try saying it like this:

Thank you. I see you’re trying to help, by pointing out risks I might not have considered. You’re trying to keep me safe. When we’re in a time-constrained problem-anticipation stage, I’m going to really appreciate that, because I’ll actually write down everything – and I mean Everything – you can think of that might go wrong. Then I’ll be coming up with strategies to both A) reduce the likelihood of those things happening, and B) handle them effectively if they Do happen. Right now we’re in the brainstorming phase – thinking about what could go Right – so could you offer me some ideas on that?

And that is how you tranquilize the inner critic when it’s problem-anticipating.

But there’s one more type of critical talk I want to address today:

2. Debating to be “Right.”

Oh boy. People love to be right. And they sure hate to be wrong.

This really only becomes an issue when your own inner critic (or someone else’s) fights to be “right” at the expense of being useful.

Unfortunately, that tends to happen quite frequently.

Let’s give an example (of course, starting with an “outer critic” for illustration):

Not too long ago, I wrote an article about fat loss. I pointed out some very effective strategies to lose a ton of weight. It got a lot of positive feedback! (Well – it felt like a lot to me. I’m happy if even one person reads anything I write, so the bar is low.)

But someone felt the need to quickly push back on the article, saying this:

“I have to point out, you are basing most of your conclusions on a study with a sample size of one: A healthy, motivated, young male (you). So others following your methods may not have the same fantastic results as you. Even a healthy, young female may not get the same results, just because of her gender. Not to mention genetic traits re metabolism, body type, etc.”

Hmm. Surely insightful and constructive? Valid and useful?

I’m not convinced.

Underneath the intelligent skepticism, it sounds a lot like fixed-mindset talk* to me. It’s a pretty intelligent response – if you’re trying to justify not actually doing what I suggest.

*(“Fixed mindset” as opposed to “growth mindset,” which I will be happy to discuss in a future article!)

If you really don’t want lose weight, then by all means, just blame your genetics, age, sex. Argue that biological determinism is real and omnipotent, and that you’re totally helpless to your genes. And whatever you do, don’t try the tactics I suggest.

Speaking of which, I wondered – had this person actually tested the tactics?

So I asked him.

No, he had not.

Ahh.

Let’s go back to what my article actually said:

In the article, “6 Tactics I Used for Incredibly Rapid Fat Loss,” I made a bold claim that the tactics provided could help anyone (who so desired) lose ten pounds in a month – and if for any reason the tactics didn’t work, I would PERSONALLY reach out to that individual to help them.

Now, while it’s a bold claim, I absolutely stand by it 100%. I invite you to ACTUALLY TRY (not speculate on, but test) these techniques for 30 days, and you will lose weight. And if you don’t, I really am personally willing to come talk to you. (A guarantee!)

But instead of actually testing the tactics, and giving it a shot (and, in doing so, increasing the sample size!), the critical impulse was just to debate that the article was wrong, and do nothing. “That worked for YOU, but it might not work for everyone!” And that fearful possibility of it not working was enough to discourage even an attempt.

(So, as is often the case with critical talk, maybe it wasn’t as useful as it initially appeared.)

But what’s really going on here, behind the pushback?

Why the reflexive challenging of a new idea, without even trying it out? (Understanding that will help us with our own inner critic.)

I have a theory.

I believe it stems from the desire to be “right.”

I think my article – a guidebook for losing 10 pounds in 30 days – didn’t quite square with this particularly person’s view of the world. It (understandably) seemed “too good to be true.”

Therefore, to defend this person’s view of the world, he had to push back against it. He had to argue why I was wrong, and prove himself right – “fat loss really is difficult!”

(Now I don’t know if this was the case in this particular example. This is just my guess.)

But I will say this:

I do think that often, people get a perverse satisfaction out of being “right” – even when they would be happier if they were wrong.

Each of us has struggled with certain problems before, which we weren’t able to overcome effectively. (For example, we’ve struggled to lose weight. Or we know someone who has.) So when someone else says, “No, you really can lose weight, here’s a better way!!!” – we want defend our previous failures.

(In doing so, we justify ourselves and protect our ego. We remain right.)

Whenever we’re introduced to a better way of doing something, the knee-jerk inner-critic response is: “It was hard for me. It was hard for this person that I know. So it should be hard for you too. I didn’t succeed, so you shouldn’t. That’s just the way it goes – you’re being unrealistic. You’re wrong, I’m right.”

“…and, well, sure – even if that worked for you – on the whole, I’m still right. No, I won’t do it.”

Ahh, the need to be “right” is so exhausting.

So here’s my tip: just put down your need to be “right.”

Just put it down. Really. Being “right” all the time isn’t that important.

And to the skeptics: just try the approach. Just try it.

You have very little to lose. (It doesn’t cost any money.)

There is actually one risk: if you try it (something new!), you risk being wrong.

(Because, in fact, you may actually lose more weight than you ever thought possible. Which would mean that you were wrong about your own weight-loss abilities. Oh no!)

But by not trying it, you’re risking being unhappy.

(Put me to the test, and check out the article here.)

I get it. Nobody wants to be wrong. (Mostly because nobody wants to look stupid.)

But my philosophy is, I’m not afraid to look stupid. (At least, I try my best not to be.) Ultimately, I think that’s a pretty useful trait to cultivate.

So when an “outer critic” insists on being “right” about something at the expense of being useful, don’t argue or debate, just walk away.

But when your own inner critic wants to argue to be “right” at the expense of being useful, remind yourself: “Who cares about being right!?”

“If I have to drop previously held notions to do this, but it in fact works better, let’s do it!”

“Let’s give this a shot and actually lose some serious weight this month.

Relinquish the need to be right. It’s so liberating. You’ll thank me later.

And if your internal critic wants to continue to argue in favor of a previous, ineffective way of doing something, by all means, challenge it with some hard-hitting questions. Because honestly, when you truly cross-examine it, you’ll probably find that your inner critic is mistaken about a great many things.

But meanwhile, be sure to provide it some comfort, by reminding it: being “right” isn’t the highest goal – being happy is.

Inner critic, tranquilized.

Published by Dolan

Relentless self-optimizer, biohacker, traveler, reader.

One thought on “Tranquilizing the Inner Critic

  1. You make some very good points, and it’s certainly difficult to set aside your ego especially when something seems to directly challenge a mindset you hold. Accepting criticism means acknowledging we may, in fact, not be completely perfect. I suppose, when people have ideas that are important to them, it’s difficult not to become immediately defensive and push back against other ideas on refinement, when time has already been invested achieving the first idea

    Like

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