A Simple Trick to Sidestep Your Self-Criticism

A Simple Trick to Sidestep Your Self-Criticism

Written by Neil Hughes

Topics: Confidence

Sometimes I’m ashamed to share my work. You might think that’s understandable (particularly if you’ve been exposed to many of my posts before!) but this isn’t simply a healthy sense of shame at my evident limitations. 

Often, it’s fear of my own unoriginality. That inner voice of shame tells me to scrap my work, and to only return when I’ve finally created something truly original.

It’s hard not to listen to that voice, but over the years of living with it I’ve developed a technique that helps me to manage it when it speaks up. And I call this technique the Absurdity Principle.*

* I actually don’t call it this at all, but somebody suggested this name and I’m not original enough to come up with anything better.**

** I kid, of course.

This trick is to agree with the voice, and to exaggerate it to the point of absurdity. For example:

“Oh no! Someone else has already done work similar to mine! This is unacceptable! I must only do work which is 100% wholly original and in no way related to any other work. Even working in English is cheating, as it builds on my ancestors’ achievements in creating the language. In fact, using my internal organs is cheating, as it builds on the previous work of nature. I must become a being of Pure Reason, transcend my earthly form, and only then will I be able to create something unique and original that isn’t at all similar to anything anyone else has ever done.”

Exaggerating the voice helps me to see the irrationality underlying my worries. Usually there’s a kernel of truth behind the concern—of course there is such a thing as plagiarism—but this inner voice often applies this truth way beyond the scope of what is reasonable.

In this case, it helps me to recognize that I don’t have to contribute something wholly new, as there’s arguably no such thing. It’s valid to simply bring a new perspective to something which already exists. 

This Goes for Any Inner Criticism

I shared this technique with a friend on the Puttytribe, and their response was “I am very much here for personal growth through extreme sarcasm.”

They were—mostly—kidding, but there’s truth in what they say. After all, this critical voice pops up in all kinds of situations and, instead of arguing with it, it might help to agree and exaggerate until the criticism seems absurd.

For example, multipotentialites often straddle multiple spaces, and it’s easy to end up feeling like an outsider in each of them. If we exaggerated that critical voice, it might say something like:

“I haven’t spent a lifetime studying this topic, so I have nothing to contribute here. Even if I spent the rest of my life devoting myself to it, I’ll have nothing to contribute here. In fact, even if I spent many lifetimes reincarnating there’s no chance I could ever be welcome in this space. ONLY EXPERTS ALLOWED!”

Now, this might free me to recognize that everybody struggles with feeling confident to be part of a group from time to time, as of course I’m not expected to be a literal world expert on something.

However, this example might illustrate a danger with this trick. It relies on recognizing the absurdity through the exaggeration, so my brain can take a step back and notice the inherent flaw. 

But if I don’t exaggerate far enough—or if I’m in such a negative mental space that no matter how far I exaggerate I’ll just accept it as further criticism—then I’m in danger of accidentally fueling my anxieties to greater heights.

That’s okay—no technique works in all situations. This is just a helpful strategy for defusing the inner critic who pipes up so often as we leap from passion to passion.

And I’m sure it’s not an original idea… but, as I can now tell my inner critic… that’s fine, too.

Your Turn

Do you have any techniques for managing your own inner critics? Share with the community in the comments.

neil_2017_2Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, computer programming, public speaking and other things from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you found him at enhughesiasm.com, his mental health blog, and on Twitter as @enhughesiasm.

28 Comments

  1. Raluca says:

    You’re funny and this is helpful. I find myself doing the same sonetimes.

  2. Nadine says:

    Beautiful and honest share…love it! Can absolutely associate with what you’re writing…nice to know I’m not alone in this :)

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Absolutely! Sometimes I think there’s a huge service in just admitting what we struggle with, as at least that removes the burden of “is it just me?”

  3. Ellybones says:

    Yes! This Absurdity technique is half of the working mechanism behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT takes the inner dialogue, chooses a stinging representative sample, then argues both for and against.

    You illustrate the arguing for component. In CBT, the final step is crafting a true statement that blends both the for and against work, and repeating that truth every time the tiresome self-talker ramps up with the same sort of nag.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Absolutely right, thanks :) I’ve found CBT very useful in that past but hadn’t made the explicit connection with this idea, thanks for sharing and illuminating it for us all!

  4. Maryske says:

    Interesting to see the difference between the two examples! And you’re right – the first one makes me grin, the second makes me feel uneasy…

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ooh! I find it interesting that we share that feeling, as I don’t think it’s truly universal – I’m sure everybody has different sorts of statements and situations that make them uneasy, and it’s all about past experience and natural inclination. Sometimes those uncomfortable beliefs are lodged a little deeper and it’s painful to poke around with them, I guess.

  5. Isabella says:

    Whenever I start to worry my ideas aren’t really my own, I remember “Gone with the Wind” and the Harry Potter series rocked the world in ways no one ever saw coming. I keep this poem, found in an old book, taped to a window overlooking the prairie, and I remember many of the best works of true originality were created against all odds. The whisper of an idea, instinct, and inspiration will lead you to your happiness. Let no one — and nothing — stand in your way to your dream.

    “Opportunity”
    by Berton Braley

    With doubt and dismay you are smitten
    You think there’s no chance for you, son?
    Why, the best books haven’t been written
    The best race hasn’t been run

    The best score hasn’t been made yet,
    The best song hasn’t been sung,
    The best tune hasn’t been played yet,
    Cheer up, for the world is young!

    No chance? Why the world is just eager
    For things you ought to create.
    It’s store of true wealth is still meager
    It’s needs are incessant and great

    It yearns for more power and beauty
    More laughter and love and romance,
    More loyalty, labor and duty,
    No chance — why there’s nothing but chance!

    For the best verse hasn’t been rhymed yet,
    The best house hasn’t been planned,
    The highest peak hasn’t been climbed yet,
    The mightiest rivers aren’t spanned

    Don’t worry and fret, faint hearted,
    The chances have just begun,
    For the best jobs haven’t been started,
    The best work hasn’t been done

    • Maryske says:

      I love it… Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Thanks Isabella, both for your thoughts and sharing the poem – I love the inspiration behind it… I think we often feel heavy by the sheer weight of all that’s already been done, but it’s interesting to imagine the world as yet young :)

  6. Kim says:

    Thanks for this tip, Neil. I like how you’re using humor to combat your inner critic. I’ll give that a try!

    Often when I find myself in a self-defeating mental space that prevents me from working, I journal. From Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way,” I learned to write out all of the fears and resentments I have in relation to a given project. It’s helpful to go back over the lists a couple times to make sure I’ve gotten it ALL out, and what I discover is that, as often as not, it’s the silly fears and petty resentments that hold us back – the ones we would be embarrassed to share. Sometimes when I look at those childish fears written out on the page, all I can do is laugh…and get back to work.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Definitely! I think anything that helps us bring our fears into the light is helpful, as often they seem way scarier until we write them down, and then I think… is that IT? I’m scared of writing something that’s vaguely similar to something that already exists?! And it suddenly seems so much smaller. Thanks for the reminder :)

  7. Tony says:

    As a counselor I often walk clients through just such an exercise of exaggeration. And I think it’s actually even more useful for us multi-pods because we are trying to balance our many interest and are somewhat programmed to be Moderate our extremes, when we aware of them.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Yay! I suspected it would be a common technique :) And that makes sense: in that we tend to strive for balance in other areas, so perhaps we wrongly strive for balance with our critical voices, and give them too much credence?

  8. Harald S. says:

    Speaking of specialists, there is another exaggeration which (I think) is funny and could be used, too, for the perception of absurdity. And it goes like this:

    A specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less – up to the point of knowing everything about nothing.
    ;-)

    • Maryske says:

      LOL That’s a good one!

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Ha, that’s great, Harald! (And I couldn’t help but think that a world expert on the physics of absolute vacuums could literally describe themselves as knowing everything about nothing :p)

  9. T Taylor says:

    I find giving the voice a stage and letting it actually manifest works for me. I take a piece of paper (not a screen) and write down what it says. Manifesting it’s words into reality for all to read. After a while the voice tends to turn on itself and then just runs out of arguments against itself. Do with the paper as you wish.

    I used this with a particularly nasty and hateful self-critical voice. After 45 minutes it had literally destroyed itself and has not returned.

    I didn’t actually have any part in it other than to give it its physical stage.

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Great idea, T! Bringing these critical and hateful voices into the light often shows them for being the paper-thin critics they are. That’s amazing to hear, will have to remember to do this next time.

  10. Nitsan Tal says:

    Just saw this quote from Jim Jarmusch the other day:

    “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery – celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Amazing! I love it. And it reminds me that the Book of Eccelesiastes says “there is nothing new under the sun” so they were already worried about lack of originality in Old Testament times… even worrying about unoriginality is unoriginal!

      • Harald S. says:

        “… to boldly steal how no man has stolen before.”

        Thus alluding to the original series of Star Trek, I can, of course, imagine Mister Spock saying: There is nothing new under which sun? Would you please specify the solar system?

        What an eyebrow-raising (“Fascinating!”) viewpoint: Yes, there is nothing new under the sun. Even though, as multipotentialites, we simply have no single sun – since we can choose the solar system(s).

  11. Maryske says:

    LOL The problem is, that the present world seems to think that you can own everything.
    I’ve sometimes wondered who owns the copyright to a phrase like, “Thank you”, or “What time is it?” Whoever owns the copyright to such phrases can become a millionaire overnight if s/he decides to press the point. Until in the end, every word in every language on this planet is owned by someone and cannot be used without paying. At which point the concept of language will either die out completely, or people will invent other ways to communicate. (Which then will become subject to new copyright claimants… and so forth, and so forth…)

    See? The Absurdity Principle really helps! :-D

  12. Jas says:

    Hey Neil – wow, I really enjoyed reading this when it hit my inbox earlier in the week – and it was timely.

    I’ve been wrestling with some annoying/negative thoughts, and this has definitely helped offer a new prospective. Really useful to have this one in the toolbox – thank you!

    Jas

    • Neil Hughes says:

      Glad to hear it resonated, Jas! As other commenters have pointed out, this idea can help with all kinds of negative thoughts – anything that helps us reframe them can be pretty powerful. Good luck with everything you’re up to :)

  13. Jonathan says:

    I’ve often said in the past that desperate times call for satire but I never thought to apply that principle to my inner life. Good stuff as always, Neil :)

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