In the Criticism≠Teaching post I wrote about students who have been so conditioned to criticism that they criticize themselves when no one else does. They even criticize as a habit when they have done nothing wrong. I advised you to kill that voice in your head, and a few people asked the very reasonable question, “How?”
I can’t give a definitive answer. The voice still bubbles up for me, sometimes. Especially when I write.
But here are some strategies I’ve used:
First, distinguish between external and internal criticism. External criticism comes from other people. It may be wrong, misguided, actively designed to sabotage you… listen anyway. The more you want to find a reason to ignore or deny it, the more important it is to listen. If it is bad advice, you should be able to explicitly and dispassionately articulate why it is bad. But be careful. There’s a reason why watching for your own cognitive biases is a lifetime commitment.
This post is really about internal criticism. Do you know why an outside copyeditor is necessary to a professional writer? Because you can’t catch your own errors. If you knew how the word was spelled, you would have spelled it right the first time. Yes, there are clumsy finger errors, etc. Quibbles. The point is, you generally don’t make errors you recognize as errors. Almost always, the decision you made in the moment was the one you judged to be best in that moment, with the information you had and the time you had to think. If you think of something better, cool. That’s a learning experience.
One example. Just a synopsis, it would be really long to type. Climbing with a partner. His jumar (ascender) got jammed. Halfway up a slippery cliff. Rope wedged in the same crack as the jumar. Starting to get cold and wet. Only decision I could see was to unhook and free climb to get above him and work from there. Shitty climb on slippery rocks with no protection and a 40 foot fall.
It worked. Six months later I thought of an easier, safer solution, and I was kicking myself for not thinking in a few minutes of something that took a half year of unadrenalized pondering. Sigh.
Examine effects, not feelings. Most people’s problems are second or third order. Writing the essay is the primary problem. Worrying about the grade you might get is the secondary problem. Worrying about what people will say about your grade is tertiary. A big piece of ‘non-attachment’ is ignoring the secondary and tertiary concerns. Which is actually easy, because the primary problem/solution is usually physical and real, as opposed to both emotional and imaginary (and if it’s going to happen in the future it is imaginary in this moment.)
Be in the moment. Related to the last one, but I get very specific about this. I mean to be in your senses. Look, listen, smell, touch, taste. Don’t look and then start an internal dialogue describing what is right there. Look, don’t describe. Listen, don’t judge. Live, don’t interpret. I know that’s hard, but it is really powerful.
With a lot of attention/practice/mindfulness, you can do this with your internal states as well. This lets fear, anger, love, rage, annoyance, self-doubt—all that stuff— move through you without sticking. You can feel anger without becoming angry, and love without becoming stupid.
Think less. The less time you spend thinking in words, the easier the last two points become. Meditation, solitude, hunger and fighting are some of the paths I’ve found. Those are in order, from easiest to hardest, but also from least to most effective.
After Action Debrief. I’ve written about it here XXX link XXX. I f you’re going to have a critical voice in your head anyway, you might as well train it to be useful. In a nutshell, the AAD is just three questions: What happened? What went well? What could I/we do better next time?
That’s it, but you have to be strong enough to say, “That went about as well as it could have.” Let yourself have your wins.
Focusing pain. Sudden sharp pain tends to clarify your mind and order your priorities. Give yourself some pain if you are too much in your head. Snap your ear whenever you catch yourself in your critical head.
There are more strategies that work. Remember that your brain can and should be exercised and disciplined, just like your body.