How to Stop Your Inner Critic from Destroying You
Everyone has a dream. Becoming like this person. Have a body like that person. I think most people can relate to this. At least on a smaller scale. We all have someone we look up to, someone we admire. That could be friends we think are great or people who have achieved mastery in our respective field.
For me it’s John Williams. That man is a living legend. When I listen to music I write I often get discouraged. It sucks. I will never be as good as Johnny is. I then listen back to my favourite tracks of his and I am close to trashing my very own track I just finished.
I feel bad about what I created. I want to quit. Who would want to have me for a job if he could have John Williams anyway? I am not good enough by a long shot. Sucking has a name: Chris Alexander Schütze.
In this article I want to write about how to stop your inner critic and slowly but steadily change it to encouragement for yourself. I would like to offer you a change in perspective from just seeing all the things you suck at to all the things you have accomplished.
Role Models Are Idealised – They Have Nothing to Do With Reality
First of all I would like you to realize that the idea of a role model you have in your head is just that – an idea. And it is so one sided it’s not even funny.
Our role models and ideals tend to be only about what a person is great at. It’s basically about the biggest advantage, ability or virtue that specific person has. If you think about it the picture you paint in your head is pretty incomplete.
We don’t recognize how they struggle. What they fear. How they look when not posing for a picture.
Comparing yourself to those people (or situations or whatever) is the most unfair thing you can possibly do for yourself. Guess what? You know more than every other person on the planet, what your shortcomings are.
So you take the best aspects of something and compare it to the worst aspects of another thing. How is that fair?
If you want a fun exercise make a list of all the things you are great at and compare those to all the things the person you look up to is bad at. Might turn out you just have swapped roles.
So the point here is: we idealize people, situations and things, put them on a throne and look up to them.
It’s Not Measurable
Another thing that hinders a fair comparison on any level is that most of the time we compare ourself against traits that aren’t quantifiable, not measurable.
Take me: I want to be as great at writing music like John Williams is. I for sure can feel the difference between us. But like this I can’t objectively compare us. What would that be based on?
Being good at something is not a metric I can use for a reasonable comparison. In our mind however that makes a lot of sense. Written out on paper it doesn’t though.
Comparing yourself against an unnamed, unspecified entity doesn’t serve any purpose whatsoever.
Comparisons With Role Models Are a Negative Feedback Loop
The impression of being worse than a peer or role model releases strong negative emotional reactions in us. We are even more vulnerable to unfair comparisons against seemingly more successful individuals if we feel bad in the first place.
It is a negative feedback loop par excellence. It can ultimately lead you to quitting something you innately enjoy.
Social Media is a Catalysator for Bad Comparison Behavior
People tend to only share their highs, showing themselves from their best sides. It is by no means the reality that we see there. But we don’t realize that when scrolling through our feed. We tend to believe that we are the only ones that struggle on their way.
I mean all the cool pictures clearly prove that others are super happy, never struggle and live a happy life, don’t they?
Did you see that great poem someone else wrote and shared? Boy is she good at writing. Well, you can’t see the 76ish drafts that all went to trash because the words just weren’t right. Right?
Everyone tries to get some attention on social media. That for sure won’t happen with average stuff. I think I am even underselling the negative impact of social media in this regard. However it’s not the main topic of this article so I will leave it at that. Just keep this in mind, when scrolling through your feed.
Why Having Goals Won’t Solve the Problem
At the beginning of the year we had a conversation in a Mastermind group I participate in that got me thinking.
Most of the people said they wouldn’t use goals anymore because they made them feel bad. It’s kind of like this New Year’s resolution thing. In the beginning everything is great but sooner than later you feel like you can’t reach it, they said. You don’t seem to have made reasonable progress towards it.
SMART Goals Are Good but Won’t Help Anyway
SMART goals are a basic concept for goal setting that is taught basically everywhere when reading about goal setting. There is some reason for that as you will see.
SMART stands for: S pecific, M easurable, A ctionable, R elevant and T imebound. A SMART goal is defined in a way that it checks all those boxes. It is concrete, you can actually act on it, it is important for a specific reason and you set a deadline for reaching it.
That is a very important and good strategy. If we turn our dreams and aspirations into SMART goals we actually have created something we can measure our progress against. But that alone won’t help too much for four reasons.
Ideals And Role Models Turned Into SMART Goals Still Are Overwhelmingly Far Away
You created a metric you can measure yourself against. But if you have a marathon before you to reach that goal a single step doesn’t feel like any progress at all. Even if I would turn the John Williams level of writing film music into a measurable thing it is still JOHN WILLIAMS f***** LEVEL.
That’s why you then break those big goals down into smaller goals. Milestones or whatever they call them. That helps to an extent. But there is still one more problem to that.
Future is Not Reality but a Projection of Our Own Mind
The human species has the great ability to think about the future. It is able to predict future outcomes on todays’ (and pasts’) actions. It even can use imagination to create something new that has not even been there yet.
Future is merely a concept that helps us to navigate through life. It’s an extrapolation of our mind of what might be, based on our previous experiences and knowledge.
And that is exactly why you shouldn’t measure yourself against your goals. You would measure yourself against a concept that might become reality at one point or another. But it is nothing stable. It basically is a product of your imagination.
Does it Make You Happy?
How do you know if the future you imagined for yourself actually makes you happy? If you think about it you are even more acting based on prediction with this. You imagine a future reality you think you will enjoy once it arrives.
To take a very easy example: If I imagine myself driving in my dream car, that feels great.
Getting pressed into the seat from the force of acceleration, maybe listening to some great music on the excellent speakers… that’s something to look forward to. The sound of the perfectly engineered door closing. Delicious.
Do you know what you don’t think of at that moment? The anxiety that comes with owning a new, expensive car. Suddenly you think about what parking slot to take, because you don’t want someone to accidentally bump their door into your new shiny vehicle.
Also you hope that there isn’t someone jealous who just for the sake of it takes his key and itches a scar into your new love. And what about parking under those trees? The tree resin might damage the paint. And how safe is your neighborhood? Your car wouldn’t be stolen, would it? Eating inside the car on a long trip also is a headache, you for sure don’t want your seats to be ruined after a week, right?
This is an example that is kinda superficial but easy to understand and I am sure the principle holds true for every goal we might want to accomplish. We don’t know if our goal will actually make us happy. We have a hard time to think about side effects if we do at all. That’s because most of them aren’t that obvious.
Goals Lead to Inflexibility And Tunnel Vision
Here’s the last reason why goals alone won’t do the trick. Let’s say you work hard on your goal, you are even achieving the first milestones. What if a different path emerges?
If you only try to achieve the goal you set out to accomplish in the first place you might miss all the opportunities life gives you along the way. Maybe on my quest to be as good of a film composer as Johnny I’d totally miss the opportunity to work on games instead, as it knocks on the door.
Being a great game composer would also have been a fine outcome, wouldn’t it? Or maybe my writings suddenly work out to become popular. Well, I for my part would be totally fine with that.
Too much focus on the goal and your vision will take you at risk to miss out on the flow of life.
“Chris, so what then to do about all this?”, you might ask. Well, let game design show you.
RPGs Show Us How It’s Done
RPG stands for “Roleplaying Game” and is a popular genre in the virtual game industry. They are about creating your own virtual character in a game world, starting out as an apprentice and progressing through the story by achieving “quests”, missions that will earn you experience.
Earned experience will level up your skills and make the character stronger, grant her new abilities so she can then take on harder quests and advance the story in new ways until she can challenge the main villain in a last epic fight (readers that know the genre will realize that this is simplified to an extend – I am trying to make a point :P).
These games are built in a way that make you want to continue to play. They need to be fun to be successful in the market.
So game designers figured out what keeps players coming back are positive feedback loops. The players need a sense of progression.
No game designer would ever start out the game by letting you fight against the end boss at level 1. You would get crushed. This however is exactly what we do to ourselves psychologically if we compare us against our ideals and role models. This kills any fun or desire to progress as it’s highly unfair in every regard.
So what game designers do instead is giving you quests (milestones) and enemies to fight that are roughly equal to your characters’ strength and experience, that are challenging but not overwhelmingly hard. Those quests sometimes don’t even seem to be related in any way to the main plot. But they help the character grow and gain him more experience.
So let’s say you played an hour or two. Guess what the game designers still won’t do? Right, let you face the end boss. Because although you made some progress you still would get crushed. In comparison you would feel like you haven’t made any progress at all.
So what is the solution here? How to create those positive feedback loops I was talking about?
Most of the time the Abilities of the character you play are displayed in numbers. So every time you get experience those numbers will rise. So you always get a sense of progression as those numbers constantly rise. You have measurable metrics.
For some reason we humans have a thing for rising numbers. So that alone would maybe already be enough to keep us playing but there is another trick.
To make this more tangible the designers will every now and then give you enemies you fought a while back. They let you reenter areas you already have cleared before. That way you will experience your progress as all those enemies and challenges that have been hard to come by in the past suddenly are easily overcome.
And only when you are ready, you finally are allowed to fight the end boss. Only when you acquire all the abilities and skills that are needed, you may try to beat him.
This approach is gold. It exploits human psychology. Critics go as far as saying that these games are addicting. I think that is reason enough to learn from them.
Now let’s see how we can apply this approach to our own lives and use it actually reduce self criticism in a big way, shall we?
Why Goals Are Still Important
You may wonder how I come to be as inconsequent in now recommending goals and ultimately having ideals, dreams and aspirations anyway after talking them down for an extensive time.
Well, I first needed to make sure you know why there is a problematic way to use them. From my perspective there are definitely issues with the usual approach.
So let me now show a cool way to use them in a little bit different way.
Dreams, Ideals And Goals Give Our Life Meaning And Purpose
If you have nothing to live for, your life will feel stale and boring. You might as well have no motivation to stand up in the morning and you find binging Netflix is the best way to spend your time.
Don’t get me wrong. A good show on Netflix is awesome, and getting immersed in a good story is one of the most exciting things I can think of. That’s why I love film music so much.
However, if there is nothing in your life that is dear and near to you, that you deem important, then you probably think you don’t have any goals at all.
Goals Are Created Where the Outer World Crosses Your Values
I really think all people have goals in their life, even if it doesn’t seem like it. It may be unconscious, non-articulated goals, but still goals. I think that they form around our values and attitudes, conscious or unconscious that might be.
In my opinion there are no imposed goals from the outside. All goals originate from our inner world. The world around us is what it is. Only our values let us act and react to it.
As I was thinking about this I realized this: I don’t have kids yet, but already I feel the need to prepare my life for the event, anyway. I never made it a conscious goal, but it is ingrained in my values that I want to be the best person and role model I can be for my kids. Also I want to give them the best possible start into their life.
There for sure are things I can’t control. But what I can do for them, I really want to do for them.
Goals are a Compass For Your Actions
As I told you before, comparing yourself against a role model or ideal is unfair in every way. But if you can specify what that actually means and form that information into a SMART goal, you then have a powerful device to check the direction you are heading into.
However, you should not measure your progress against that goal. Take it as a direction, not as a specific place to go for. Don’t think of it as Google Maps but as a compass that leads you on your way forward.
That way you keep yourself open for the moment that life happens and you are hit in the face with an unthought opportunity.
So to take me as an example: I can think about what exactly it is that makes John Williams a great composer to me. Maybe it is his speed of composing, how well he knows the orchestra, how he can read the story of a screenplay or the way he works with Leitmotifs or all of that at the same time.
Whatever it is that makes me excited about him, it is important to form it into something that is measurable. You shouldn’t measure yourself against your goal or ideal, but the goal still gives the metric you actually can measure yourself against.
That is an important distinction. Let the goals dictate the metrics. Just don’t measure your progress against the goal.
How to Actually Measure Your Progress
So after rambling about what all the things are that you shouldn’t compare yourself against, we finally reach the section where I tell you what actually will help with negative self-talk, demotivation and self-criticism.
Measure Yourself Against Your Former Self
Contrary to your vision, goals or an ideal, role model or whatever imaginary thing you might come up with your past is a measurable and proven entity. Of course it no longer is part of our current reality, but it isn’t part of the imaginary capability of your brain, but words in our history books.
If you compare your current situation with your starting point you actually get a valuable result that can tell you how far you have come in black and white.
So the important distinction to make is that your SMART goal gives you metrics to measure with, but the actual distance is evaluated with your past starting point, not with a deep look into your crystal ball.
Self Criticism and Negative Self-Talk Will Reduce And Eventually Vanish
As in the RPG example a comparison with the end boss will undeniably lead to frustration, anger and demotivation as you seem to not move in any meaningful way towards your aspirations.
The same might happen if you compare yourself with the people around you. They seem to be so much smarter, skillful and knowledgeable (well, at least some of them :P).
As stated you will always see yourself as less valuable. Less lovable. Your inner critic is judging, talking down on yourself.
If you however change your focus on your very own progress by comparing your current state against your former self with a meaningful metric, you will suddenly realize that you have improved.
The more you change your perspective that way, the more the negative self-talk will vanish. You slowly will start to be happy with every new improvement you can see on your look back. Every now and then you might give yourself a pad on the back for your newest achievement. You might even become a fan of yourself and your progress. Wouldn’t that be great?
This change of perspective is not a very big step in and of itself. But to me it makes all the difference.
There Is No Failing – Only Improvement
Let’s say it is your goal to reduce your weight by 15kg/30lbs. As you learned you compare to your past, in this example last week. You have gained 1kg/2lbs. That seems to be regression at first glance.
Now it is important to interpret the information you got. Now that you gained weight you need to identify the reason why.
It may be…
a) just natural fluctuation (especially with weight the overall trend is more important than a single day or week),
b) that you also work out and the weight you gained is muscle fiber,
c) that there actually is an issue with your weight loss strategy.
If it’s a), you got an improvement because the overall trend matters, not the individual day.
If it’s b) it’s also an improvement, as gaining muscle will increase your passive energy expenditure and it will help you from now on burning more energy every day.
If it’s c) it’s also a step forward because you realized that you need to change your strategy. You gained valuable knowledge and experience.
It is important to note here that the metric you use for measurement is highly important. For losing fat weight alone isn’t a good metric as muscle fiber has greater mass and you might misinterpret your measurement. So make sure to think thoroughly about your metrics (so for body relations consider the fat to lean mass ratio instead of pure weight).
3 Wins Every Day
The simplest way to implement this new perspective would be to write down 3 wins at the end of each day.
A win is a situation where you made a step forward compared to before. This may be a new insight, something important you learned that day or actual steps, that will help you move forward in the direction of one of your goals.
At the end of each week you could start a weekly review routine (if you not already have one yet), where you read through all of your wins and reflect on which wins had the most impact on you.
You might want to evaluate if the wins are moving you forward in the desired tempo. If not you could ask yourself what actions might take you forward at a faster pace.
You could also review on a monthly and a yearly level. It is important to always go back and see how far you have come and the more you read through your wins and reflections, the better you will feel, act and redirect.
Those weekly reflections and regular checkup with your wins are very important for the change to happen. You need to bring the distance you already traveled on your journey to the forefront of your mind.
For me personally weekly reflections have been one of the best things I introduced to my life lately. It is not the most easy thing on all occasions. Thinking about one’s life plus constant decision making is a little demanding and fatiguing at times.
The best thing I can say is: try to make it fun. Whatever makes that practice easier and enjoyable, do it. The payout is big on this one.
Documenting Your Journey
In the last article I wrote about why it is important to reduce the amount of content you consume and produce more yourself instead. This very much goes hand in hand with this article.
First of all just consuming stuff doesn’t bring measurable improvement. Just potential. As long as you don’t take action on stuff you learn and create something with it, it will never bring satisfaction and, most important, actual improvement.
For me personally I write about stuff I deeply care about that is on the top of my mind. It also kind of reflects my own way. So at the end of the year I basically can see what I have thought in the past year and also how I have evolved. Maybe in a year from now I will look back at this article and realize how far off I was and how much more I have grown over time.
Whatever it will be, I always can look back at this and measure myself against it.
Your body of work and output and creation will always show how far you have come. It will map the journey you have taken.
That’s why it is even more important to me to keep on producing and reduce consumption.
This article was inspired by Dan Sullivan’s “The Gap and the Gain“. While I don’t agree with everything he says the basic premise resonated with me. If you think this was an interesting read you might want to check him out.
What are your thoughts on this? Aything to add? Something to disagree with? Let me know and leave a comment.
I would like you to leave you with this quote:
When we pant a rose seed in the earth, we notice that it is small, but we don’t criticize it as “tootless and stemless.” We treat it as a seed, giving it the water and nourishment required of a seed. When it first shoots up out of the earth, we don’t condemn it as immature and underdeveloped; nor do we criticize the buds for not being open when they appear. We stand in wonder at the process taking place and give the plant the care it needs at each stage of its development. The rose is a rose from the time it is a seed to the time it dies. Within in, at all times, it contains its whole potential. It seems to be constantly in the process of change; yet at each state, at each moment, it is perfectly all right as it is.W. Timothy Gallwey
Hey. My name is Chris and I am a trained audio visual media designer. I work as a composer and sound engineer. On this site I am blogging about all the topics I am interested in. I always try to make sure they are somehow related to music production and composition in general. I am also documenting the experiences in my projects to share new insights and learnings.