Outracing the Inner Critic

I am a master at getting in my own way. I can trip myself up before I even realize I’m going somewhere. And it turns out that getting out of your own way can be pretty tricky. It’s almost impossible to think your way out of being stuck inside your own head, but that is always my first response. So how do we stop over-thinking and get out of our own way? How do we stop analyzing and criticizing ourselves to the point of inaction? One method I keep coming back to is free writing.

Free writing is simply writing as fast as you can without worrying about quality or spelling or even grammar, typically for a set amount of time like fifteen minutes. You can do it on a computer but I like the physicality of pen on paper. I know I’m doing it fast enough when I can smell the ink. I imagine extending the streak of wet words on the page, racing to add to the chain as they dry out. I love the smell of ink in the morning. There are moments when it is as if I’m reading the words instead of writing them. But how does that help me get out of my own way? Because I can outpace the critic that lives inside my mind.

We all suffer from self-criticism to different degrees and in different areas of our lives. And not all self-criticism is bad. Sometimes the little voice in our head that says “you’re about to do something really stupid” is the only thing that saves us. But an overdeveloped internal critic can trip us up even when we’re not debating whether we should use a damp tree branch to move live power lines off of our car. (True story, thanks Sandy.) I find the hypercritic shows up, and won’t shut up, even when we’re trying to do something creative or something that will help us grow.

Like right now, my internal hypercritic is telling me that this piece sucks. But that guy is wrong for two reasons: one, this piece might not be an eleven but it’s not that bad so far, and two, this piece isn’t close to done yet and so it is way too early to judge it. The hypercritic is a jerk because he yells “wrong” while I’m still in the process of solving the problem. There comes a point when analysis and judgment are necessary in writing, when you have to figure out what sucks so that you can make it better, but trying to do that before the piece is finished leads to tripping over your own feet.

The hypercritic is like a party guest who shows up an hour early. He doesn’t mean to be rude, he even attempts to help set up, but ultimately he’s in the way. The hors d’oeuvres have to go in the oven and I’m not even dressed yet but this guy wants to discuss the disadvantages of how the seating is arranged without offering a better alternative. Who are you, the party boss? Wow, you’re really good at seeing problems, even really tiny ones, but you managed to overlook the fact that YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE YET. Who invited this guy anyway?

My internal critic is telling me that last paragraph got a little weird, and he might be right. But nothing would get done if I always listened to him. Sometimes you just need to get out of your own way and let it flow. One way to do that is to outrun the hypercritical bastard. Impediments don’t move very quickly. The free write let’s your mind go full speed until you can’t think of anything to write, and then you write “I can’t think of anything to write” until more words will come. And they almost always do.

And if things get really blocked up, I’ll write as fast as I can all the criticism and judgment that’s spinning inside of my head. Just getting it out on paper takes away some of its power and makes it more manageable. Giving the hypercritic a voice for 15 minutes is a way to drain the poison, to get all that crap out of the way so that you can move on and do your thing. Much of what that voice is saying can probably be ignored, and if there are valid points to the criticism then separating them from the nonsense is valuable because only then can we begin to fix the problem. But you can’t perform and judge the performance at the same time without doing both poorly. 

Obviously, when you write as fast as you can with no regard to readability or quality, you’re probably not going to produce anything worth sharing with people. But this is also part of what puts the freedom in free writing. Knowing that the results are bound for the trash can be incredibly liberating. Ideally there will be things of value within the mess on the page, but if there is nothing worth reading it is not a problem. No one is ever going to see it, so there’s no reason to worry. You can shred the page, or even burn it, to ensure it will never come back to embarrass you and give yourself the freedom to say whatever you want. Or you can take out the best parts and use it for something you do intend to share.

The free write is a good practice in most situations because it helps to clear our heads and get a look at what’s really going on up there. And it can break up the blocks and gets things flowing. But if writing seems too far removed from what you’re trying to do, the principles of the free write can still be useful. When dealing with the overly analytical, sometimes we have to run before we can walk. And when dealing with the overly critical, we might have to remove the question of quality from the equation all together. Maybe sing in the shower as loud as you can, or dance your ass off with no one watching. Just to change the mood and build up some momentum.

I’m not claiming to be a master at getting out of my own way, but I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice. Free writing helps me often, but not always.  So I’m still looking for other methods to get over blocks and get things done.  If you’ve got a good way to get out of your own head and silence the hypercritic please share it in the comments. Or write it as fast as you can on loose leaf and burn the page.

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3 Responses to Outracing the Inner Critic

  1. cli.gs May 3, 2015 at 2:56 am #

    This is such an excellent post, and was thinking much the same myself.
    Another excellent update.

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