A List Apart


Illustration by Kevin Cornell

Banishing Your Inner Critic

Imagine you are standing on a bridge casting a net. Above the bridge is your conscious mind, where thoughts come and go like travelers visiting a fair. Below the bridge is your subconscious—the ever-flowing stream of random thoughts, with countless ideas darting through the water like schools of brightly-colored fish. As is often the case where bridges and streams are concerned, a cold and menacing troll lurks nearby. This troll is your “Inner Critic.” The troll, aggressive and mean-spirited, doesn’t give a lick about your Grand Ideas. The troll has but one purpose: to prevent the ideas which playfully zoom about your subconscious from being gathered into the net of your consciousness and made manifest in the world. The resourceful and clever troll employs many tools to complete its task, ranging from the subtle (distractions and boredom), to the complexities of perfectionism, to diminished confidence and a paralyzing fear of failure. When the troll is in its élan (which is far more often than we’d like), its efforts decrease your ideation and productivity, dampening your awesomeness.

What’s it all about Alfie?

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Why be concerned with your inner critic? In essence, an overactive inner critic acts as a deterrent between the seedlings of great ideas and the fruits of accomplishment. Don’t think you have an inner critic? Think again. The question is not if the troll is there, but rather how big, loud, and disarmingly influential and persuasive it is.

Have you found yourself in these kinds of situations?

  • You have that deadline looming and are becoming increasingly frustrated because you can’t generate any ideas.
  • You hate all of the designs that you have developed for Y-project.
  • You want to launch (insert idea/site/app/book/company/event/etc.), but can’t move past the initial thinking stage because it just isn’t quite right.
  • You think almost everything you do is only passable because it’s not like so-and-so’s stuff and you’ll never be as successful as you want to be in the industry.

When you find yourself in situations like this, you have your inner critic to thank for them.

As an industry creative, deep down, you know you’ve “got game.” You possess the capacity to create wonderful designs, interfaces, products, strategies, code innovations, articles, and blog posts. You’re constantly striving to efficiently channel all that creative goodness into great work. For you to consistently express your creativity, however, you must roust that troll from its perch beneath the bridge and chase it out of town. While torches and pitchforks seem to be the most effective tools for such a task, you should use them only as a last resort. Banishing your inner critic, unsurprisingly, is more of an “inside job.”

The many faces of the inner critic

You may be all-too-familiar with the voice of your inner critic, but on the off-chance that you are not, here are some examples of its oft-spouted propaganda.

Shoulds and comparing

Even as a UX designer, I should know more about HTML5.

I should blog more.

If “I woulda/shoulda/coulda” is a predominant part of your inner dialogue, then you have an active inner critic working tirelessly to make you drink the “not good enough” kool-aid.

Equally insidious and damaging (also frequently involving “shoulds”) is the tendency to compare oneself to others. For instance:

I should produce more useful tools, like Paul Irish does.

I should have written nearly 40 books on web design by now. Molly Holzschlag has!

I should have launched that app that pulls conference information from Twitter before Lanyrd came out.

Logically, we know we’re comparing apples to oranges and that this is a zero-sum game, but the inner critic renders us helpless to resist comparison’s seductive lure.

The joys of perfectionism

Close on the heels of “shoulds” and comparisons, in all its splendor and glory, is the dogged pursuit of perfection. Not content to be monolithic, perfectionism wears many masks, including those of boredom, procrastination, doomsday thinking, an inability to complete tasks or projects, the setting of unrealistic goals (followed by disappointment when they are not met), and fear of disapproval, failure, and, yes, even success.

Impostors R us

The inner critic can also show up in the form of “Impostor Syndrome,” whereas—despite much evidence to the contrary, a person internally believes that they are a fraud and their accomplishments are a function of random chance and dumb luck. Usually, the terror of being exposed as incompetent drives those mired in impostor syndrome to become workaholic super-achievers. They will paradoxically dismiss their accomplishments while simultaneously chasing after the next belt-notch that will (hopefully) distract from their perceived inadequacies. The irony about feeling that you are an impostor is that most successful people will tell you that that they became a renowned web designer because they “just got lucky.”  They feel that, although they are the creative director of X-awesome company,  they “don’t really know what they’re doing and are are still figuring it all out.” In other words, self-perceived impostors are ubiquitous. The other irony is what I like to think of as “The Impostor Syndrome Paradox,” which is that one can really only fall prey to impostor syndrome when he or she is not only competent, but extremely talented and accomplished at what they do.

If you’ve been battling it for years, ur doin’ it wrong

This is all starting to ring a bell now, right? Welcome to the voice of your inner critic. Oh, I’m positive you can manage your inner critic—you’ve got a relationship with it, right? No matter that you’re producing like crazy at the expense of pushing yourself to exhaustion and burnout. No big deal that you’re beginning to resent the work and industry that you used to love so much. You totally have it under control, of course. Er…or not. Whether it’s infrequently or often, if these sorts of thoughts or behaviors appear regularly in your life, then it’s time to reconsider your tactics for dealing with and silencing your inner critic.

“Look, Haley’s Comet!”

Ignoring the critic doesn’t work—it will only make it more devious and insistent. Trying to strong-arm and exert your will over it will do the same. You’ll need to equip yourself with a combination of willingness combined with some tried-and-true methods to turn down the volume of your inner critic. Remember, you want to fish from the river of your subconscious. Trust that you’ll haul up a mother lode of inspired creativity and reliable productivity precisely when you need it.

The beginnings of banishment

Now that you can identify the voice of your inner critic, it should be easier to take steps to mitigate that caustic, critical voice. At the very least, we hope to come to an acceptable truce and mutual understanding with the inner critic. Ultimately, of course, we would like to banish it completely.

Who ’dat?

Before we can run the inner critic out on a rail, however, it is important to recognize its origin and purpose in the psyche. Often the inner critic is the ego’s way of internalizing the voices of authority figures: parents, teachers, coaches, and well-meaning peers. It acts as a substitute for these people, using every discouraging utterance as a way to protect you from future hurt. The inner critic pipes up with potential negative commentary from the outside world, and uses it to keep you from doing anything that might possibly invite criticism. This brings me to the first tactic to deal with the voice of the inner critic.

Switch it up

We want to move away from the extremes of listening to everything the inner critic says and ignoring it, toward transforming our focus and attention on that voice to change how it affects us.

Seek the truth. Be proactive—don’t passively accept everything your inner critic says as gospel. Are you just going to sit there and blindly accept all of the disparaging things your inner critic is taunting you with? Challenge the truth of the critic’s information; after all, it is just a surrogate for what critics from the past have said. Examine whether or not any of those people were right in the first place. Think about how bad external criticism really is in the grand scheme of things. Admittedly, it’s no picnic, but you always live through it and come out the other side, right? Sometimes you even learn something.

As for comparison, consider this: there is no other you on the planet—there has never been and there never will be. You can’t be them and they can’t be you. Isn’t that wonderful?

“If you’re not part of the solution…” If your inner critic is clever enough to point out your shortcomings, perhaps you ought to ask it for a viable solution to the issues you are experiencing and see what it says. Does the cat have its tongue once you put it on the spot? After all, when you’re feeling unsure about what you’re doing, you don’t need more questions, but rather, answers and solutions. Challenging your inner critic to do some problem-solving, instead of merely reminding you of your flaws may just shut it up long enough for you to tap into your brilliance.

Interrogate. Do some bullying yourself. Initiate an interrogation and ask your critic some key questions, such as: “Where do you come from?” “What do you want?” and my personal favorite, “So, what’s your point?” By placing you inner critic on the defensive, you can challenge, and even attempt to make fun of, the hollow voice that is mocking your efforts and dismissing your competence.

Turn antagonism into partnership

Your relationship with your inner critic does not have to be a strained and troubled one. You’re already on a better road by recognizing that you have an inner critical voice at all. By simply exercising a willingness to neuter that voice, you have made a commitment to be even more creative and productive than you already are.

Learn from the master. See how you can learn from inner critic. Your inner critic is usually behind the internal push to set high expectations of yourself and impel you towards success. Surely you can be motivated to succeed without berating yourself, right?

Reassign duty. Oddly enough, the inner critic does have a place in the creative process.  Unfortunately, it is overly eager about helping and usually jumps into the process too early. Invite your inner critic to come back at another time.  Tell it to go take a long lunch and come back when you are vetting ideas, or editing a written piece, or determining the best of several design iterations. Those are ideal times to exercise discerning judgment and a critical eye. The problems arise when the inner critic is banging the drum during the creative process.

Show some love. Finally, you could try having compassion for your inner critic.  The inner critic really does mean well.  It is akin to an overzealous parent or bodyguard.  It is trying to protect you and keep you from getting hurt. One way to acknowledge and respect this voice without blithely going along with everything that it says is to say: “Thank you for your thoughts,” and then quietly dismiss it as you move on to something else.

Shift your thinking and focus

With your inner critic quelled, you now have to do a bit of mental legwork. The goal is to eliminate the habit of letting that voice wear you down and to replace it with a new way of thinking that will build you back up.

Remold your brain

Thankfully, the brain’s capacity for neuroplasticity works in your favor. The brain’s thinking is often determined by oft-used, frequently fired neural pathways. When you think different thoughts, you create new pathways.  You begin to train your brain to alter its bioelectric habit-trail, essentially changing its response to situations by generating different thoughts. This, in effect, consciously changes the way you think and literally creates a whole new mindframe. You will find that simply having a willingness to dabble in thought that is neither negative nor overly self-critical remolds your brain into thinking differently about what you’ve done, who you are now, and what you are capable of doing.

Give yourself some props

Still further down the path of brain-changing thought is to spend some time revisiting that which you have already done and to focus on past accomplishments.  Instead of dismissing them as mediocre or a byproduct of chance, begin to see them in a more objective light: yes, that design was really good; yes, that content strategy was brilliant; yes, that conference I organized was a truly great event. Shift your focus from what you believe went wrong, what could have been better, and what you were unhappy with and concentrate on the overall positive outcome: the effort and time you put into it, the new skills you learned from it, how it helped you grow and develop professionally, and how it helped others.

Change the target

Get sneaky and fool the critic into dumbfounded silence with these final ploys.

Rev up the empathy

Shifting your focus away from yourself to others is a great way to quiet the voice of the inner critic if not silence it completely. As part of their design thinking and problem-solving approach, the d.school and IDEO focus on developing empathy as a means of better problem-solving. When you empathize with the person you’re helping, you put yourself in their shoes. You seek to experience the discomfort that they’re experiencing to both better understand the problem, and see the range of appropriate solutions more clearly. If you’re a strategist of any sort—content, UI or UX designer, accessibility expert—you probably already use this approach.

Be deceptively non-committal

Trick your inner critic by using a bait-and-switch tactic. When you feel your inner critic trying to put the brakes on your motivation, enticing you to procrastinate, deftly sidestep it by telling yourself: “I’m not really going to do x, I’m just getting ready for it.” Need to code a demo, but lack the proper motivation for it? No problem. Just start getting the tools ready to start coding it. And, as long as you’re there, why not just slap down a couple of lines?  You know, just for kicks. You’re not really doing it, of course, just getting it ready for later, right? You’ll find that pushing past that initial resistance is all you need to neutralize your inner critic long enough to get into the flow of a given task.

Go for “good” instead of superlative

You may also want to consider lowering your expectations for what you’ll achieve. Sometimes “done” is the most perfect anything has to be. Late, undone, or constantly changing rarely passes muster any way you slice it. If you look objectively at the doomsday prophecies that your inner critic is incessantly blathering about concerning the consequences of less-than-perfect performance, you’ll usually find that they are patently untrue. The earth will not stop spinning on its axis, nor will any puppies die if you don’t do something “perfectly.” Is that design comp going to change your career if the client loves it with no change requests? You can’t really know, so it’s best to presume not and be happily surprised if later it does. So, contrary to what your inner critic may tell you, no, you will not completely ruin the project; no, your company will not go under. Take a deep breath, exhale, and get it done. Oftentimes, “done” by definition, is “good.”

Be bad, very bad

A final tactic is to play with being as bad as you possibly can at what you are creating. Deliberately give yourself permission to make the most god-awful design possible. Use the most uninspired writing you can muster for that brief, article, or blog post. Butcher the example image with comic sans, canned Photoshop filters, and hot pink. Giving yourself this kind of leeway often helps you sidestep the inner critic and free up the essence of what you want to create and what wants to be created.

Gang way for productivity!

With the inner critic under tighter control, now you’ll have the mental space and energy to let your true talents emerge and get busy kicking some professional and career butt.

Enter: creative confidence

Making your inner critic take a back seat allows for creative confidence to take its rightful place in the forefront of your psyche. You know that, regardless of the situation, you have the creative tools and the ability to push forward and come up with some kind of product, and then to see if it is workable or not.

A new world order

Gone are the days of falling victim to needless comparisons with others. You’ve found that “should” don’t live here anymore. You employ an arsenal of clever tactics to get started on things which, previously, would have comprised of a whole bunch of foot-dragging. You‘ve come to an agreement to let your critic come out when you need it: during editing and vetting, and not during ideation. You find yourself producing more and better work, doing that which really jazzes you, and as a result, finally getting recognized for the work that you do. Furthermore, you now accept the in-coming accolades as the truth rather than the ravings of the duped and deluded.

Give someone a fish

Your mind is free to draw from the stream of your unconscious with no fear of the fishing line being cut prematurely. The troll is subdued or even gone, and you can now cast a line from the bridge, trusting that you will consistently pull up great, soul-nourishing ideas with which to feed your creativity and spur you on to create the awesomeness that you were meant to. That “Gone Fishin’” sign on your office door will take on a whole new meaning.

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