The critic’s choice

Self-critic

“You are your own fiercest critic”

I can’t see your face as you read this blog, but I can, with some confidence, predict how your expression might change as you reflect on this phrase.

Think about these six words for any length of time and I think you might just find yourself gently nodding in agreement, perhaps even giving in to a rueful, knowing smile.

We are indeed our own fiercest critic, often possessed of an unfailing ability to disempower ourselves, convince ourselves we will never make ‘x’ happen and then justify those thoughts with ‘evidence’ we drag up from our memory banks that ‘proves’ our own self-fulfilling prophecy of doom. Which triggers a thought about something else you’ve not been good at, which highlights another reason why this is not going to work, and so it goes on.

In my last blog, I talked about how we are hard-wired to see the dreadful, the downside, the dangers of any given situation.

Here, I want to share some insights on how you can learn to ‘argue with yourself’ – and perhaps come to a more balanced view, possibly a positive view, or even better still, an empowering one. Then you can consciously choose how you are going to act, based on real-world evidence not your own inner, self-critical dialogue.

That is the ‘critic’s choice’; your choice.

Say it out loud to reveal the absurdity

A good first step is to tease apart all the individual issues your inner critic has rather unhelpfully bundled together, like a ball of elastic bands – and see them for what they really are. For example, your inability to connect with your teenage children does not mean your next presentation to your boss will go wrong, and that has nothing to do with the fact that you couldn’t tie your shoes until your were 12 years old. (I know this sounds stupid when you read this, especially if you read it out loud. But that’s my point – these interconnected thoughts are rather daft. You just need to notice they are!)

Simply saying out loud the things going on in your mind makes you realize how daft they sound and how your inner critic is already on shaky ground. Saying them to a trusted friend and getting their perspective is another way forward, a real reality check. (Just be sure to choose a friend who will genuinely help you take the conversation forward – not a friend in cahoots with your inner dialogue who’ll slavishly agree with your view of the world and prove you were right all along!)

Another technique is to use your own carefully honed, almost forensic ability to find fault in others’ arguments. Apply it to your own self-limiting inner dialogue and ‘pull apart’ its thoughts and conclusions. In truth it rarely has any genuinely credible evidence to bring forward.

A useful technique in this regard comes from the work of Martin Seligman in his book Authentic Happiness. It’s as simple A, B, C – and D, E, actually:

Adversity:  What’s the issue?
Beliefs:  What have you made that mean?
Consequences:  How does that make you feel?
Disputation:  What’s really going on?
Energization:  What are you going to do?

You can use this technique as a rigorous structured interview with yourself. But beware: Your inner dialogue often ‘pipes up’ in all sorts of unhelpful ways. As I’ve said before, thank it for sharing and tell it to push off – because it’s not helping. Alternatively you could get a trusted friend to conduct this structured interview with you.

In my next blog, I’ll share a personal story that brings all this to life. Put it this way: I wish I’d learned these techniques years back!

The black Saab convertible: Noticing the positives

In the meantime, we’ve now discussed some techniques to pull apart the disempowering arguments of your inner dialogue, your own fiercest critic – and perhaps created a little space in your mind for a more balanced view, based on real evidence. But that ‘critical devil on your shoulder’ is a persistent little rascal, so before he or she starts filling your mind with any more self doubt, let’s train your mind to notice the positives in any given situation. They are there; you just need to notice them.

So if I tell you: “You don’t see many black Saab convertibles these days – so keep a look out for them. You’ll see them all over the world. They are there, just like the positives in your world, you just need to notice.”

I told this story to a group of participants in a workshop we ran in Sweden a few years back called Taking a Positive View – What’s the Point? As we left the venue together to get some early evening sunshine, there were four cars stopped at the red light outside the hotel – two were black Volvo convertibles, two were black Saab convertibles. One participant said, albeit in jest: “How the hell do you do that?” Before I could respond, one of his peers more earnestly said: “He didn’t – you just noticed them.”

His choice; the critic’s choice.

So go on, get out there and find some black Saab convertibles in your life. They’re out there; you just need to notice them.