walking on custard

A Simple Trick to Sidestep Self-Criticism

16 Aug 2019

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Sometimes I’m ashamed to share my work. You might think that’s understandable (particularly if you’ve been exposed to many of my posts before!) but this isn’t just a healthy sense of shame at my evident limitations. 

Often, it’s fear of my own unoriginality. That inner voice of shame tells me to scrap my work, and to only return when I’ve finally created something truly original.

It’s hard not to listen to that voice, but over the years of living with it I’ve developed a technique that helps me to manage it when it speaks up. And I call this technique the Absurdity Principle.*

* I actually don’t call it this at all, but somebody suggested this name and I’m not original enough to come up with anything better.**

** I kid, of course.

This trick is to agree with the voice, and to exaggerate it to the point of absurdity. For example:

“Oh no! Someone else has already done work similar to mine! This is unacceptable! I must only do work which is 100% wholly original and in no way related to any other work. Even working in English is cheating, as it builds on my ancestors’ achievements in creating the language. In fact, using my internal organs is cheating, as it builds on the previous work of nature. I must become a being of Pure Reason, transcend my earthly form, and only then will I be able to create something unique and original that isn’t at all similar to anything anyone else has ever done.”

Exaggerating the voice helps me to see the irrationality underlying my worries. Usually there’s a kernel of truth behind the concern—of course there is such a thing as plagiarism—but this inner voice often applies this truth way beyond the scope of what is reasonable.

In this case, it helps me to recognize that I don’t have to contribute something wholly new, as there’s arguably no such thing. It’s valid to simply bring a new perspective to something which already exists. 

This Goes for Any Inner Criticism

I shared this technique with a friend on the Puttytribe, and their response was “I am very much here for personal growth through extreme sarcasm.”

They were—mostly—kidding, but there’s truth in what they say. After all, this critical voice pops up in all kinds of situations and, instead of arguing with it, it might help to agree and exaggerate until the criticism seems absurd.

For example, multipotentialites often straddle multiple spaces, and it’s easy to end up feeling like an outsider in each of them. If we exaggerated that critical voice, it might say something like:

“I haven’t spent a lifetime studying this topic, so I have nothing to contribute here. Even if I spent the rest of my life devoting myself to it, I’ll have nothing to contribute here. In fact, even if I spent many lifetimes reincarnating there’s no chance I could ever be welcome in this space. ONLY EXPERTS ALLOWED!”

Now, this might free me to recognize that everybody struggles with feeling confident to be part of a group from time to time, as of course I’m not expected to be a literal world expert on something.

However, this example might illustrate a danger with this trick. It relies on recognizing the absurdity through the exaggeration, so my brain can take a step back and notice the inherent flaw. 

But if I don’t exaggerate far enough—or if I’m in such a negative mental space that no matter how far I exaggerate I’ll just accept it as further criticism—then I’m in danger of accidentally fueling my anxieties to greater heights.

That’s okay—no technique works in all situations. This is just a helpful strategy for defusing the inner critic who pipes up so often as we leap from passion to passion.

And I’m sure it’s not an original idea… but, as I can now tell my inner critic… that’s fine, too.

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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