One of the side effects of my meditation practice is that I am quite aware of my thoughts.
If I pay attention for a second, I can give you a detailed description of what is passing though my mind.
Flaoting along in the stream are a set of thoughts that I have about myself. Some of these are good, and pleasant to experience. Others, less positive and indeed less comfortable.
There are a particular set of thoughts that sound like negative judgments about myself. They include thoughts like:
- You’re not technically gifted enough to be a team lead
- You’re a failure for your age
- You’re boring – nobody’s listening to you
- Your code is spaghetti – what a mess!
- You need to learn that new framework NOW or you’ll be an unemployable bum forever
- You’re wasting your time on this
- You should be working harder – you didn’t last time and missed the deadline
- You’re too loud
- That person would never date you….
And so on. It’s endless.
This is the voice of your Inner Critic.
I call mine Bob, for historical reasons.
Hands up if this sounds familiar? Most of us have a set of thoughts like this, to a certain extent. Unless you’re a narcissist, which is basically the inner critic turned on the rest of the world (off topic for this piece).
The thing about this voice in your mind, that looks, at first hand, like it’s trying to drag you down, is that it’s not your voice.
Where the Inner Critic comes from
The inner critic came from outside of you.
It’s vitally important to understant this if you want to learn to work with it.
As you grew as a child and young adult, you heard many, many statements about what you should and shouldn’t be doing, how you should behave or what you should/shouldn’t consume.
Many of these messages are necessary for our safety – “you shouldn’t play in the traffic” is a perfectly sensible thing to tell a child.
But here’s the thing. As our mind develops, we build up a picture of the way we SHOULD be in the world.
Our minds model an idealised self that behaves in perfect accordance with all the messages we’ve received about how the world works.
It also builds up a catalogue of what you’re doing “wrong” – the ways you’ve failed to reach this ideal.
This is what eventually manifests as the voice of the inner critic – a combination of mixed messages from the outside world that creates a false ideal of perfection, and a model of how you fail to match up.
If you think about it, this is entirely unfair. First up, the world is a complex, messy place and anyone who claims they can install perfect ethics in a developing child is probably running a cult.
(I have a rule – don’t start, or join, any cults).
So don’t stress about the fact that you have an inner critic. It was pretty much inevitable, and it’s NOT your fault (hey, shut up Bob, it’s not!).
And in actual fact, it thinks its job is to keep you safely alive in the world. So it doesn’t have bad intent, even if it’s a bit of a dick about it sometimes!
Working with your Inner Critic
Having discovered the inner critic, it’s a good idea to learn how to work with it because
- It can be tiresome, consuming our energy and making for an unpleasant experience
- It can hold us back in life, by convincing us of our lack of worth or inability to do what we want to.
There are a couple of useful stages to working with the Inner Critic. Here’s the list:
- Learn to recognise it
- Set some boundaries
- Build a healthy relationship with it
Here’s a bit more depth on each of those.
Recognizing your Inner Critic
Pay attention to your own thoughts about yourself. In particular, negative self-judgement.
You can do this now – take out a notepad and for the next five minutes, write down any self-critical thoughts.
What did you come up with?
Often our inner critic has a particular flavor, or flavors, of criticism. Have a look at this list and see if any stack up:
- Perfectionist – thinks you should be flawless at all times
- Controller – needs you to take charge of your self and your environment
- Taskmaster – thinks you should be working harder
- Underminer – is out to sabotage you
- Destroyer – wants to break everything inside and around you
- Guilt tripper – keeps you feeling guilty all the time
- Moulder – sees you as deficient from some ideal and tries to shape you that way, against your true nature
Bob is definitely an Underminer – he just doesn’t think I’m worth any success at all. Occasionally he’ll be a moulder and have me pretend to be something I’m not, but less so these days.
I’m curious to see if there is a common type of critic installed in the brains of coders – I’d guess Perfectionist might be prominent, maybe Controller – if you are feeling brave post in the comments below!
Set some boundaries
If you recognize that your Inner Critic has been causing issues in your life, it’s time to give it a reality check.
Remember, it’s a part of you and you are not completely what it says you are! So take some charge here and start a dialogue with it.
Here’s an example
Me: Hey Bob.
Bob: Hey loser!
Me: Bob, stop calling me that. It’s mean and you’re stopping me from getting shit done
Bob: But you’re so rubbish at everything, you’re going to fail!
Me: Bob! Seriously! I want that shiny new promotion and your incessant chattering is distracting me from getting it! So give it a rest for a while!
Me: Yes, or I’m locking you in the dungeon and throwing away the key.
Bob: Dungeon? There’s a dungeon in here?
Me: Thank you, I’m glad you can see I’m serious about this.
There are a couple of tactics you can use in your own conversations.
- Understanding – this is a big one. Try to figure out what your Inner Critic is trying to do. Where did it come from? What external voices from your younger life does it represent?
- Humour – it’s OK react to your Inner Critics rubbish by laughing it off. Try it! What effect does it have?
- Shouting – don’t be afraid to tell your Inner Critic to f*** right off!
Build a healthy relationship.
Make this kind of self-conversation a regular practice! Keep setting boundaries, keep trying to understand, laugh it off and, when you need to, get tough!
As much as the Inner Critic originated as a habit, a new way of relating to it is possible by building new habits.
Me and Bob are now on pretty regular speaking terms. He says what he needs to, but I don’t let him get in the way of my life so much these days, and in general he’s a bit quieter about it. It’s a much better relationship than it was!
The Inner Critic and ProgrammersAs devs, we use our mind a LOT. Our relationship with our inner landscape is paramount if we’re to keep pumping out useful code.
I hope this article gives you a bit more detail of the architecture of your own mind, and some practical ways of working with your Inner Critic.
Comments always welcome!