This question comes from Alan Roscoe of Olympia, Washington and it addresses a fundamental challenge of being human.
“Lately, every time I start something new, whether it’s a business proposal or a birthday card to my wife, I’m assailed from within. It’s like I hear a voice telling me how bad and how worthless everything I create is. How do I stop the negativity?”
Alan, I know it’s reassuring to hear that you’re not alone in this so let me say it:
You’re not alone.
In fact, this internal editor that you describe is a basic part of what makes us human. Everyone has to contend with it and I’d like to share some thoughts and strategies that have helped me in my many struggles with this guy.
What is this internal editor (IE) inside your head and what’s its purpose?
Since it seems to be such a universal issue, I’d argue that there’s something about the IE that makes it far more than just an annoyance. In my opinion, it’s a protector and a nurturer and though it’s often hard to imagine, the IE actually has our best interests in mind. It’s important to get a clear perspective on the IE’s function. It doesn’t exist to detract from our lives –even though it often does- it exists to save us from death.
I know that sounds dramatic.
But bear with me. When we were young and completely dependent on our parents for survival, it was imperative that we stayed in their good graces. We needed to be as cute and perfect as possible to avoid being abandoned. It sounds ridiculous to us now, the thought that our parents might or could actually abandon us. But at one time, when we were entirely dependent on others for our physical survival, there was a deep, latent and primitive fear of just that.
Our internal editor made sure that whatever we did or said kept us closely attached to those who were responsible for keeping us alive. It made sure that if we asked for something we did it in the most reasonable way we could manage –even if we threw a terrible tantrum, our IE made sure we never went too far. If we needed to express ourselves, our IE made sure we never said things that would get us permanently rejected. We could be unnerving, annoying and irritating of course, but there was always this limit and the IE made sure we knew were that was at all times.
When our parents were dismissive of our needs or somehow gave us the impression that our connection to them was tentative, our IE became even more dominant. We had to gauge everything we did our said. Everything needed to be weighed and tested for signs that it might possibly engender rejection. Remember, at a young age rejection isn’t a small thing; it truly represents life and death. In other words, our IE wasn’t trying to keep us down it was trying to keep us alive.
The reason I point this out is so we never make the mistake of going to war with our IE. When it rears its head and thwarts our latest creative endeavor with its nay saying and negativity, we’ll have the most success if we treat it with love and respect. The more we push it away the less able we will be of freeing ourselves from its deleterious effects. Framing an approach like this is helpful:
“Hey IE, I know you’re trying to protect me. I know you’re trying to spare me the shame and humiliation of coming up with something horrible but you know what, I think I’ll be good for at least a couple hours without you. Why don’t you get yourself an iced tea, take a walk for a bit and come back later? Yeah. Absolutely. Come back later. We’re partners after all. “
Nobody likes to be abandoned, not even an internal editor.
Recognizing that doing something horrible won’t kill you is probably the most crucial thing to remember -but since our fear of shame is so deeply ingrained this takes a lot of practice. In fact, practice itself should consist of mostly mistakes; horrible, disgusting, humiliating mistakes. As adults, most of us find ourselves doing only the things that we’ve developed proficiency with. It’s rare to find someone older than twenty who’s willing to try new things simply because the fear of looking like an idiot is just too painful.
I encourage you to finish things even if they’re terrible. Getting used to seeing yourself fail is probably the best insurance you have that you’ll eventually do things well. Becoming inured to the sight and scent and feel of your being lousy at something is more than just a wonderful exercise, it’s a method of gaining mastery as well. In fact, it’s the only pathway to mastery.
No one other than you needs to see your unrefined creations -but you need to see them. That is to say that you MUST see them. You need to look at them squarely, adjust the things that need adjusting and continue on. No one’s going to reject you now. Those visceral fears, those childhood memories will not harm you. Your internal editor needs to see you unafraid of facing them so that he can take the break you want him to take.
So set out an iced tea for him. Let him drink it and leave you in peace as you work fearlessly for several hours. Call him back when you’re finished. You may even need to wake him up. But on second thought, if he’s sleeping, leave him be. It’s tiring being someone’s protector after all.