Taming that Inner Critic

OK, yes, I’ve done a lot of posts about what to do with the inner critic, also called the gremlin, lizard, or reptilian brain. But Rita Ackerman of Tattered Past showed me the best idea yet.

Here's the inner critic, mouth open, criticizing.

She created the inner critic as a stuffed beast, with different eyes and stitched scowling eyebrows. He’s a mess, and he wants you to feel like a mess, too.

You don't have to listen. Zip his mouth shut.

So Rita gave him a zipper mouth. Your inner critic berating you? Zip his mouth shut and toss him aside. Need to hear if he has anything worthwhile? Unzip his mouth and listen. Then zip it shut when he’s annoying.

The beasts are about six inches high and come in different materials. She sells them on her Etsy site, Tattered Past.

-Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach. She works with people around the world who are stuck in creative projects, or just stuck in life, not able to leave the past behind or feel joy in the present.

Danger or Drama? Sometimes the Lizard Isn’t Lying.

The reptilian brain is a leftover from our fight-or-flight days. There are still neurons wrapped around our brain stem that scream messages of lack and attack at us. Our inner critic is plugged into the reptilian brain, and the lizard yells at us with negative self-talk. You know the drill:

“You’ll never get that promotion, you just aren’t good enough.”

“You keep screwing up relationships, you keep picking the same losers, you will never be happy.”

“You aren’t nearly smart enough to steer through office politics.”

We struggle with negative self-talk every day, fighting it with positive replacement thoughts, affirmations, acknowledgments. It’s a long struggle, and we  still think we are going to wind up as bag ladies (men use the same phrase).

Howling at the moon? Nope, just sunning. Italian wall lizard from reptilis.net

Refuting the lizard is a popular coaching technique, but I’d like to suggest something much more difficult. (I hear you sighing heavily, even from behind the computer screen.) Sometimes the lizard is right. Sometimes there are dangers around us. We do repeat mistakes. And, in fact, there are bag ladies (and men).

So the trick with the lizard is knowing when it’s just spouting off and when there may be truth in the mental warnings we feed ourselves. Yes, if we run with scissors, we can put out an eye. If the scissors are the blunt-edged ones and still in the box, the likelihood approaches zero.  In the way of the lizard, it yells the same way in either case–long, sharp scissors held in one hand while running down a marble-floored, sloping hallways in wool socks or blunted scissors in a box. The lizard doesn’t discern. The lizard yells lack and attack messages.

What if the lizard whispers fear messages in your ear and they seem plausible?  Luckily, the lizard isn’t all that versatile, so a few questions might make a difference. Here are some you may ask:

–Is this warning for something I’ve done before that ended badly?  Let’s say it’s Yes.

–At what moment exactly, did I make the decision that took me in the wrong direction? Am I there again?

–What decision could you have made to make the earlier disaster end differently? Does that apply here? If both of the second answers are No, move on, it was the lizard. If the answers were “No”, followed by  “but” and anger or drama, it’s just the lizard. Real danger has immediacy and clarity to it.

–If the answer to the first question was “No,” ask yourself, “If I act as if I am in danger, what could go wrong?” If all the answers are desperate and loaded with drama, become suspicious.

–If any of the thought is connected to anger or revenge, it’s the lizard.

–Define the solution you want to pursue. Think it through to the conclusion. Would you suggest this solution to your best friend or your boss?  Many times, panic is connected to emotional triggers, and we want to punish the offender rather than solve the problem. If the answer seems good just for you, but you would never suggest it to your best friend, it’s most likely the lizard.

Of course there are times when you are in immediate danger. And yes, there are people who don’t like you and may want to work out their anger to their benefit and you happen to cross their sight, so you get pulled into the mix. But most of our messes are caused by repeating our old stories and keeping them in place because we are comfortable with them. Knowing what is dangerous and what is fear and anger based and treating it differently will make life a lot calmer.

Negative Self-Talk, or Lizard Brain

Negative self-talk expands to fill up your brain.

You know the feeling. You are about to go into an interview and you think, “I’m going to screw this up.” And you do. “Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be,” you think. “The universe doesn’t want me to have this.” Give the universe a pass. This is your own doing.

The closer we get to success, the more we sabotage ourselves. Why do we do this? Because of a lump of cells close to the brain stem that broadcasts negative messages on lack and attack. The more we listen, the louder it gets.

Research shows that we need about a five-to-one ration of positive to negative feedback to be productive. Here are some other statistics:

  • 65 percent of American workers say they received no recognition for their work in the last year.
  • 22 million workers are not interested in their work or actively dislike it.
  • Bad bosses increase the risk of stroke by 33 percent.
  • When you tell yourself something is “too hard” your stress levels increase, and you are more likely to fail, even if you have done the same thing before.
  • Increasing your positive attitude even a little starts to add years to your life–as much as 10 years.

So what does this mean? It means that you have to start with yourself, turning negative thoughts and critical talk to positive talk. Then pass it on. How?

  • Stop the automatic critical thoughts when you see someone poorly dressed, fat, or with weird hair.
  • Hang around positive people. Negative people’s snark might be more fun, but when you aren’t with them, it’s likely to be turned on you, leaving you with increased paranoia.
  • Hang around positive people more. They are more productive. Negative people fill your head and heart with ideas that drag you down.
  • Tell people what they are doing right. They are likely to do more of what they are appreciated for.
  • If people need a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative, do your share to keep your own positive comments five times higher than your negative ones.

Think this is all new-age, woo-woo stuff? Nope.

  • Seth Godin, the entrepreneur who writes about change (and has written 10 bestsellers) writes about the damage lizard brain causes.
  • Steven Pressfield (the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance) encourages people to cover the canvas, fix the details later. But start, and do as much as you can in one positive swoop.
  • Pressfield’s advice: “My writing philosophy is a kind of warrior code—internal rather than external—in which the enemy is identified as those forms of self-sabotage that I call “Resistance” with a capital R (in The War of Art). The technique for combating these foes can be described as ‘turning pro.'”

So put down the negative anchor and pick up the positive wings and try them on. They’ll fit just fine.

Quinn McDonald is a life- and creativity coach who teaches businesses and individuals how to talk to each other, in positive ways.