This past weekend we held the first-ever Habit Writers’ Retreat. As the writers checked in, I gave them an index card and asked them to write down the main barriers that keep them from writing. I got some interesting answers—which will probably be the basis of future episodes of The Habit Weekly—but a whole category of responses is encapsulated in the card that read, “The ugly voice inside my head.” 

I have written before about the inner critic. You’ve got a voice in there that tells you what’s good, what interests you, what needs more work, what doesn’t ring true. Without that inner critic, you can’t do good work. That’s why I don’t talk about silencing the inner critic, but rather making friends with the inner critic. Hopefully you and your inner critic are good enough friends that you can sometimes say, “I need some alone time, Inner Critic. Can you go get a cup of coffee or something while I write this first draft, then come back and help me with the second draft?”

One problem, however—and this problem is a doozie—is that the helpful voice of the inner critic isn’t the only voice inside you. There are who-knows-how-many other voices reverberating in there. Often we internalize the voices of harsh and/or shaming criticism so thoroughly that we mistake them for our own voice. What you think of as your inner critic may simply be the voices of outward critics that have taken up residence inside you.

While I thoroughly believe that we all need guidance, feedback, and even criticism from other people who love us and want us to be the best versions of ourselves, I also want to remind you that some of the nastiest criticism you have internalized may have been offered by people who didn’t know what they were talking about, or didn’t really mean it, or just weren’t thinking. 

You may have seen the Will Ferrell movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. It is aggressively, intentionally idiotic for the most part, but in a few moments I find it surprisingly moving and insightful. NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby has organized his whole life around the hope that he can win enough races and make enough money to gain the approval of his ne’er-do-well father, who abandoned the family when Ricky Bobby was little. The father gave his son one word of wisdom before he left: “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” 

So Ricky Bobby set about making sure he was always first, at the expense of his health and all his relationships. “You gotta win to get love,” he says at one point. “Everybody knows that. I mean, that’s just life.” 

Toward the end of the movie, when his father lets him down once again, Ricky Bobby finally confronts the old man. He says, “That was for you, you know that? I did just like you told me: ‘If you ain’t first, you’re last.'” But old Mr. Bobby is genuinely confused. He doesn’t remember ever uttering such a thing. Finally he says, “I was high when I said that. That doesn’t make any sense at all. You could be second, you could be third, you could be fourth…”

That, friends, is what you call a sad story told for laughs. But it happens all the time. The older brother who made you feel like an idiot for even trying to draw a picture of a castle—he wasn’t an expert on the subject; he was just doing what big brothers do. The teacher who was so busy marking your grammar and spelling errors that she didn’t notice that you had really interesting ideas—she’d be mortified to know that her critical voice still shuts you down when you try to write; she was just trying to get through a huge pile of papers. The parent who drummed into you the idea that taking time for creative work would interfere with your ability to tend to the practical necessities of life—he was afraid for you; I’m a little afraid that my own children’s creative pursuits will interfere with their ability to provide for themselves, even though I don’t have much room to talk. 

I don’t really have three easy steps to distinguish between your “true” inner critic and the voices of criticism that you have internalized. But just acknowledging that there’s a difference is a start. Taking a posture of forgiveness toward those voices might be a next step. And another step might be just to sit down and do the work that those voices have discouraged you from. So there: I had three steps after all. Whether they’re easy…that’s another question.

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