Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from Shut Your Monkey: How to silence the critic in your head and get to work by Danny Gregory.
by Danny Gregory
Here you are, minding your own business.
Maybe you’re gazing out the window, daydreaming about your future. Or you just got briefed on a new project at work. Or maybe it’s 3 a.m. and you are just staring at the ceiling, much too wide awake.
Your attention shifts inward, to a spot behind your eyeballs. A little voice starts up back there and it’s murmuring, just to you. It says: “You can’t do this. Don’t even try it. This is a mistake. You’ll lose your job. Your home. Your loved ones. … Here are a hundred reasons you will fail… ”
The voice makes you second-guess yourself before you even start. You can go from the verge of making a decision to backing away, to asking others’ opinions, to questioning your judgment, to trashing everything you have ever accomplished, doubting yourself to the core.
This voice squirts adrenaline into your blood stream, ties your guts in knots, release butterflies to flop around your tummy, and gushes cold sweats down your pits and brow.
It knows you well. In fact, it sounds like a friend, concerned and just here to protect you from a horrible decision. It’s a familiar old voice, one that’s been whispering in your ear as far back as you can remember. It’s the voice of the inner critic, the worry wart, the voice of doom.
If you hear this voice, and I know you do, you’re not crazy. You’re not a loser. You’re not alone. You’re just human.
But despite how common this predicament is, it’s also very damaging. The voice has the ability to limit your potential, crush your happiness and derail your dreams.
It’s time to stop it.
The voice and the maker.
More than anything, the voice messes with all forms of creativity. New ideas, new directions make it jabber loudest. Why? Because the voice hates change and risk and whenever we rearrange the mental furniture of our lives, it protests.
This is an important thing to remember: when the voice starts up, it’s because you are trying to change something. And if you are going to be a functioning person on this ever-turning planet, you will have to eventually make change too. So to be happy (or even functional), you are going to have to learn to shut that voice down.
Listen to the voice.
So what does it sound like? What’s the quality of its voice? Does it whisper? Does it have an accent? An echo? How old does it sound? Is it high-pitched or low-? Does it sit right against your ear or is it deeper in your head?
Now, try to put a body and a face to that voice. Make it a creature. How big is it? What does it smell like? How does it move? Is it an animal? Is it a demon?
I imagine it looks a bit like Gollum, from The Lord of the Rings. It’s whiney and creepy and lives back in in the dark cave of my skull. It never rests and has big, glowing eyes that constantly dart around in fear. It has a mouthful of sharp little teeth to nip at the edges of my mind and it smell musty, of cold sweat and old fish. So, like Gollum, but meatier and covered in grey-brown fur, fairly oily like an unwashed mutt.
I call this lovely thing “the Monkey.” It jabbers and hoots like a monkey and it smells like one too. Only worse.
Maybe my picture fits your creature too. If not, just substitute your species in for the rest of the descriptions I’ll give you. I’m pretty sure they’ll still fit whether you imagine you’re carrying around a snake or a gargoyle, a gremlin or a gopher with a chainsaw.
Meet Your Monkey.
The monkey is a formidable foe. It is more devious than you and it has plenty of time on its hands. It can use everything you know against you, push every button, pull every lever, and it is unrelenting. Don’t let that get you down. But don’t underestimate it either.
And the monkey has opinions about most things. It can think of a good reason to be afraid of most decisions, of any impending event, big or small. It can give you umpteen reasons to do something tomorrow instead of now, to ask more and more people’s opinions before you make a move, can tell you what that stranger at the cocktail party will reply if you say hi.
That shirt makes you look like a fat dork. You don’t floss enough. What do you suppose the client meant by that look? That pimple could be a tumor. Do you smell smoke?…
Behave like a monkey.
The monkey can make you behave a bit like a monkey yourself. If you find you are quarreling with others and venting emotion inappropriately, chances are that you are not creating, not thinking, not doing. Or alternatively, you may find yourself overworking, nights and weekends (on projects fueled by drudgery and obligation not passion) living out of balance, out of harmony, out of fast food containers, far from your true self.
In my career as a creative director, I’ve run into a lot of people who are driven to melodramatics by their monkey puppeteers. They act out. Client questions your decision? Throw a fit. Need to cover up a blunder? The best defense is self-righteous indignation. They’re always drawing attention to themselves, making excuses, being prima donnas, making outrageous demands. A bigger office, a longer title, no brown M&Ms in the dressing room!
One more thing….
The monkey will always find you one more reason to delay. Do more research. Ask others opinions. Find an agent, find a publisher, get a contract, get a new desk chair… It can be never-ending. All this activity makes it seem like you are doing something, but you’re not really. You’re just frittering away time and defeating your creative impulse with thoughts of fine art, chocolate, naps, sex… The illusion of productivity is the bone the monkey throws you.
Perfect is the enemy of done.
At first glance, perfectionism doesn’t seem like one of the monkey’s tricks. After all, it’s not unreasonable to want to do things well, to have high standards, to do your best. The problem is that the monkey insists you do everything perfectly. Not just your job, but your laundry, your parallel parking, your pushups.
But no matter how high your standards, the monkey will still make sure perfection is always just out of reach. As your ideas begin to bubble to the surface, the monkey insists on judging immediately, pointing out far below perfection you have fallen. Even though you know most ideas don’t hatch without some room for improvement, the monkey can make you sling them on the trash pile before they catch their first breath.
Insisting on perfection is just another form of hubris. It assumes that you can meet standards that are way too high for the average person, that while others might accept something subpar, you insist on it being done just so. And then you (and the monkey) beat yourself up when its revealed that you too are human.
Here’s the dirty secret: perfectionists are not more productive that people who aren’t crazed, obsessive, workaholic nitpickers. When your priorities are askew and you get overly obsessed with incidental details, it’s a lot harder to do what needs to be done. Be a bit more realistic about your capabilities and your priorities. Accept that in most cases, good enough is just perfect.
You’ll put your eye out with that.
The monkey speaks in a familiar voice — because it’s the voice you grew up with.
Don’t eat that, it’ll make you sick. Don’t run with that! That’s going to get infected. Be careful! Stop it…
All parents tell their children these things for their own good. To protect them from harm. To protect them from eating insects, swallowing safety pins, and playing in traffic. They say things in an exaggerated, emphatic way so these lessons will get through their children’s thick heads. It makes sense. Parents want their children to avoid risk so that they will survive.
Eventually you internalize these voices. Or, you become a juvenile delinquent. Or you don’t listen, you fall off a roof and die, (then you’re out the gene pool).
The monkey moves from being an outside voice to inside your head, a full-time bodyguard hard-wired into your hardening skull.
Whose voice is that?
Whose voices are the monkey playing back for you? Mom? Dad? The first teacher who said something casual and cruel: ‘Remember, most people don’t have talent. I’m sure you’re good at something’? Was it the dean of the college who rejected your application? The first boss who killed all of your favorite ideas?
Bu these are all old voices, maybe even the voices of dead people, talking about old, vanished problems. Why must they still echo in your head?
It’s deja vu all over again.
Things that happened long ago were real. The pain was real. But the worst things seem to be the things that could be. The sound of approaching sirens that could be heading to your house. The boss who could be getting ready to fire you.The smell that could be smoke. The phone ringing in the night.
What does happen can be cleaned up or treated or paid for or even buried. But what could happen must only be dealt with one way. By refusing to fear what could be. Put your imagination to better use. And insist on living only in what is.
Whatever voice you’re hearing, it’s just a specter. Whatever sword carved the scars into your psyche, you have the power to move past it. As grownups, we have the ability to see that the affronts and critiques of the past are just puffs of air that have long since dissipated. Only we carry them forward. You have the power to override the rewrite, to define these ancient wounds as irrelevancies that do not bear on the wonderful creature you are today, a creative adult with great strength and potential.
We are effected by bad news more than good. We believe negative rumors more than positive ones. We hold on to painful memories longer than warm ones. The monkey is only concerned with bracing us for bad situations and figures that good ones will take care of themselves. So when we allow the monkey to define our perspective on an issue, it becomes all problem. The danger spirals, everything seems bleak.
And misery loves company. When you ask most people their opinions about your idea, their feedback will likely be negative. Sure, a sunny few will say, “Great! Love it!” but when you seek input, people (and their monkeys) assume you want reasons not to proceed. No one ever paid a consultant to tell them they were doing everything right.
So wait to label something as a ‘problem’ or a ‘dead end.’ Instead consider it just part of the process. In the positive light of tomorrow, it might look less like problem — and more like an opportunity.
Now, that we know what the monkey looks like and how it can monkey with your life, let’s explore some strategies for shutting it down.
We’ll start with the most obvious strategy: fight the monkey. Listen to his charges and show him he’s wrong. Fight fire with fire. Unfortunately, when you take the monkey on directly, it will find ways to squirm past your counterarguments and keep raising the ante. You’ll walk away dirty and bruised. By embracing the monkey, you’ll get tarred with cynicism, pessimism, anxiety, and negativity. It’s infectious.
A sit down.
Instead of being self-critical, try being objective. Imagine your best friend asks you to have coffee with her. Then she tells you that she’s been told she’s worthless, inept, untalented and stupid. What would you say? Can you do the same for you?
Think about what the monkey’s voice is warning you against. What are you really afraid of? Write it down. Describe it in detail. What is the change, the risk, the newness that it is fighting? Dig beyond the monkey’s hysteria and see if you can flush out the legitimate problem. Are there professional skills you need to hone? Are your plans currently unrealistic? Do you need more resources? More time to think through your plan?
Build a scoreboard.
You have accomplished a huge amount on your life. Accomplishments the monkey may deny, diminish or dismiss. Once and for all, paint a more accurate picture of yourself.
Create a list of everything you have ever accomplished. All the significant things, personal and public. What you overcame in your childhood, the academic successes, the titles, the assets, all of it. Include a copy of a congratulatory email from a boss, a client recommendation, a thank you note, your report card.
You’re pretty great. Keep score. Put your scoreboard in a file on your computer and reference it whenever you need perspective.
Your work matters. Figure out to why and to whom. And if that seems impossible, then why spend your time doing it?
Life is short and getting shorter. Get to work. Rock the boat. Take a risk. Do something worth carving on your headstone. And once you have identified your purpose, that will be the only answer you ever need to give that voice in your head. Just say, “The world needs me. So shut your monkey!”
Read more in Danny Gregory’s book, Shut Your Monkey, from HOW Books.