JP Flintoff

When your inner critic becomes your outer critic

By John-Paul Flintoff

You know that voice in your head? The one that arrives uninvited and leaves the place in disarray, like a burglar? The one that says things that make you feel bad? That holds you back?

That's the one.

I bet you are glad that nobody else can hear it. I'm finding out what happens if they do – in an experiment I've started this week.

I've become intensely interested in that voice recently. I learned to recognise it through training in theatrical improvisation, where it's a massive block – as it is any other creative activity. Training to coach other people I learned to recognise when they come under the sway of their own inner critic.

Psychologists use the name Automatic Negative Thoughts to describe that critical voice. The thoughts tend to arise when we test ourselves, and push at our limits. (When we do routine things, the inner critic is less problematic: most people don't struggle with it when asked, say, to pop out and buy some milk.)

Some time ago, I realised that I have lost some of the fear of my own inner critic. How did I do this? I started by drawing him – as a timid boy, with speech bubbles coming out of his mouth. The bubbles said things like” “I'm too old.” “I'm not successful enough.” “I'm not working hard enough.” And so on, blah blah blah poor me.

It helped to take the sting out these pesky thoughts. But I thought I could do more.

So I stood in front of about 30 strangers, holding up my drawing while I read the words to them out loud. At first, when I did this, it felt like I was stepping up to the scaffold to be executed. But as I looked around at people's faces I sensed that they didn't want to kill me and probably didn't care about my critic.

They seemed much more interested in their own one.

This week I came up with a plan to take this process even further. I was re-reading the biography of Bernard Shaw, who used to interview himself to raise his profile. I liked the cheek of this, and thought I might try to do the same, to help promote my forthcoming novel.

A century ago, Shaw had to type his interviews. Today, taking advantage of technology. I would ask some friends to record themselves asking me questions, and then cut in my own answers.

I wrote down some questions for them to ask me.

They weren't nice.

They were exactly the kind of questions that I hoped no journalist would ever ask. Questions that would hurt.

And then I asked six people I like, trust and admire to record the questions for me. I asked them to do this in whatever tone of voice they liked – to copy the aggression and / or cluelessness of the questions themselves, or to adopt a phoney friendliness. Or anything else. Feel free to add your own questions too, I said.

Then I waited, getting very excited about what might happen, and what I might do with this amazing material. What answers would I give?

When the first recording arrived, I listened immediately. The sheer hostility made me laugh out loud, but at the same time it made my heart race and my cheeks flush. After a few questions, I had to stop listening. It was too stressful: brilliant, and beyond horrible.

A short while later, another recording arrived. Same questions, different voice.

I laughed again at the shamelessly destructive approach of my “interviewer”. And I squirmed. But I sensed that it wasn't quite so bad this time.

I'm writing this half-way through the process. Some of the recordings haven't come in yet. But it seems that this is a wonderful moment that deserves to be captured: when I'm right in the middle of feeling creative and excited and under attack and fearful.

What I really want to do next is to have somebody help me to arrange the questions in the different voices, so that it sounds a bit like one great big hostile press conference, and then film myself listening to them all.

Just that.

But who will help me with the audio?

Posted: May 22, 2015

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