Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Silent Snare

I used to think that criticism of my work and life didn't affect me that much.  I even blogged to that effect a while back.

But something my wife said last night made me realize that I was thinking about it in the wrong way.

It's true: actual criticism doesn't affect me that much, except emotionally.  I feel bad about it, and occasionally lash out.  But I very rarely consciously change anything in response to criticism, especially criticism of the spiteful variety.

But last night made me realize I've actually been doing something much worse:

Changing In Response To Imagined Criticism!

When I write, it's almost as if I have an entire team of imaginary critics poised just over my shoulder.  And the team consists of the very worst elements of the internet: armchair a**holes who've never created a meaningful thing in their lives, but love to trash the work of others.  People who rejoice in finding even the single, tiniest of holes or weaknesses in an idea, and gleefully trash anyone who finds any value in that idea.  People who love to think of themselves as Skeptics with a capital "S", as if that were somehow more important than coming up with good things to be skeptical about.

Now, my point isn't really to rant about those people -- after all, they're not really critiquing my work as I write.  (God, that would be hell on earth!)  No, the point is that my brain has seen them trash on plenty of other people whose work I like, and so has built up a model of what kind of attacks they employ.

And so, over the years, I've evolved an approach to everything I do, that's designed to minimize the number of available attack vectors and maximize the number of defense options.

And it all happens at a relatively-subconscious level.  I mean, I've been aware of the imagined criticisms themselves, but it never occurred to me to treat them as...

Anything But Real!

And while my subconscious figuratively pats itself on the back for avoiding loads of criticism, it also occurs to me that the real reason I'm not that criticized, has nothing to do with the quality of what I do, and everything to do with the fact that I'm not a big enough target yet.  (i.e., not successful enough to be worth "taking down a notch".)

Now, the criticial voice over my shoulder has just pointed out that the last paragraph is going to make me sound arrogant, self-centered, boring, yada yada yada.  It advised me that this paragraph should refocus on how all this relates to you, the reader, if you are not worried about whether you have a high enough profile to attract critics.

That actually sounds like a good suggestion, though.  After all, I didn't understand how this was affecting me, so if you're doing the same thing, chances are you're not aware of how it's affecting you, either.

But, as is so often the case when I'm writing a "real essay" -- that is, one like this one, where I'm writing as much to understand as I am to communicate -- I don't know the answers myself yet.

I do know, for me, that always following the advice of imaginary critics means you'll never get any real-world information.  You'll never know if people really like the real you, for example, or just the "censored you".  And even if they seem to like the censored you...

It won't feel like they like you!

Instead, you'll feel even more like the "real you" isn't worthwhile.

But unfortunately for me, I've never really thought all that much about the self-censorship I do.  (Especially since I've often gotten the message that I should self-censor more!)

Instead, I've just assumed that the voice over my shoulder is just "how things are", and believed it.

Worse, I've been taking its advice for a lot of things besides just its direct input on my writing.

Last week, I wrote about how I dropped my goals for 2008.  Afterwards, that same evening, I created a new goal list full of things I actually wanted to achieve in the following week, two weeks, month, quarter, and year.   I got really excited and passionate about these things, and started doing them.

In fact, I finished some of my two-week and one-month goals in the first week.

But then, I made the mistake of writing about this to the Circle mailing list, and suddenly...

All My Goals Became Chores Again!

Why?  Because now that I had written about it, I felt I had to keep doing everything perfectly in order to be consistent.  How can I claim (says the critical voice) that I know how to make goals enjoyable and achievable, if I should falter in the slightest, or finish one of my one-week goals on the eighth day instead of the seventh?

"Heresy!  Sacrilege!  Faker and Fraud!  How dare you claim you know anything about goals...  oh, and don't let me catch you changing any of your goals either, despite the fact that the new travel plans required by your day job have just caused a weeks worth of your night/weekend time to disappear!"

And the truly sad thing about this voice, is that you really don't notice it's there, unless you think to look for it.  It just seems like reality, until you have something to compare it against.

This, of course, is what mentors and coaches are for.  (And, if you're really lucky, spouses or close friends!)  And hopefully, they're ones whose blind spots are just enough different from yours that they can see the plank in your eye, irrespective of the splinters in their own.

And during this week, my wife has been relentlessly critical -- in the best possible way! -- about the emails I've been sending to the extended Circle.  She's been telling me that I'm way too watered down, that I soften and sugarcoat everything that I'm telling people, and being too intellectual.  All very valid criticisms, and none of them things that my internal critic was paying any attention to.  In fact, those things were in the writing...

Precisely because of the critic!

My business coach, Matt Furey, writes a fitness newsletter in which he sometimes says rather mean or derogatory things about people who aren't fit.  (For example, he sometimes refers to people as "Lardassians".)  While this has often seemed a bit outrageous or unkind to me, I have also seen that it actually helps a lot of people get the motivation to do something different with their lives.

And as good as it would be for everyone to be motivated more towards "gaining pleasure" than "escaping pain", it is not the reality for many people, who desperately need to be put in the figurative "hot seat" before they'll take action.

But I've been extremely reluctant to even imply that someone reading any of my work might be a lazy slob, with the spine or self-discipline of a limp dishrag.  In part, that's because I know it's neither true nor relevant to their self-development.  (It doesn't really take what people think it takes to be successful; the actual answers are entirely elsewhere.)

But, when I think back to where I started, I have to admit that negative motivation (like the fear that I was a lazy slob)  had tremendous motivational power for me.  If somebody had been selling a "How to Stop Being A Lazy Incompetent Jackass" program, I'd probably have bought it in a heartbeat, in spite of the fact that I was not any such thing.  Not really.

But I Sure Felt Like I Was!

So, me being hesitant to "tell it like it is" -- or at least like it  seems to be, to people in that place -- probably isn't really helping the people who most need what I can teach!

And I not only water down the negative side, I dilute the positives as well.  I make only the most brief, and modest claims for most of the workshops and teachings that I give.  Mostly, I limit myself to talking about what I teach, for example, rather than emphasizing what kind of difference it'll make to people's lives, if and when they actually use the teachings.

At most, I'll usually talk about what something has done for me, about where I was "before" and "after" applying the material.  And even though I have testimonials, and plenty of people who'd be willing to give me more if I asked, I rarely include them in my writing, for fear of seeming too self-serving.

It's pretty disappointing to look back and realize that I still have such a long way to go, even after all the work I did a couple years back on being able to self-promote and ask people to buy things and such.

At the same time, it now makes a lot of sense to me why I still haven't put up even the most basic product information pages for any of the literally dozens of workshops, CDs, and other materials that I've produced.

Because on a subconscious level, I know that if I put those pages up...

I'll Have To Actually Say They're Good!

And that scares the crap out of me, even though I intellectually know they are good, especially compared to almost anything else on the market.  (At least, if you're looking to learn how to change, as opposed to getting a rah-rah speech about why you should change.  In which case, they're fantastic.)

Now the critic looks back over the last several paragraphs, pointing out all the places I've opened myself up to criticism.  "You call this kind of bragging 'brief and modest claims'?  I'd hate to see what you think hyperbole looks like!"  And the critic is now happy that at least I've relayed what it said: it thinks that by being first to take a shot at myself, I can pre-empt others from doing the same...  or at least stop it from hurting as much if they do.

But that's just superstition.  The critic believes I can control what other people say or do, when in fact I cannot.  All the available evidence suggests that mere success is more than sufficient to motivate critics.  It doesn't matter in the least what that success consists of: success itself is threatening to some people -- maybe all people.

In a recent Circle newsletter, I wrote about how I used to hate people who were well-organized, well-groomed, and charismatic...  as well as people who were fit and liked to exercise.  I didn't usually express this hatred outwardly, but the resentments I felt towards them prevented me from ever becoming any of those things myself.

And while I'm still not sure I'd describe myself as having fully acquired any of those characteristics, I've certainly made more progress to being them in the month or two since I shed the hate...

Than in the many years I tried to before!

So it helps a little to realize that I do understand the hate displayed by the kind of critic my subconscious is modelling.  It's not that they feel envy or jealousy consciously, and then actively seek to pull someone down.

Rather, what happens is that when someone gets what you don't believe you can have, it creates an uncomfortable feeling.  Your mental model is no longer consistent, so reality seems to need adjusting!  For example, if you believe that nobody can do or get the thing you want, then your tendency may be to put the successful person down as a fraud or charlatan or cheater of some kind.

Or, you may decide that "yeah, but some people just know the right people" or "some people are just born with it", or some other reasoning that allows your mental model to still fit the facts...  without actually changing your mind.

So knowing this helps a lot.  It makes it easier for me to forgive, and let go of, the hurtful things that people have said to or about me in the past.  To see that I don't need to conduct myself so as to avoid such things, because the truth is that such a critic is someone who really needs what I do: helping people see they can get what they want.

After all, if I'm stirring up enough cognitive dissonance for somebody to want to go on the offensive, it means they must believe they can't have what I say they can.

And clearly...

That Belief Needs Challenging!

Now, my inner critic informs me that some people might think that I'm saying I (or you) should ignore all criticism as being cognitive dissonance.  (And that's a helpful point for the critic to make, even though it made the point by picturing the whiny blog comments I would probably get if I didn't address this, and how annoyed it would make me to have to read and respond to them.)

So let me just clarify, in case it wasn't obvious: I'm not talking about criticism that actually seeks to improve you or me, or even straightforward statements of preference.  If somebody says they find my writing too long or whatever, cool, that's their opinion.  If a whole bunch of people say it, maybe it's even worth considering changing something.

But that's an entirely different kettle of fish, than the sort of critic whose only intention is to make you look bad.  I don't think they even care whether they make you feel bad, either.  All that's important is that they have something in writing that's an excuse to maintain their current thought pattern.  So there isn't anything worthwhile in this sort of criticism, because the person was only looking for flaws.

And if you look at anything long enough, or with enough motivation, you'll find flaws...

Even if you have to make them up!

But enough from my critic.  If I keep listening to that thing, I'm going to keep going off on tangents.

(After all, I wrote and am writing all this, mainly to figure things outTelling you about what I figure out, is just a bonus!)

So let me see if I can bring this to some kind of conclusion for myself, resolve all the loose ends and refactor my relationship with the inner critic.

Clearly, I need to -- and can, now -- forgive the people who've attacked me or my work in the past.  I'm okay, no harm done, and I understand.  I can also see that anybody who does it in the future, is someone who needs my compassion, and maybe my help.

But this is not a complete solution.  It makes me feel a lot better about past and future criticism of that kind, but it hasn't released the silent snare of the critic within.

But strangely, just as I wrote that last paragraph, something let go in my head, and the "test" I was using (imagining putting up a web page saying good things about my work and products) stopped producing apprehension.  I don't know what fixed it, exactly, although I think it was actually when I paused to see if I'd used the title phrase ("silent snare") anywhere else in the article yet.

That pause took place in the middle of me running the test, so I'd gotten to the place in my mind where the critic was about to object... 

And then I got distracted.

I think this actually ended up disrupting the automatic process, but that's just a wild guess.  The brain-as-computer metaphor only works so far, although I've taken it a lot farther than most.

Oh well.  The test "passes" now -- I can at least think about praising my work now, without the negative feeling kicking in.

Of course, whether it's a brain or a computer, testing a program isn't the same thing as actually using the program.  Reality always has to have the last word.  But in this case, I've already used it!  Two paragraphs back, I said "I've taken it a lot farther than most" -- an offhand positive remark about my work.  And I didn't even notice I'd done it until the middle of this paragraph, so it wasn't because I was consciously trying to praise myself!

And that is the always the real test of self-improvement, to me.  Anybody can use "willpower" to do something once, on purpose.

But the real test is what happens when you're not paying attention.  Are you spontaneously a better person, without needing to think about it?  If not, then...

You haven't really changed!

And that's only one of the ways my body of work improves upon "traditional" self-help and coaching approaches.  (More spontaneous positive remarks, yay!)

It's surprising how nice it feels to be able to say good things about my work now.  It's occurring to me that even when I did manage to say such things before, I had to force myself to do so, with my jaws unconsciously clenched.

By comparison, I feel so relaxed now.  It's like talking about the weather...  "Yeah, it's been really cloudy lately, and by the way, I'm making real advancements to the state of the self-help field that I really should be disseminating more widely."  No big deal at all!

Oh, and I suppose I should point out that that's another one of my contributions: the "no big deal" test.  The goal of self-improvement is not to pump you up and get you excited about doing the thing you fear -- because then you'll always need the excitement to overcome the fear.

Instead, the goal is to remove the drama, so that the thing is just ordinary: no big deal.

When you do that, your natural tendency to seek and prefer pleasure is more than enough to accomplish the necessary motivation for success.  The problem is simply that our danger and pain-avoidance systems impose priority overrides on our consciousness.

So removing the override, the Compulsion to Avoid Pain or CAP, as I call it, is usually more than enough.  We are naturally compassionate, friendly, peaceful, and motivated, as long as there is...

An absence of perceived threats!

Anyway, since I've now fixed the problem in myself that I set out to fix by writing this, and I have only about an hour before my next workshop starts ("How To Find Pleasure In A World Full Of Pain"), I think I'll wrap this essay up for now.  Thanks for listening, and I hope this gave you some insights you can use!

Yours in the Circle,

--PJE