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 3am 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 judgement, 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, releases 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 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 smells 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 description 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 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 tumour.
Do you smell smoke? And so on…
Behave like a monkey
The monkey can make you behave a bit like a monkey yourself. If you find you are quarrelling 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 fuelled 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 defence 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.
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Excerpted from Shut Your Monkey: How to control your inner critic and get more done by Danny Gregory, HOW Books, 2016
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