The monkey mind—Stop your inner critic from sabotaging your success

Millions who possess the potential to achieve great heights of success are struggling with one enemy—the inner critic. Learn how to defeat this enemy at its own game and find the success and happiness that you desire and deserve

Woman listening to her inner voice

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.

Pssst!

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.

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 push-ups.

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 how 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 sub-par, you insist on it being done just so. And then you [and the monkey] beat yourself up when it is revealed that you too are human.

Here’s the dirty secret: perfectionists are not more productive than 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 internalise these voices. Or, you become a juvenile delinquent. Or you don’t listen, you fall off a roof and die [then you’re out of 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?

Woman writing in her diary
Write down in detail everything the monkey is warning you against and look at it calmly

Whose voices is 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 favourite ideas?

But 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 spectre. 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, to 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.

Negativo

We are effected by bad news more than good. We believe negative rumours 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 before labelling 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 a problem and more like an opportunity.

Fighting back

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:

» Put up a fight

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 counter arguments 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.

» Be the honeybee

Here’s a really powerful strategy, so easy, so simple, it took me ages to figure it out: out-dumb the monkey and get to work. Don’t think—do.

Become the buzzing honeybee, barrelling out of the hive with the dawn, then zooming from buttercup to daisy. Never stopping to think about whether she’s doing it right, whether there’s a purpose to his efforts, whether other bees are doing it better or bringing back more pollen. Just keep buzzing across the meadow, the sun on your back, your eyes on the prize, your wings churning the spring air. If the monkey speaks up, crank your buzzing louder, and keep gathering words, keep finding ideas, keep pushing that pen. Just make some honey, honey.

If you insist on wondering if what you’re doing is any good, just tell yourself—sure, it’s awesome. Suspend judgement until later. Some of your ideas suck? So what?! A lame idea beats no idea every time. Put it down, then move to the next flower.

Failure isn’t the end of the road, it’s just the next leg of the journey. So, back up the backup with a boatload of more ideas. Toss out a hundred lousy ideas and you’ll have at least one good one. Just don’t stop at 99. The answer could be the last one to show up.

And, as you work, buzzing away, the voice will give up and fall silent. The monkey is a bully and gives up when it’s ignored.

Bzzzzz.

» Get the work habit

The monkey loves same-old, same-old, a rut filled with frozen fear. You need to develop a similarly powerful pattern of your own. The habit of regular work. Focussed just on productivity. Day after day. Immune to failure, rejection, fear. Be rigid in your own regimen. Live by your own ritual and discipline. Tools always at the ready.

Set your alarm clock, rain or shine. The monkey is lazy. Get up before him. Buzz from morning till night. One dance, one mission, no time to stop and chat.

The monkey’s job is to fight change, so create a new reality, a permanent state of change.

» Doer. Not dour

Self-confidence has two main components: sunshine and sweat.

First, cultivate optimism however you can. Keep your eyes focussed sharply on the bright side. Grin and buzz. Surround yourself with the infectious energy of positive people. There’s nothing as powerful as a group of people who all believe they can. The monkey can tell you that pessimists are the only realists, but that’s defeatist hogwash.

Second, be a doer. Make things. Work. Explore. Stretch. Take risks. Go in new directions. Bees work hard and people call them “drones”. Or maybe they are just confident in their abilities, busy doing what they know needs to be done.

» Sweaty genius

When you start any brand-new undertaking, you are more likely to fail. You don’t know the rules, don’t know the tools, haven’t failed nearly often enough to learn the lessons. That’s why most amateurs give up so early on. They never make it to their second piano lesson, their third drawing lesson, their fourth level of the video game, because they can’t bear the learning curve. The monkey tells them that their first attempt is a sign that they will never be any good, doomed on the launch pad.

Lies, all lies.

One powerful monkey tool is to compare your amateur fumbling to the work of committed, professional creative people. It will tell you that you can’t play the violin like Itzhak Perlman or cook like Mario Batali or write like Stephen King—because they are natural-born geniuses.

It will fail to point out that professionals are as good as they are because they are professional. They have committed themselves to their work. They have practised and trained for years. They have failed and failed and brushed themselves off and kept on buzzing. The monkey makes a big deal about things like “talent” and “inspiration”. But what really counts is slogging miles after mile, head down, wings humming. Sweat and perseverance are what drives “genius” to success. It’s not a lottery ticket.

Don’t keep comparing yourself to the greats. Instead be inspired by their example and work ethic. Compare yourself to the bees, and keep on buzzing.

» Build yourself a better brain

Man tightening the screw of his brain
Rewire your brain by working on new challenges; the more you use the brain this way, the better it gets

Neuroscientists have established that when you work hard on something, the composition and structure of your brain changes. You lay down neurons and weave a denser cobweb of cerebral connections. You create new brain cells that are programmed to make you better at the new things you are doing. The more brain cells you build, the more paper you dirty, the more pixels you move around, the more you move ahead.

The trick is not to focus on the end game. Not to wish mightily for the Oscar, the applause, the paycheque. Focus instead on building your skills one microscopic brain cell at a time. And you do that by putting your head [and its brain] down and getting to work.

As you work on building your mountain of ideas, you are rewiring your brain. All those challenges and fresh thinking are stimulating and feeding your neurotransmitters, creating more and more connections between your neurons, blazing new pathways, turning on dormant genes. The more you think, the better you get at it.

It doesn’t matter if those ideas are “good” any more than it matters if you are chopping wood or hefting kettle bells. All that counts is that you keep working, keep pumping out more ideas. Even lame creativity creates the creative mind.

» Bees fly in all weather

Work hard now. Don’t waste time praying for inspiration. If you’re standing around, waiting for a thunderbolt to strike, that’s just the monkey doing weather forecasting.

And if you are tearing yourself up because you have something allegedly called “a writer’s block” or a “creative block” or “a unicorn standing on your laptop”, take a deep breath and go to a museum or a bookstore or the movies. “Blocks” are just the lulls between bursts of inspiration. Getting upset because pure genius isn’t constantly pouring out of your fingers is a sign of nothing but impatience and misunderstanding of the process. It will come, just keep working, feeding the well, and remain calm.

These pauses are part of the process. If you make a huge deal out of them, if you label them and use them as an excuse, they will last longer. If you accept that like any athlete or performer or genius, you need downtime and diversion, then they will be briefer and a lot more fun. Stretch your wings and get buzzing.

» Think small

Man climbing up the stairs one by one
Don’t get overwhelmed. Focus only a single step at a time and soon you would have climbed the whole staircase

You sit down to work and the monkey mutters, “How are you gonna write a book? Record an album? Start a business? It’s too big. You can’t do it.”

How do you eat a whale? With a knife and fork, one bite at a time. I wrote this article in sentences and paragraphs. Most of these pages started as brief notes on my phone. Ideas. Fragments. The beginnings of a mountain. Over several weeks, the scraps added up to what you are holding in your hand. And that’s how I’ve written my last dozen books. I now have a shelf of them with my name on the spine but I wrote them all in tiny bites.

So don’t write a book. Write a word. Then another. Write it like you read. In between buses, elevators, breakfast meetings. And if you want to develop a new skill, don’t be daunted by the long journey ahead. Just walk to the corner. Then turn and walk the next block. A thousand miles, ten thousand hours, one step at time.

The big picture

So far we have talked about what the monkey is, what it wants, and all the many ways it can limit your life. We have seen the power of focussing on being as productive as the honey bee and building up a big mountain of work before starting to evaluate the ideas. But now let’s talk about a much bigger issue—namely, why you are here and what you can do with your life and your talents. As we discuss that, you’ll see that when you shift your perspective to a much broader one, many of the niggling problems the monkey has caused you will become just faint and distant memories.

What’s your goal? The purpose behind everything you do? What makes you happy? How does your work make the world a better place?

Refocus on that. Write it down. If you have a larger sense of purpose, then you have an objective way to assess risk. To determine the correct path in any given situation. To decide whether something is dangerous — or simply new. We don’t need to live in black-and-white terms, and impulsively slam on the brakes at every crossroads. Instead, we can guide ourselves and we can move ahead, even through unfamiliar terrain. We know that we have to pass through this situation to achieve our goal. Risk becomes acceptable, even welcome. And that leads us forward.

Make a list of how what you want to do matters to the world. Who it helps. What changes it will cause. Use that list as a reason for doing the hard work. Life’s greatest reward isn’t money, mansions, boats and Botox. It’s sharing the resources and experience we’ve gained with others. Who does your work help?

Life’s greatest reward isn’t money, mansions, boats and Botox. It’s sharing the resources and experience we’ve gained with others

Are you finding a cure for cancer or ending world hunger? Maybe not. But everything you do means the world to someone. Think through why it matters, who it helps and why. Treat every project as if it really truly matters and soon you’ll see that it does. The more you value your contribution, the larger the opportunities that will come to you.

We can all have a purpose that’s bigger than we are, bigger than our petty concerns and fears. When we raise that mission like a banner, we connect with others who share that dream. We feel more empowered and fulfilled and happy. And the monkey’s voice fades slowly away.

Your work matters. Figure out 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!”

Excerpted from Shut Your Monkey: How to control your inner critic and get more done by Danny Gregory, HOW Books, 2016


A version of this article was first published in the March 2016 issue of  Complete Wellbeing.

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