What’s holding you back from achieving your career dreams? Far too often, the answer is you. Our inner critics are often our biggest detractors, sowing doubt and preventing us from reaching our full potential.
Everyone is susceptible to the inner critic, but creative pros like photographers are even more vulnerable because they’re often surrounded by people who aren’t doing similar work. Those people don’t necessarily understand the diligence it takes to become a master of the craft. Those outsiders may see creative work as nice to have but not essential—maybe even frivolous. When you receive constant negative reinforcement, it’s natural to live in a state of fear of being judged or criticized. And those fears feed the inner critic.
There are ways for dealing with your inner critic and building a more positive perception of yourself. Denise Jacobs, speaker, creativity consultant, and author of “Banish Your Inner Critic,” has spent more than a decade specializing in this area. She went through the process herself back in 2009 when she faced crippling self-doubt that almost derailed the writing of another book, “The CSS Detective Guide.” Based on the lessons she learned to get back on track and find an uber-productive flow state, she shares a series of tips with other entrepreneurs.
You have more control of your thoughts and perceptions than you might think. These basic steps can help you fight off negative thoughts and focus on positive outcomes.
Shift focus. Put your hands up in front of your face and put all your attention into one hand. Then imagine that hand is holding all the negative thoughts you don’t want to be thinking. Consider all those thoughts, that self-doubt, those negative perceptions. Then slowly shift your focus to your second hand. Imagine it’s holding all the self-supporting thoughts you want to be thinking. Think about all your attributes, your talents, what makes you unique.
During this process, it’s important to deliberately shift your thinking from one set of thoughts to another set of thoughts. After you’ve focused on all those positive things, consider if the first hand is still there.
When I do this exercise with groups, I’ll ask people about that first hand, and they often say they’d completely forgotten about those things,” says Jacobs. “It shows how much control you have over your thoughts.
Embrace neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to change in the face of new stimuli. In other words, it’s learning. If you want to change habitual thought processes, then make different connections. When you shift to new thoughts, you’re forcing your brain to make different neurological connections. Over time, those connections become the norm rather than the exception. It’s like a well-worn path in the woods: If someone blocks that path, forcing you to walk a different way, you’ll start to create a new path. Over time, as you travel that new path over and over, the old path becomes grown over and the new route solidifies. Your brain works in a similar manner.
If you catch yourself having recurring cyclical thoughts, you can force yourself out of that rumination by focusing intently on a task that requires extra deliberation.
Emphasize attention and focus. Neuroplasticity is driven by attention and focus. When you pay attention to and focus on something, the neural activity in that part of your brain increases, and activity in other parts of your brain decreases. So your attention and focus manage your brain’s neuroplasticity and continually build new neural pathways.
Master mindfulness. Mindfulness describes our ability to take a step back from our thoughts and understand that we are not the same as our thoughts. You may already be practicing mindfulness without knowing it. For example, if you’ve ever had a moment when you were really upset about something, maybe you were crying, and there’s a part of your brain that recognizes what’s going on, but you’re somewhat removed from it. It’s as if you can see yourself in this upset state, and you’re able to consider whether to continue or go in a different direction. “That’s the power of mindfulness,” explains Jacobs. “You’re aware of what’s going on, and you can choose to take a step back and do something else.
Revert rumination. If you catch yourself having recurring cyclical thoughts, you can force yourself out of that rumination by focusing intently on a task that requires extra deliberation. One way to do that is to make yourself think about a simple task that would normally be a mindless habit. For example, try brushing your teeth or squeezing a stress ball with your nondominant hand. The simple act of using your nondominant hand forces you to think about the task, shifting your focus from your rumination and breaking the negative cycle.
This process isn’t a one-and-done thing. It’s like yoga or lifting weights: Practice and repetition are required if you want to see results. Those old, negative thoughts from your inner critic are going to pop up from time to time. That’s OK. Just take a step back, reach into your toolbox of mindfulness techniques, and start working your way back on track.
Offer yourself compassion. None of us is perfect, and we all make mistakes. When you fall down, be as kind to yourself as you would be if speaking to a small child who you love. Give yourself the grace to be imperfect and then focus on moving on.
Recognize imposter syndrome. Be on the lookout for this fear of people thinking you don’t know what you’re doing. It often manifests when you dismiss or deflect praise, or allow yourself to doubt your abilities. And remember the paradox of the imposter syndrome: You can’t actually have imposter syndrome unless you’re competent and skilled.
“Remember the adage, You can’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides.”Denise Jacobs
Stop comparing yourself to others. People often fall into the trap of wondering why they’re not having the same level of success as someone else. This is rarely productive. Fueled by the ever-positive images people post on social media, the urge to compare ourselves sets up a false narrative. Most people only show the images they want others to see. It’s easy to compare ourselves to a fake persona boasting an inauthentic level of success. “Remember the adage, You can’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outsides,” says Jacobs.
Learn from negative feedback. Criticism is merely data. It’s someone’s opinion. But criticism can include hidden gems of useful knowledge. So put yourself at some emotional distance from the feedback and act as if you’re a faithful reporter transcribing notes for someone else. Later, based on your history of being successful and knowledgeable in your field, see what you may be able to learn from those notes.
Surround yourself with supporters. Make sure you get into a cohort of people who take your work seriously and value it. This encourages you to value your own work. Professional organizations like PPA are a great place to start, as are local networking groups for entrepreneurs and creative professionals.
Jacobs suggests taking a moment and imagining what your business, your work, and your life would be like if you didn’t have an inner critic. Extend that idea: “If I didn’t have an inner critic, I would...”
Write out several iterations of what you would do. Think of ambitious ideas, projects that you’ve been afraid to tackle. “Envision something greater for yourself, and realize that the reason you’re not doing those things is because you’re doubting yourself,” says Jacobs. With the obstacle of self-doubt removed, what could you accomplish? The answer may surprise you: almost anything.
Jeff Kent is editor-at-large.