Self-Doubt: Learning to Deal with the Inner Critic
How the ‘inner critic’ led me to abandon my dreams.
As a kid I devoted 10 years to the study of piano. Some might say I was consumed by music. My childhood idol was Dave Brubeck and, like many of my contemporaries, I dreamed of having my own jazz quartet.
Some might have thought back then that I was on track to do just that and why not? I’d put in endless hours honing my craft – putting into practice everything my teachers taught me but that dream came to an unexpected end soon after my final public performance — a piano duet of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue — before an audience of maybe 50 in a performance hall about the size of a very small high school auditorium.
So what led me to abandon my dreams?
Soon after I entered college I was flabbergasted to discover that I actually knew little or nothing about music. Sitting for hours listening to the work of other students it dawned on me that something was missing. While I was, indeed, capable of playing music, I was totally incapable of making it. A slave to methodologies and printed music, I realized that I could only hope to imitate what others had done and even in doing that I would never quite measure up to my own expectations let alone anyone else’s.
Fast Forward 20 Years
I didn’t understand why I became so disenchanted until I read a book by Betty Edwards – Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain — 20+ years later. At the time I was teaching 5th and 6th graders and was looking for some guidance when it came to the teaching of art. Based on past experience I knew I couldn’t draw a proper stick figure let alone a bowl of fruit.
In reading the initial chapters of Edward’s book I came to what I consider to be a great awakening. I learned not only why I had been unable to draw; it finally dawned on me why I gave up my dreams of being a performing artist. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the talent. I had just been conditioned to perceive music as a finite set of limitations (rules and methodologies) not an infinite set of possibilities. In the simplest sense I was trained to deal with the trees and to ignore forest.
My well-intentioned music instructors, God rest their souls, had taught me to rely on what Edwards calls the inner critic, the trained, naysayer who perceives everything through a filter composed of a very finite set of shoulds and should nots. In the end they led me to believe that unless I did everything precisely as my teachers instructed that I would surely fail.
According to Edwards our brains are divided into two distinct and equally important parts: the left and right brains. The left acts like a chatty back seat driver who constantly sorts and reports the information and sensory data it has in storage and the right brain which pairs the left brain’s advisories with a never ending stream of new sensory data to make decisions. How the two interact is largely dependent on how we are taught to perceive the world around us.
Edwards points out that all too often when the right brain (the actor) is confronted with a problem of any sort, the left brain jumps into action broadcasting a series of ready made solutions based on its resident database of shoulds and should nots. Edwards goes on to point out that people who are dominated by their left brains have a tendency to rely on the left brain’s dictates to make their decisions. By contrast, right brained individuals tend to take the left brain’s inputs as mere advisories.
Edwards goes on to explain how left brain dominance can and often does stifle creativity. She instructs her readers to get a pencil, eraser, and a blank sheet of paper. She then tells them that on the next page they will see a picture and warns her readers that the first thing that is going to happen is the left brain is going to attempt to define their perceptions and, for starters, it will begin by telling them what they’re seeing – a black and white, upside down portrait of John F. Kennedy.
“Ignore that input,” Edward says. “In fact, ignore every attempt by the left brain to get you to focus on labeling the objects you see — ear, eye, nose, eyebrow, lips, chin, etc. Instead, force yourself to focus on duplicating what you are actually seeing – black, gray, and white areas as well as the thickness of individual pencil strokes.”
As best I could, I followed her instructions over the next hour or so and, as she predicted, I found myself struggling with an inner voice that just didn’t want to shut up. I’d sketch for a few minutes and then settle back to look at the results only to hear my inner critic tell me that I’d best erase my work and start over again because the nostril, eyebrow, or eye I was drawing really didn’t measure up to the images the left brain had on record.
Eventually, I did manage to tune the left brain out arriving in a place I’d never been before – a zone where I experienced a delightful sense of well-being and contentment, a place where a big sign might read “Critic free zone. Thanks for your input; now go away.”
That afternoon I discovered that I, too, could actually draw something more than a stick figure, a picture that to my utter astonishment reasonably resembled our x-president. And you can imagine the excitement my charges at Hyatt exhibited when they, too, discovered that art is not something only special people do. Everyone can be an artist if they just learn to shut down the inner critic – the all-knowing guardian of all that is right and wrong — the destroyer of dreams.
The Second Awakening
It couldn’t have been but a few months later than I happened to wander into a music store on the west side of town one evening. At the time I had decided to accompany my class giving them a little choral instruction and needed a song book. The store had a pretty good selection so I picked out a half dozen and stepped onto the showroom floor where a 7′ Yamaha grand piano caught my eye.
One by one I opened the books and played the introduction to a song or two. It was when I started playing a song from the third book that I suddenly bought Betty Edward’s lesson to mind. Instead of attending to the internal critic telling me when I wasn’t measuring up to a litany of expectations, I actually started attending to the sounds the instrument made as I played one song after another. Tuning the critic out, it gradually dawned on me that it didn’t really matter that the tunes I was playing didn’t follow the recommended tempo. It didn’t matter that I occasionally hit a sour note. It didn’t matter that I failed to followed the composer’s desire that portions of the music be played louder or softer. All that mattered was that I liked the combination and sequence of sounds I was hearing.
Well, to make a long story short, I sat there for well over two hours playing selections from a dozen books reacquainting myself with a lot of the music I’d played as a teenager and I would have continued to play for another hour or so had it not been for the store manager who informed me that it was closing time.
I sat there for a few seconds staring at the piano keys then looked up. “What are you asking for this?” I asked. I bought that piano that night and had it delivered to the house
My Younger Daughter
A few months later I recall hearing my youngest daughter struggling with her violin in her bedroom. I could barely make out the classical melody she was trying to play and it dawned on me that she was experiencing exactly the same problem I had experienced learning the piano. She’d do just fine and then stumble on a note or phrase and then the tune would disintegrate.
I asked her to bring her violin and accompany me to the back yard. “You know how the melody is supposed to sound, right?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Then I want you to try something. Just walk around the yard playing the music the way you think it should be played. Stop watching your fingerings. Just focus on the sound your violin is making. If you like it, you’re making progress. If you don’t, well, you need to continue playing until you do.”
She walked around the back yard for a half hour or so and then abruptly stopped to revisit me in the living room. “It’s amazing,” she said.
In the end I often wonder what would have become of me had I elected to follow my adolescent dreams but the thought quickly fades away when I realize how insignificant they appear when paired with the culmination of my life’s experience taking a variety of unanciticpated career paths.
Who knows? My decision may have prevented me from experiencing a painful death at the hands of a crazed drug addict in an alley beside some obscure performance hall, one of those dark and dingy bars where musically inclined wanna bees (and their dreams) inevitably go to die.