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How I Try to Tame the Shrieking Eel Otherwise Known as My Inner Critic

If you’ve seen or read The Princess Bride, you might be familiar with the shrieking eels. They shriek loudest just when they are about to do the most harm. 

The same is true for our inner critic. It also yells the loudest when it is going to do the most harm. It tells us we are not smart enough, or good enough, or talented enough. It sneaks through the depths of our unconscious, just like the shrieking eel swims through the water until it reveals its ugly head baring razor-sharp teeth. 

For years – maybe my entire life, I have tried to quiet the voice. The shrieking mantra that kept telling me that my accomplishments didn’t mean anything. Other people knew more or did more. It was hard for me to find things that I could point to and say, “This! I accomplished this and I am proud of it.”

The other day I received an email from my writing group that said, “We give out awards for a person’s 100th rejection and we’ve never given it to an unpublished writer.” I immediately thought, I will be the first!

I checked my thinking. Not only have I been published, but I have also been paid for my writing efforts. I am a professional writer, writing articles, blog posts, website copy, emails, fundraising letters, thank you letters. I’ve read and published poetry and short stories and won awards. So, why did I think I would be the first unpublished writer to be bestowed this honor?

The answer: Years of feeding the shrieking eels.

It is the story I was fed by society and by my pragmatic circles. And I ate it up and swallowed it whole. Still I hear: You can’t make a living writing, so you should get a job instead with a steady paycheck and insurance benefits, maybe a few paid days off a year.

I chased the “good jobs.” I was praised for being level-headed and practical. The praise I received and the success I found kept me following the script handed to me. I was good at the jobs I held, but they didn’t fill me up or give me purpose. Mostly, they drained me of energy so that I only wanted to lay on the couch and watch TV all night.    

I started examining what my shrieking eel of an inner critic was saying and looked for evidence to prove or disprove what it was screaming at me. Often, I found that my inner critic was lying to me. I could find evidence to disprove most of what it said.

I would bet that most of us has dealt with that pesky, annoying, lying voice at some point. It would be great if we could overcome those thoughts overnight, but that isn’t how it works, despite what those handy motivational quotes might tell you. 

The problem with motivational quotes is they lead people to believe they can change their mindset overnight. Think it and you will be it. But, it isn’t that simple. It is a process of unlearning all the stories you grew up with, you lived with, you slept with, you ate with, you saw on television and in movies. Years, decades of hearing stories of limitations. It will take time, probably years or decades to completely unlearn those stories by constantly telling new ones.

Here are a few ways that have helped me on my journey to start talking to myself in ways that remove the limiting beliefs that I am not enough.

  • Journal. Noticing my negative thoughts and examining them has been very helpful and it is much easier to consider them objectively if they are written down. I ask why I believe a particular thought and look for evidence that could contradict it. Sometimes it turns out that I can’t disprove it, and that’s OK, too. It is important to acknowledge our limitations and determine if it is something we can improve or something we need to accept.
  • Keep a file of good comments. Every time someone praises me, I save it. When my shrieking eel starts baring its teeth, I can pull out all the great things that people said. I didn’t prompt these, and they didn’t have to say something nice; they chose to say it because they meant it. It is sometimes hard to remember that, too. When someone says something nice, I say thank you and try to simply accept it. I try not to downplay it by responding with things like, “It was nothing.” It was something.
  • Do it anyway. Sometimes when I think I am not good enough, I do it anyway. I give myself permission to try. Sometimes I fail, but sometimes I don’t. Even if I do fail, I learn something. Maybe I learn that I don’t like doing it. Maybe I just need to do a bit more research and then I can try again. The best teacher is action. I learn a lot by reading, but when I try to put my research into action, that is where I really learn what I am made of.

These ideas won’t be as swift as Fezzik reaching down from the ship and bopping the shrieking eel on the head to save the princess, but they have helped me to realize that my inner critic doesn’t always have my best interest at heart. It thinks it is protecting me and I used to think that, too. What my inner voice is trying to do is keep safe. What I must figure out is what it is trying to keep me safe from and if I really need protecting.   

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