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How (and why) to Focus Your Inner Critic


I was 13, hanging over the boards of an ice hockey rink, taking deep breaths of cold air.

It smelt like fresh concrete and rubber. I had no idea my life was about to change.

Teammates were spilling over the boards like soldiers out of a trench. A coach barked orders from above. A puck whistled past, inches from my helmet.

Then it happened – my breathing came quick and shallow, my vision blurred, thoughts raced through my mind too quickly to unravel. Above all, there was one recurring thought: “this is very, very important. And you had better get with it, or else.”

Like many American kids, I grew up with a sensation that performance was in direct proportion to self-worth. For me, it was athletics. For many others, it was academics, or music, or whatever they thought would garner the most attention from parents and coaches.

For a long time, my runaway nerves were contained to the hockey rink. My play gradually worsened, as the incessant monologue of inadequacy and self-judgment ran on a constant loop. Eventually, at 19, I gave it up. And for almost a decade that self-critical voice was silent.

In his book The Inner Game of Tennis, Timothy Gallwey talks about two “selves” that each of us possess. There’s Self 2 – the physical you and your natural capabilities. This you acts without judgment – either good or bad. It is focused and ready to act in any moment. It’s instinctual. Many call it “the zone.” Then there’s Self 1 – the teller. This self will tell you things like “OK, dammit, keep your stick down. Last time you messed everything up… What will coach think if you mess it up? He already hates you… Bum! I can’t believe you missed that pass! You’re no good at anything!”

Gallwey goes on to talk about training Self 1 to focus on things that won’t interfere with our instincts. In Tennis, you can place your attention on the pleasant sound of the ball as it hits your racket. In golf, you can hum a little song at different points in your swing. But what about when we’re not playing sports? Can we focus Self 1 in a way that’s advantageous for us then?

Learning to control your teller can lead to better relationships, increased confidence, even more strength and balance. I’ve tried implementing a few silly little tricks, like paying close attention to the cadence of someone’s voice when they speak. In the gym, I try to place all my attention on feeling weights at the point of contact.

I’m new at this Inner Game. I’m still trying to figure out ways to focus the attention of Self 1 in situations where I’m easily distracted. This would have been helpful as a kid – to not see hockey games as a life-or-death affair. But it’s equally as important as an adult – where things like friendship and mental health hang in the balance.

I’m wishing you peace of mind. And if you’ve got any strategies for re-focusing that pesky inner critic, please feel free to share them.

All the best.

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