Tell me if this voice sounds familiar: “You’re out of your depth.” “You’re going to look like a fool.” “They aren’t going to like you if you do that.” This voice in your head is your inner critic. Everybody has one. The inner critic tends to exaggerate, but there is enough truth (and maybe experience) to interfere with the actions we want to take. Sometimes we aren’t even aware of the interference.
I recently conducted an experiment on interference. I’ve been playing chess online regularly for almost six months. In online chess, you’re given a rating that estimates your ability. My rating has increased, but lately I’ve been stuck between 1200 and 1300. When I look at my game history, I’m consistently beating competitors with a lower rating and losing to competitors with a higher rating. On the surface, this makes sense — of course I’m winning against players with lower ability and losing to players with greater ability.
Then I noticed something else. At the start of a game, when I looked at my opponent’s rating, I could feel it directly affecting my confidence. If my opponent had a rating over 1300, I got nervous. The voice of the critic spoke up. “You’re out of your depth. You better be very careful.” Then, I found a way to hide the opponent’s rating. Now at the beginning of the game, I have no idea the strength of their ability.
What happened? I immediately won my next seven games. The pairings are random, so in those seven games, I should have played some people with higher rating, and some with lower rating, which is exactly what happened. Even so, I beat all seven. Later, I handily beat an opponent, only to see he was rated much higher than me. He wanted a rematch, to which I obliged, and he quickly wiped me off the table. When I didn’t know his rating, I beat him, but when I did know, he beat me.
Now of course, I’m going to lose some games to better players, but by hiding the opponent’s rating, my winning percentage went up 50%. I don’t think about being careful or hope that an aggressive strategy might throw the opponent off; I just play solid chess each time I play.
The Formula for Interference
performance = Potential – interference
Timothy Gallwey developed this formula for tennis players. Rather than try to improve a player’s skill, he tried to reduce their interference by finding a way to quiet the inner critic. His main tool was to distract the player’s brain by saying “bounce” when the ball bounced and by saying “hit” when the player hit the ball with their racket. Later he instructed them to listen to the sound the ball made when it hit the racket. Gallwey found similar techniques that worked for many sports, including golf and downhill skiing, but it also works for nearly everything else.
Through a set of odd circumstances, in which Gallwey gave a tennis lesson to a VP at AT&T, he was hired to help the company go through one of the most difficult corporate transitions ever experienced. AT&T had created a monopoly in the telephone business, but were now going to have to compete. The way an organization acts when it is a monopoly is vastly different than how an organization acts when it is fighting for its life. AT&T needed help, and Gallwey delivered.
In his book, The Inner Game of Work, Gallwey breaks down how to get focused and remove interference. He says you need to ACT.
- Awareness – You need to listen to the inner critic and recognize what that voice is saying. It’s easier to filter out that voice if you are fully aware of what it sounds like. Don’t rush into the next steps, just get used to being aware of what is going on in a particular situation.
- Choice – As your awareness increases, you realize you have the power of choice. You will stop being pressured by the inner critic and be able to make whatever choice your brain thinks would be best. If given room to think, your brain will make a lot of right decisions almost automatically.
- Trust – As your choices improve, you will be able to trust your decisions without overthinking them. Your actions will create a pleasing sound in your ear, and you’ll want to hear that sound more often. You’ll make better and faster decisions.
If I apply this to my chess game, I need two types of awareness. The first is seeing the whole board. It is easy to lose focus on what your opponent is trying to do because you get so focused on what you are trying to do. The other awareness is how I’m feeling. Sometimes I can feel my heart beating hard at a stressful moment as I wait to see my opponent’s response. I can hear the inner critic saying, “You better do something drastic, or you’re going to lose.” I need to clear that as much as possible.
Choice is what chess is all about. Every move I must make a choice. How can I develop to better protect my king and put more pressure on her king? This is so much easier when I lower the interference. When I pause to take time and examine the whole board, I can begin to silence the inner critic.
Finally, I begin to trust my moves. I still make mistakes, but I learn from each one. My stress is lessened because the move was developed by one of the best calculating machines ever developed, the human brain. And in the end, even when I have lost more pieces than my opponent, I find myself developing positions of strength and winning a lot of games that I would not have expected to win.
An Example from Discipleship
I’ve been thinking about applying Gallwey’s work to this verse: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33).
It must start with an awareness of God’s movement around me. I don’t have to immediately obey God’s voice, although that is the goal. I must first just get used to recognizing his voice. I might want to write down all that I observed from God at the end of each day. At first, it may be a fairly blank page. Another way to bring awareness is to see what the inner critic is trying to persuade you not to do. The critic may be more aware of God’s voice than you are.
Then after I become aware of God’s movement and voice, then I realize I have a choice. I don’t have to give in to the inner critic and remain unengaged with God’s work, but instead I can allow myself to naturally engage in the movement. By acting, I will learn what is appropriate and what needs adjustment.
Finally, with more awareness of God and more experience with making choices, I can begin to trust my basic responses and build upon them to be even more effective in seeking God’s kingdom.
I’ve learned to not get overwhelmed with my desired end result. Yes, I want to raise my chess rating into the 1300s. Yes, I want to be more responsive to God’s voice in my daily life. Yes, I want to respond better when someone triggers my “not good enough” feelings. Yes, I want to lose another ten pounds. But focusing too heavily on the end result just fuels the inner critic.
Start with awareness. Get a good view of your surroundings. Considering your desired result, when do you most often hear your inner critic? What else is going on? What are you missing? What are some better outcomes? Don’t hurry to make better choices. Just become more aware.
Start making choices without overthinking. Your brain is a genius at choices, and it will learn from bad choices. In fact, it is the only way to learn. You need to fail faster and ignore the inner critic who is predicting utter failure.
Start trusting your choices. Once you are aware and have made some choices, trust the choices. You’ll be surprised at how good you become at interacting in the moment and honing in on your desired results.