Have you ever wanted to try something new, but as soon as you started thinking about it, that nagging voice in your head started telling you that you can’t—or shouldn’t?
If we’re not careful, our inner critic can keep us stuck right where we are. Without trying new things, we might never discover that we love piano or poetry or Portuguese. We might never feel the exhilaration of windsurfing, laughing until we cry and falling in love.
Instead of a collection of memories, we’re likely to end up with a pile of regrets. In the short-term, we often regret the things we did that we wish we didn’t. But in the long run, it’s often the missed opportunities and things we didn’t do that we end up regretting the most.
Unfortunately, these are the very opportunities that our inner critic likes to thwart. How can we keep it from getting in the way of new opportunities?
3 Ways to Silence Your Inner Critic When Starting Something New
1. Lower the stakes of starting
One thing that can keep us from starting something new is by associating starting with “must finish” and not finishing with “failure.”
This can make starting something new feel risky. If starting always locks us into a long-term commitment, that puts a lot of pressure on our initial decision. What if we find that we don’t want to—or can’t—finish it? What if we start our own business and we don’t like it? Or what if we train for a marathon and we’re not good at it? If we only consider ourselves successful once we master an industry or cross the finish line and we’re not sure we can do that, then why even try?
Our inner critic might tell us that it’s better to not start at all than to risk getting stuck doing something we hate or feeling like a failure if we quit. If we listen to that message, we’ll only start things we’re sure we can and want to finish, which will really limit our potential. We need to silence our inner critic.
If we want to be more adventurous in trying new things, we need to lower the stakes of starting. We need to make the conditions for success easier to meet by taking the “must finish” out of the requirements.
If you think you need to finish what you start, don’t ask yourself whether you should start this new thing. Instead, ask yourself whether you should try this new thing. With trying, starting is the success.
2. Consider what you can learn about yourself
Trying something new rather than sticking with what we know is always a gamble. When you try a new dish at a restaurant, you might end up with something you don’t like and miss out on your usual favorite. But you might also find something you like even better.
There is a tradeoff between exploration and exploitation. We want to sometimes stick with things we know and love, but we also need to be open to exploring new opportunities. Unless we have already perfectly optimized our lives, there will be a lot of good—and many great—opportunities out there that we have yet to realize.
One benefit of trying new things is that we often learn what we like and don’t like through experience. We’re not always very good at knowing what will make us happy through mere introspection. The more things we try, the more data points we’ll have to help us figure ourselves out.
The key to learning about ourselves through our experience is to get curious before we get attached to the thing we’re trying. Once we get attached to a particular activity or person or idea, it can be hard to be objective. Our brain becomes motivated to focus on the positive and gloss over the negative. And if we don’t evaluate the new opportunity objectively, we won’t get an accurate picture of whether it would be a good fit for us.
If your inner critic tries to tell you that not finishing equals failure, remind it of what you can learn about yourself by trying new things, even if you don’t stick with them long-term.
3. Don’t forget that joy doesn’t have to be earned
One way our inner critic can hold us back from trying something new is by making us feel like we don’t deserve it. We don’t have time for fun. Time is money! Why spend three hours at a baseball game when you could spend that time catching up on work? Or learning a new skill?
In our productivity-obsessed culture, we feel guilty about using our time in ways that won’t “improve” ourselves. Even our leisure has turned into work. We’re told that our hobbies need to be monetized and turned into side hustles, and our leisure needs to promote our personal development by making us smarter, stronger, more interesting, more useful and more marketable.
But this fixation on productivity risks mistaking the proxy for the goal. We might start with the desire to improve our skills and talents because we think it will improve our lives. But if we lose sight of the ultimate aim and start pursuing growth for its own sake, we’ll continue to chase after growth opportunities even when it makes our lives as a whole worse off.
If we become too focused on productivity, we risk spending all our time and energy on improving our skills and talents and social capital in ways that crowd out other things that make life worth living. Researchers have found that when people view leisure as wasteful or unproductive, they are less likely to enjoy it. Productivity and efficiency are good things, but so are joy and connection and contentment, and trying to maximize the former undermines the latter.
Silence your inner critic and aim for joy above all else
Next time, silence your inner critic when it tells you not to waste your time on things that won’t improve your bottom line or look good on Instagram. Remind it that joy is an essential part of a good human life. We don’t need to earn our leisure by making it productive. Sometimes it’s OK to try something new even if it’s just for fun.
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