Artist: The amazingly talented, Agnes Toth. Source: Here.

An Inner Critic Named Crow

A story about how I developed a partnership with my inner critic and how it‘s helped me sit with my thoughts

“All of humanities problems stem from man’s inability to sit in a room peacefully alone” – Blaise Pascal

“What? You wanna do what? Service Design? What the fuck is that? You haven’t got any experience in that. What makes you think you could do that? Have you seen your LinkedIn profile? It’s as bare as that girl’s hairy arm over there. Look at her. Go on, look. Can you imagine being that fat? Of course you can’t. You can’t even put on enough weight to be considered a real man.”

That broken and crazy monologue is a section from one of the many novels written by the most amazing storyteller I’ve ever known: my mind. Just when I think I’ve got a grip on the plot and feel comfortable in predicting the next event, it punches me in the face with its cold, hard fist. And instead of listening to myself, he convinces me that it wasn’t him, it was me and I believe every word that slithers out of his wet mouth.

It’s different now. Since branding this egotistical character with an identity, I’ve removed his power. Crow* is no longer doing the observing, the judging and the convincing. I’m the one observing him. When I get ready for my day and he whispers, “You’re not going to have a good day, mate. You might as well stay home” I just imagine a teenage boy throwing a tantrum on the sidelines of a basketball court and reply, “C’mon, Crow. Not today, brother” and then weirdly we both laugh as if realising that all we want is the same thing: to survive this absurd world that we’re both a part of.

This recent realisation has shifted my view of “the ego” from a thing you need to “drop” to a thing you need to develop a partnership with. Because, in actual fact, I believe I need Crow in certain situations. He keeps me grounded. He forces me to ask questions of myself and others. And by giving him a name, an identity, it’s allowed me to decide whether or not I want to follow his story or create a new one. It’s also allowed me to feel comfortable with my thoughts because I can separate myself from them. Something that in today’s constantly distracted (presumably first) world is a rare experience.

Today, modern humans don’t like to spend time introspecting, and not because of our busyness: in one US survey, 95% of adults said they make time for a leisure and entertainment, but 83% said they don’t make time for just thinking. The study first encouraged students to sit in a plain room and entertain themselves with nothing but their thoughts. Most of the students found it hard to concentrate with half finding it unpleasant or neutral at best. In further studies, older people, and those who rarely used smartphones, recorded similar results. Conversely, those given the chance to do something externally, such as reading, enjoyed their time far more. Interestingly, when over 40 people had the choice between doing nothing and giving themselves electric shocks, two-thirds of the male students and a quarter of the female student decided to shock themselves.

For some, the results of these studies, led by Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia, might seem shocking. “How could they voluntarily want to shock themselves instead of just sitting down and being quiet? These people are nuts!” Well, you’re right: they are. But the reality is we all are. Humans are fucking crazy. And I’m sure anyone who has practised meditation or done some introspecting would agree. Sitting in a room alone whilst your thoughts are racing around like a puppy in a playground is difficult and weird. You’re confronted with some deep rooted, negative core beliefs; weird, maybe even perverted thoughts and incredibly positive, creative thoughts all at the same time. But until you can recognise them, it’s very difficult to understand how you can respond to them.

This is why the above quote by Pascal resonates so much with me. I genuinely believe that we’ve been told for so long to suppress specific feelings and label them as “bad”, “politically correct” or not “socially acceptable”. This focus on suppressing feelings or thoughts and distracting ourselves from them means that whenever we have them, we find it difficult to separate ourselves from them. Bad, weird thoughts = bad, weird Josh. Therefore, if I don’t have bad thoughts then I won’t be bad, which means I can only be one thing: good. In theory this makes sense, but by trying to focus on removing these thoughts, before understanding and accepting them, we’re setting ourselves up for failure because “bad” thoughts will always occur. We can’t control them, but we can control our response to them. Therefore, the power, for me, lies in creating a space—whether that’s through meditation, yoga or introspection—to sit with these thoughts, explore them and determine which ones will best suit you in any given moment.

In concluding, I invite you to take some time today, tomorrow or the day after to just sit and observe and see what comes up. From there, play with your thoughts, identify your ego and maybe even give it a name or two. You might find it useful in separating yourself from them. It’s worked wonders for me and I hope it does for you too.

*Shout out to you, Haruki Murakami. Your ability to elegantly guide us through your characters’ stream of consciousness will forever amaze me. Your novel, Kafka on the Shore helped me in so many ways and I will forever be in your debt.