Category Archives: fear of failure

Critique vs. Inner Critic: How to Grow without Crippling Self-Judgement

“Being an artist is kind of like being a nudist,” she says. “You can’t get into the club unless you bare your naked truth, but wearing your skin suit in public is an act of discipline.” – Critter, on exposing yourself to judgement so you can grow.

“Do I have to look?” I mutter to myself as my finger swipes the notifications off my phone’s screen. “I really, really don’t want to.” I swallow a flare of heartburn and lay my phone on the kitchen counter so my hands are free to flap.

I swallow a flare of heartburn and lay my phone on the kitchen counter so my hands are free to flap.

I’m freaking out, man.

The messages are from my friends – fellow writers and/or lovers of a story well-told. Why wouldn’t I want to see what they have to say?

It’s because they’re not just friends today, they’re beta readers. They are giving feedback on the first complete draft of my book. And I’m pretty sure they’re going to say it’s cheesy, half-baked, and fucking awful. My heart is in my throat.

It’s been four months since I committed to turning the stories and messages from this blog into a book. In that time, I have been tossed like a rubber duck on tidal waves of emotion.

It started with ecstatic freedom – knowing that my fate is in my own hands.

“I’m going to be my own freaking fairy godmother!” I sang inside my head. “I’m gonna turn myself into an author!” All I had to do was learn the steps to the self-publishing dance and follow them. Simple as pie.

Next came slice of juicy satisfaction. It felt indescribably good to reject the traditional publishing route. Much like starting my blog, producing my own book freed me to dig my fingers into wet and smelly stuff without worrying about soiling a publisher’s image or offending their marketing sensibilities.

No one was going to stop me from saying the things that I felt needed to be said or water-down my tone. I was completely free to amuse myself with all the gross and unsettling imagery I craved. The sensation of creative control was like bacon-wrapped filet – arousing, addictive, and nourishing to a part of me that was always hungry.

But with all that dizzy liberty came huge responsibility. Every time I caught a giddy swell of possibility, I’d fly off the crest and freefall into twenty-league trough of doubt.

You can’t do this, the doubt in me hissed. You are too scattered to make your deadlines, you’re too flighty to make it polished, and you’re too egocentric to make it satisfying to anyone but you.

And that’s what I was sure these messages from my beta readers were saying.

“What the fuck on god’s green earth made me think I could do this?” I moaned to the kitchen cupboards.

“LEARNING how to do this, dummy!” came a squeaky voice from near my feet. “You learned, and then you tried it. What is there to fuss about?”

I look down and see warm green eyes smiling up at me from a furry black robber’s mask. I start to bend over to pick up my imaginary raccoon. But part-way over, I freeze, staring numbly at the floor behind Critter, my hands working open and closed.

Critter tilts her head and frowns at me, then thrusts her arms in the air to spur me back to action. She looks exactly like my two-year-old, her face saying, “Yeah yeah yeah, I know you’re having all kinds thoughts… but come on. Pick me up and let’s get on with this.”

Critter’s movement catches my eye, and my focus rolls onto her face for a blank pause. Then, I complete my initial motion and lift my scruffy friend to my shoulder. I heave a sigh.

Critter nestles her head against my neck and exhales with audible contentment. Usually, her cosiness radiates into me, but today, it’s bouncing off like heatless rays from an LED bulb.

“What’s up with you?” Critter asks sleepily. “I thought you’d be basking in the afterglow of orgasmic completion today.”

I frown as I pat her back absently.

“What completion?” I ask.

Critter pushes her chest away from mine and looks up at me with an eyebrow cocked in disbelief.

“The book?” she says. “The one you just finished? How are you not dancing right now?” She tilts her head and peers into my eyes, searching for signs of madness.

I shake my head sadly.

“Oh, it’s not finished,” I report. “That was just the beta draft. I was thrilled yesterday because I thought it WAS almost done, and it was such a relief. I was ready to collapse – it’s been a hard push to meet my beta deadline.

But as soon as the first feedback comments started rolling in, I realized the manuscript is nowhere near done. It’s a steaming coil of thoughtless turd, and I’m afraid it’s the best I can do. I have no idea how I’m going to make it fit to publish.”

I sigh again, and it makes my chest ache. It’s like trying to breathe through wet sand.

Critter rolls her eyes at me.

“Are you serious?” she chides. “You’ve finally made it to Mount Doom, and you want to hand-off the ring to Gollum now? I don’t mean to be rude, but are you a moron?” She gives me a crooked smile.

I blink at her, not sure if I’m about to burst into tears or a tirade.

Critter pulls herself out of my arms, crawls onto my shoulder, and leaps onto the counter. Then she stands on her hind feet, so our faces are level and puts her paws on my shoulders.

“What’s your problem?” she huffs into my face with catfood breath.

“What happened to last week’s humble acceptance of your imperfection?”

I crinkle my nose and pull away from the spoiled meat breeze that carries Critter’s words.

My stubborn raccoon narrows her eyes, grabs handfuls of my shirt, and clings to me. As I pull back, her body stretches away from the counter like an accordion, following my retreat.

“Oh no you don’t,” she laughs. “Quit evading the question, or I’ll reach up there and give you mouth to mouth.”

My stomach lurches, and I step forward, clasping my hand over my mouth. This brings Critter back toward the counter, and she shoves off my shoulders to regain her stance on my food prep area.

“Ha!” she says. “You’re helpless before the power of putrefied Purina.”

I swallow hard and scowl at my pushy friend. She scowls right back.

“Spill it, Captain McQueasy,” she says. “What happened to realizing that your best effort was good enough?”

I breathe deep and think about it. An image of last week’s peaceful surrender in the bathtub floats into my mind.

“It’s all about nakedness,” I say to Critter. “Last week, I was just being naked and honest with myself. It was a wonderful feeling of freedom and security.

But this week, it feels like I’ve just dropped my trousers in front of my friends. And it’s only a practice run for the big show when I release the book on the market. I’m basically a stripper, Critter, and I don’t have the body for it!”

Critter covers her eyes and sniggers. Then she opens them and shines her mossy-hued lamps at me kindly.

“Being an artist is kind of like being a nudist,” she says. “You can’t get into the club unless you bare your naked truth, but wearing your skin suit in public is an act of discipline.”

I chuckle. Critter tilts her head at me.

“You’re not that far off on your analogy about stripping,” she continues. “Trying to make a living with your art means you are exposing yourself, ostensibly for the benefit of your audience. If you ask for their sweaty dollar bills, you’d better give them a good show.”

I chuckle again.

“It’s weird how right you are,” I say, shaking my head and scratching Critter’s ear. “Only you could make me feel better about the prospect of training for stripper-cise.”

Critter grins and leans into the scratch.

“You realize how lucky you are to have that terrifying feedback lurking in your mailbox, don’t you?” she asks with slitted eyes.

I take a deep breath and nod.

“Those are your exotic dance instructors,” she says, pointing her nose toward my smartphone. I watch it’s message-alert blinking green a few times, and notice the quiver in my guts.

“They’re giving pointers to help you put on a show you will feel good about,” Critter finishes.

I take another breath and sigh.

“You’re right,” I say. “This judgement is kind; they are trying to help me.”

“And they will, if you let them,” Critter adds.

I nod.

“Somehow, I have to muzzle the terrified voice inside me that just beats me down,” I say. “I need to clear my ears so I can hear the helpful critique and move forward.”

Critter tilts her head and considers.

“You need nudist therapy,” she announces.

“What?” I laugh.

“Nudist therapy; stripping is all about polishing your moves to please people, and it forces you to submit to judgement,” she explains.

“Nudism, on the other hand, is about abandoning judgement and just letting everyone be what they are. There are no beauty pageants on the nude beach.”

I laugh and shake my head.

“You make the nude scene sound meditative,” I reply, “But I’m not quite ready for that.”

Critter smiles at me.

“I know,” she says. “Why don’t you start with a swim?”

My eyes and mouth open wide and I suck in a rush of air.

“That’s… freaking…. Brilliant!!” I gasp. “I always feel scared to step out in my bathing suit, but as soon as I start moving through the water, nothing matters. The curve of my belly, the shape of my thighs… all the things I am so afraid to have judged… they just become body parts once I sink below the surface and start to blow bubbles.

The rest of the swimmers are just collections of body parts, too. We are all exposed at the pool, and we just let each other be. Holy crap, Critter! You just invented bathing suit therapy!”

My self-assured rodent grins and polishes her claws.

“I’m going to do it!” I sing. “Tomorrow morning, I’m going for a swim after I drop the girls and daycare and school.”

“Atta girl,” Critter says, “and don’t dig into your beta feedback until your bare feet are planted firmly on the ground.”

I scoop up my imaginary raccoon and hug her fiercely.

“I don’t know how you do it,” I whisper to her, “but you make this terrifying shit doable.”

Critter looks up at me with mischievous crinkles around her eyes.

“It’s what I do,” she says. “And if you want to show your gratitude, I could go for a can of something wet and stinky.”

“Yuck,” I say, grimacing. “But to be fair, you’ve earned it.”

So I fix Critter a bowl of slimy stuff from the garbage can and wash my hands three times. The next day, I follow-through on my plan for a swim.

It feels amazing, and the sound of my bubbly breath fills my ears until the voice of my inner critic fades away.

Now, I’m ready to face the beta feedback on my book. I’m going to let my feverish ache to provide a satisfying show pull me through the next phase of gruelling revisions.

And I’m going to make sure I tell my beta readers how much I appreciate their brave critique of my literary lap dance.

Critter and I know that you face daunting challenges, too. We hope you find a way to balance your stripper-training with nudist therapy and give yourself room to grow without crippling self-judgement.

Three Phrases from Critter to Cure Your Fear of Failure

I am in bed on a Tuesday afternoon. My body is shrouded by three layers of blankets hermetically sealed around my chin. I am wearing two shirts and a hoodie underneath. Only two inches of flesh between my upper lip and eyebrows are exposed to the air. The cruel, unspeakable, room-temperature air.

It is physically impossible for me to be this cold right now.

Yet, here I am. Shivering right down to my bones.

“Goddamn it, I’m FREEZING TO DEATH!” I hiss into the empty room.

“No, you’re not.” Comes a snarky reply.

I sigh. I should know to expect this annoying tap on my shoulder whenever I dunk my head into the toilet bowl of self-pity.

Without breaking the blanket seal, I roll my eyes as far as I can. I can’t quite see the indent where my imaginary raccoon has landed on the bed. She pads delicately toward me and finally comes into view. She touches her nose to mine and her furry face blocks my entire field of vision.

“What’s going on under there?” Critter asks; “You look like you’re about to eat the young.”

I chuckle.

“Do you think it would warm me up?” I ask. “If so, I’d consider it.”

Critter rolls her eyes at me.

“You’re ridiculous, you know?” she says.

I don’t answer. Because I know.

Critter waits a beat and then tilts her head.

“But really, what are you doing in there? It’s daytime. You have work to do,” she says.

I groan.

“I know. But I’m tired. My eyeballs just about melted out of my head when I read to the girls at naptime. And it’s soooo freaking COLD!” I complain.

Critter furrows a brow at me, then starts sniffing all around my face. Her whiskers tickle so bad that I need to pee.

“GAH! Enough!” I say, sitting up.

“You don’t smell sick,” Critter states.

“I know,” I say. I look down at the blanket.

“Are you avoiding your work?” Critter asks.

I suck a huge breath in through my nose and sigh. The spot between my chest and my belly aches.

“I guess,” I say.

Critter pats my thigh but doesn’t say anything.

I have steeled myself for her usual smartass bossypants routine, but it doesn’t come.

I look up at her.

“It’s squeezing me,” I say.

“I know,” she answers.

I look down at my hands and watch them wring each other. They are restless. Don’t know what to do with themselves.

They should be typing. But they can’t, because my mind is frozen.

My heart beats, and it feels like it’s too big for my chest. Like my fat waist strangling inside my jeans.

I start to breathe faster as an image sweeps over me. A crush of shame and dread rolls up my body like a rolling pin. Every organ gets squashed. I suffocate. And finally, my soft tissues ooze out of every facial orifice. I am mesmerized by this sad, gory, figurative mess.

Critter crawls onto my lap and puts her little black hands on my shoulders.

“Hey,” she says, “come back. We’re talking, here.”

My eyes rotate in her direction without seeing. I’m panting and starting to wheeze.

Critter hops off my legs, then leaps the gap between the bed and my dresser. The surface is slippery, and her hind paws fishtail as she slides. Her front claws scrabble and dig into the wood, then her butt knocks over a stack of paperbacks. Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art falls into the crack between the dresser and the wall.

Fuck. That’s going to be a pain to retrieve.

I am thinking about the infuriating ledge at the back of the dresser, where things that fall down there get stuck. I can’t quite reach them from underneath, and the behemoth furnishing is too heavy to pull out by myself.

I am trying to count the lost items and hopeless hangers that have been sacrificed to the gods of WTF when something strikes my leg.

It is my aero chamber, a big plastic tube that slows down the spray from my inhaler. Next, Critter pounces back onto my lap, with my blue rescue inhaler between her teeth.

She drops it next to the chamber and says, “Breathe.”

Dutifully, I shake the shit out of the cannister to prepare the puff. The shaking tosses Critter about; she grips into my legs with her claws.

I shout in pain, and the inhaler sails out of my hand and whacks against the wall.

In the next room, the baby wakes up.

I start to laugh. It makes me wheeze harder.

Still chuckling, I climb out of bed and go use the inhaler. Within a few breaths, the thickness in my lungs starts to ease. There is nothing so delicious as those first easy breaths.

As I head out to raise my little one, Critter dusts her hands.

“That wasn’t so hard, was it?” she says.

I shake my head and take care of baby business. Once she and her sister are settled onto the couch with their afternoon snack and tv, I mosey into the kitchen. Heartburn starts to rise in my throat. I know what’s waiting for me.

I grab my laptop and lay it on the kitchen table. I pause to think about how much I love the feel of this writing tool. It is small, light as a feather, and has a delightful aluminum cover with a diamond-patterned texture. I stroke my lovely machine a few times, but cannot open it.

“Do it,” Critter whispers, as she peeks around the doorway. “Just start now.”

“I can’t,” I say. “My words are stuck.”

“Just begin,” she says again.

“But it’s going to be bad!” I say, my voice rising. “My last series of posts was a mess!”

“What was wrong with them?” Critter asks, her eyes boring into me like a laser.

I run my hand through my hair.

“Everything!” I say. “Typos, missing words, muddled thoughts, and pointless points.”

Critter frowns.

“Then edit your work,” she says.

“I did!” I whine, getting frantic now. “At least, I thought I did. I re-read and re-wrote until my eyes were about to bleed. I swear! I literally couldn’t see the words anymore, so I just published. It wasn’t until the post came back to me by email that I saw all the errors.”

Critter rolled her eyes.

“Then get an editor,” she said. “That’s what they’re for.”

I laugh.

“I can’t afford an editor for blog posts!” I say.

But Critter won’t let it go.

“Then ask a friend. You know someone has offered,” she says.

I pause. My lovely friend Dakota has offered to give my posts that essential second set of eyes. And my equally lovely, and relied-upon friends, Sue and Marielle, have also offered their corneas to help polish my writing.

“You’re right, Critter,” I admit, “but it was too much of a burden. I was always behind on those posts and didn’t finish most of them until after midnight. I couldn’t bother anyone at that hour, and I didn’t want to delay the posts any later. So I tried to do it all myself. Bloggers do that all the time. It should have been easy.”

“But was it?” Critter asks, walking toward me.

“No,” I answer, and like a potato sack over my head, the shame comes back and traps me.

Critter hops up onto the table and pretends to peek under the edge of my imagined shame sack.

“It’s okay to need help,” she says.

I let that sink in.

At first, it feels awful, like a bin of leftover spaghetti dumped over my head. I hate that I can’t get my shit together on my own.

But then, those imaginary cold noodles start to melt, and a weird sense of comfort drips down my chest and back.

It’s okay to need help.

Something clears in my head.

“Holy fuck,” I mutter. “There’s an app for that.”

“What?” Critter laughs.

“Editing!” I shout and flip my laptop open. I open two tabs and show Critter what I’m talking about.

Grammarly and Hemingway,” she reads. “What’re those?”

“They are online editing apps,” I explain. “One does a really basic proofread – typos, punctuation, and word usage – and the other highlights sentences that lack clarity.”

“Holy scat,” says Critter. “That is handy.”

“Totally,” I say, and I smile. “They don’t replace a real human editor, but they can help a writer with ADHD filter out the garbage that her brain can’t catch.”

“That sounds like a decent solution for blog posts,” Critter says.

I nod.

“You’re running out of excuses,” she adds.

I gulp.

“Get to work,” she says. My imaginary talking raccoon ruffles my hair, then hops off the table and leaves me to it.

I open up a doc and stare at the cursor for a minute.

Critter’s words echo back inside my head.

Just start now.

It’s okay to need help.

Get to work.

I decide to dedicate today’s post to those three Critterisms, and my snarky, pushy, always-there-for-me friend.

And I smile as I unzip my hoodie. Because I’m not cold anymore.

Critter’s Message for You:

Critter wants you to think about what is holding you back from the stuff you need to do.

You know those jobs that are so important to you, they make you want to puke? What would it take to get them done?

Do you need to let go of perfectionism and just start now?

Do you need to get help to complete tasks you can’t do on your own?

What would release the pressure so you can get to work?

It doesn’t matter whether your help comes from friends and family, paid assistants, coaching, counseling, assistive technology, or medication. Just do what it takes and get it done.

And if it takes a dozen tries to get it right, so be it. Keep going.

Just start now.

It’s okay to need help.

Get to work.

Critter gives you her word as the world’s wisest creature (good lord, Critter!), you can do this.
PS – If you are looking for “words” for 2017, you could do worse than take these ones from an imaginary garbage-eating rodent.