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Ideacide: The Perils of Self-Censoring (And How You Can Stop It)

Illustration by Atipus
Ideacide: The Perils of Self-Censoring (And How You Can Stop It)
Published April 26, 2016 by Matthew E. May

It’s one thing to reject the ideas of others...we do that almost automatically. But when we reject, deny, stifle, squelch, strike, silence and otherwise put ideas of our own to death, sometimes even before they’re born, it is the highest crime against creativity. It’s an act of pure tragic mindlessness. I often think of this self-censoring as “ideacide,” because it entails the voluntary shutdown of the imagination, the long-effects of which eventually kill off our natural curiosity and creativity.

Most times, ideacide happens without us even realizing it. A possible off-the-wall idea or solution appears like a blip and disappears without us even realizing. As a result, some of our best stuff is suppressed before even getting out into the world.

Whether it’s because we’re too critical or because we recoil at the impending pain of change, the disruption of normalcy, self-censoring arises out of fear. Welsh novelist Sarah Waters sums it up eloquently: “Midway through writing a novel, I have regularly experienced moments of bowel-curdling terror, as I contemplate the drivel on the screen before me and see beyond it, in quick succession, the derisive reviews, the friends' embarrassment, the failing career, the dwindling income, the repossessed house, the divorce…”

We know self-censoring by many names. Carl Jung called it our “inner critic.” Michael Ray and Rochelle Myers called it the “voice of judgment” in their classic book, Creativity in Business, based on a popular course they co-taught at Stanford University Graduate Business School. Novelist and screenwriter Steven Pressfield called it “Resistance,” writing that it is “the most toxic force on the planet” and that it is “a monster.”

How One Mistake Can Self-Censor Us For a Lifetime

One touch of a red-hot stove is usually all we need to avoid that kind of discomfort in the future. The same is true as we experience the emotional sensation of stress from our first instances of social rejection or ridicule. We quickly learn to fear and thus automatically avoid potentially stressful situations of all kinds, including the most common of all: making mistakes.

Researchers Robert Reinhart and Geoffrey Woodman of Vanderbilt University refer to this phenomenon as the “Oops! Response,” which is the product of the adrenaline-fueled, threat-protection system in our brain that not only governs our fight-flight-surrender response, but that also enables us to learn from our mistakes. This response is important for our ability to learn from mistakes, but it also gives rise to self-criticism, because it is part of the threat-protection system. In other words, what keeps us safe can go too far, and keep us too safe. In fact, it can trigger self-censoring.

In fMRI studies, Paul Gilbert of Kingsway Hospital in the UK has shown that “the threat-protection mind is a self-critical mind,” meaning our threat-protection system is stimulated even when there is no actual external threat, but just us being self-critical. If we are overly self-critical, according to Gilbert, we may attack ourselves, put others down, or seek some form of escape to “flee from the knowledge of our own faults.”

Escaping Automatic Ideacide

The challenge is that our mistake response becomes so ingrained and so reflexive, so mindless, that our avoidance tactics automatically prevent new experiences that have potentially rewarding payoffs. We don’t even give these experiences a chance!

Needing to understand mindlessness, it helps to understand the polar opposite: mindfulness. The grand master of which is Ellen Langer, author of the now classic Mindfulness.

“When you’re mindless,” she says, “the past is over-determining the present. You’re trapped in categories created in the past. You’re trapped in a rigid perspective, oblivious to alternative perspectives. When you’re mindless, you confuse the stability of your mindset with the stability of the underlying phenomenon. You think you know, then you find out you don’t, because everything changes, everything looks different from different perspectives.”

(What she said next I found so valuable that I keep a snippet of our conversation on my iPhone.)

“It turns out that we can find evidence for whatever hypothesis we entertain,” she continued. “So if you ask about your thoughts...what’s wrong with them, how bad they are, yours, mine, anyone’ can easily find evidence. You can just as easily, though, find evidence for the opposite. And if you were more mindful, you’d probably do both. You have to recognize that events don’t cause us stress. Stress is a function of outcomes, which are simply our interpretation of events, not of events themselves. When you’re faced with something that seems stressful, you assume two things: first, that something is going to happen, and second, when it happens it’s going to be dreadful.” 

Both of these assumptions, of course, could be entirely false. Self-censoring is firmly rooted in our experiences with mistakes in the past and not the present. The brain messages arising from those experiences can be deceptive. And if what our censoring self thinks it “knows” may in fact not be true, then automatically accepting it as some sort of inert truth is indeed mindless and self-defeating.

Langer agrees: “When you think ‘I know’ and ‘it is,’ you have the illusion of knowing, the illusion of certainty, and then you’re mindless.”

Langer argues that we must learn to look at the world in a more conditional way, versus an absolute way. Understanding that the way we are looking at things is merely one among many different ways of looking at them requires us to embrace uncertainty.

“Mindfulness follows from uncertainty. When you’re uncertain, everything becomes interesting again,” she told me.

Defaulting to Mindfulness: The Third Person Effect

That immediately brought to mind one of my fondest memories, involving my daughter when she was just a toddler of one: taking her with me on the short walk to check the mail. I live in a small enclave of homes in which all the mailboxes are together in a central location, less than a minute’s walk from my front door...when I walk alone, that is. When I would take my daughter with me it was easily 20 minutes. Everything along the way, to and from, fascinated her: every pebble, ant, stick, leaf, blade of grass, and crack in the sidewalk was something to be picked up, looked at, tasted, smelled, and shaken. Everything was interesting to her. She knew nothing. I knew everything...been there, done that. She was in the moment, I was in the past. She was mindful. I was mindless.

The trick to fixing self-censoring and fighting ideacide, then, is making everything interesting again. The question is how?

Part of the answer is something psychologists refer to it as self-distancing, a term coined by researchers Ethan Kross and Ozlem Ayduk. What spurred Ethan Kross to investigate the concept in the first place was an act of mindlessness: He accidentally ran a red light. He scolded himself by saying out loud, “Ethan, you idiot!” Referring to himself in the third person made him wonder if there might be something more to this quirk of speech, and if it might represent a method for changing one’s perspective.

The short answer is yes. According to Kross, when you think of yourself as another person, it allows you to give yourself more objective, helpful feedback.

As Pamela Weintraub writes in the May 2015 issue of Psychology Today:

“By toggling the way we address the self—first person or third—we flip a switch in the cerebral cortex, the center of thought, and another in the amygdala, the seat of fear, moving closer to or further from our sense of self and all its emotional intensity. Gaining psychological distance enables self-control, allowing us to think clearly, perform competently. The language switch also minimizes rumination, a handmaiden of anxiety and depression after we complete a task. Released from negative thoughts, we gain perspective, focus deeply, plan for the future.”

Experiencing self-distancing is not unlike the feeling you might get when you travel to a distant and unfamiliar place. As visitors and spectators we are naturally mindful, fully present, noticing details the locals now take for granted. We are very much the outsiders, watching ourselves as we stumble and fumble local customs, chuckling at our folly rather than stressing over how stupid we are, as we surely would as natives to the land. And all the while we stay fully aware and alert to everything happening around us. We are in it, but not of it, so we are able to view ourselves in a more detached, rational, and objective way.

But you don’t need to travel to a foreign land to become more mindful.

When I asked Ellen Langer if she had a favorite tool or technique for managing mindlessness, her response involved a form of self-distancing. She reiterated that when you’re facing something that’s causing you stress, be aware that you’ve made two unwarranted assumptions: that something will happen, and when it does it will devastate you. Listen to her use of “you” and “yourself”:

So first say to yourself, give yourself three reasons, five reasons why this thing might not happen. It immediately becomes less stressful, because you just went from “it’s going to happen” to “maybe it will happen, maybe it won’t.” Then ask yourself for three, five reasons why if it actually happens, it will be a good thing. Those reasons are easy to find once you ask the question. Now you’ve gone from “there’s this terrible thing that’s going to happen” to “there’s this thing that may or may not happen, but if it does, it will have good things and bad things.” That leads us to become less reactive to the world; you stay responsive, just not reactive.

Ellen Langer’s final words to me may just hold the entire key to fighting the high crime of ideacide: “As soon as you realize the issue looks different from a different perspective, take that perspective.”


The simple takeaway is this: The next time you find yourself censoring your thoughts and protecting your unborn idea from potential rejection by killing it yourself, talk to yourself as an objective advisor would. Jot down reasons why your idea might not get rejected. Then jot down three good things that might happen even if it does.

You’ve now moved from mindless to mindful...from dwelling in the past to being fully present, and in fact positioning yourself for the future. Most importantly, you’ll protect your idea from the highest crime of creativity.

More about Matthew E. May

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