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.”
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.