Jon Acuff on How to Silence Your Inner Critic

Let’s start with something we all agree on: you and I have brains. They are capable of some amazing things, like logic, reason, and Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” That song has made her an estimated $60 million in royalties. Don’t you dare tell me it’s not amazing.


This article is part of our Quarterlife series, produced in partnership with Unite Health Share Ministries.

One of the things our brains are capable of is overthinking. Think of it as the ability to have persistent, repetitive thoughts. Overthinking is essentially when your brain spins on a thought or an idea for longer than you anticipated. Unfortunately, overthinking tends to lean toward the negative. Left to its own devices, it will naturally gravitate toward things you don’t want to dwell on. I’ll give you a few examples.

Have you ever had to work hard to remind yourself of something dumb you said a long time ago? Did you need a to-do list to overthink an embarrassing situation from the eighth grade, even though you’re now in your thirties? Did you need a note on your calendar to make sure you’d spend the whole weekend thinking about why your boss called a meeting with you on Monday morning?

“I’ve got a wave of dread scheduled for this Saturday at 2 p.m.!” Is that what you did, or did those thoughts just show up unexpectedly, not at all connected to anything else you were doing at the time?

Those are called broken soundtracks, negative stories you tell yourself about yourself and your world. They play automatically without any invitation or effort from you. Fear does not take work. Doubt does not take work. Insecurity does not take work.

I know all about broken soundtracks like that because they cost me seven years of opportunity. 

I started my first blog in 2001. I was sharing ridiculous, personal content online three years before Facebook existed, four years before YouTube, five years before Twitter, and sixteen years before TikTok. I wasn’t a tech pioneer, because I didn’t own enough hoodies, but I was way ahead of the curve. Record labels were reaching out, readers were finding the content organically, and the faintest hints of momentum were sprouting. Things were moving along, but then I started overthinking everything.

“What if someone finds out I don’t really know what I’m doing?” 

“Where is this even going?”

“What’s the point if I don’t have a perfect plan to grow it?”

Those three soundtracks and a thousand more knocked me off the internet for seven straight years. I didn’t start another blog until 2008. Who knows how much further I’d be if I’d spent those seven years growing my audience and content? 

The most frustrating thing is that all those broken soundtracks showed up in my life completely uninvited. 

Your brain builds on overthinking’s habit of negativity by doing three additional things:

1. Lying about your memories

2. Confusing fake trauma with real trauma

3. Believing what it already believes

Now that you know your brain can be a real jerk, do you want to leave your thoughts to chance? Where would successful people be if they hadn’t made a decision to choose new soundtracks to listen to? Think of all the opportunities and adventures you’ll miss out on if broken soundtracks are in charge of your actions.

Broken soundtracks are one of the most persuasive forms of fear because every time you listen to one it gets easier to believe it the next time. Have you ever judged an idea as too dumb to even write down? That’s a broken soundtrack. Have you ever told yourself the same story I do about why someone didn’t text back? That’s a broken soundtrack. Has it ever felt like you have a pocket jury with you, cross-examining each new opportunity until you dare not chase it? That’s a broken soundtrack.

The good news is that you’re bigger than your brain. It’s just one part of you, and it’s under your control in the same way an arm or leg is. We know this because you and I have the great fortune of living in the age of neuroplasticity. Your parents’ generation didn’t know they could change the shape and function of their brains. Their parents’ generation thought cigarettes were good for cyclists in the Tour de France because the nicotine opened the capillaries in their lungs. Maybe my kids’ generation will be the ones who figure out how to make vegan queso not taste like organic sand. Every generation learns something new. 

Neuroplasticity, which is the power to physically change our brains by changing our thoughts, means that the solution to overthinking isn’t to stop thinking. Why would we ever get rid of such a powerful, efficient tool? Wouldn’t it make more sense to just run our brains with different soundtracks instead of the broken ones? A plane can drop a bomb or food. A syringe can deliver poison or medicine. A stallion can start a stampede or win a race. The same is true of our thoughts.

If you can worry, you can wonder. If you can doubt, you can dominate. If you can spin, you can soar.

The same brain that told you for years that you couldn’t write a book can be taught to tell you just the opposite. “You can write a book! You must write a book! It’s time to do it!”  I should know. I published zero books the first thirty-three years of my life. I published seven over the next eleven years. How? I started listening to a new soundtrack.

I didn’t just give myself a boost of encouragement in 2008 when I chose to believe I could become a professional public speaker. I started changing my soundtracks in ways that changed the shape of my brain. Not just one day but every day, which was all the easier because of neurogenesis. With neurogenesis, “every morning when you wake up, new baby nerve cells have been born while you were sleeping that are there at your disposal to be used in tearing down toxic thoughts and rebuilding healthy thoughts.”9

Your brain is waiting for you each day. It’s waiting to betold what to think. It’s waiting to see what kind of soundtracks you’ll choose.

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It’s waiting to see if you really want to build a different life.

Tapping Into the Power of Overthinking in Three Steps

My entire world started to change when I decided to choose what soundtracks I listen to.

The best part is that the process is a lot simpler than you’d expect. When I first started transforming my overthinking, I figured it would take approximately ninety-two different steps, fourteen techniques, and at least a few dozen acronyms. I was wrong. 

There are three actions to change your thoughts from a super problem into a superpower:

1. Retire your broken soundtracks.

2. Replace them with new ones.

3. Repeat them until they’re as automatic as the old ones.

Retire. Replace. Repeat.

That’s it.

I don’t know what your dream is; it’s probably different from mine. But I do know one thing: overthinking is getting in the way.

It’s time to do something about that.

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