"The Douchebag Inside Your Head"

My September column for the San Diego Troubadour.


In this space I’ll be sharing some ideas and perspectives that I hope will be useful for you. Some of these ideas have been shaped by decades as a musician, some from teaching students privately, some from a parallel path in academia, and some just from being old enough to have seen some stuff. I’m not an expert, and you probably don’t need my help. It’s a perfect match!

I have taught private lessons for decades. There are many differences between kids and adults as music-learners, but the biggest is this: a douchebag lives inside every grown-up’s head. It is so consistent among adult students that I formally dedicate a slice of instruction to it.

Here’s how it goes. I say, “This week, I just want you to practice getting smoothly from one chord to the next.” If you’re a kid, you go home and practice the chords (if you practice at all!). Then you come to your lesson and show me how well you did.

If you’re an adult, you, too, go home and play the chords. So far so good. This is hard, particularly if it’s new. But then, your head starts talking to you. It tells you that you should really also be able to play those chords quickly. And should be able to transpose them to another key. And should be able to play them in a different time signature. And should be able to improvise on top of them. And shouldn’t be having so much trouble, or wasting time on music lessons or making any sounds at all or maybe even have ever been born. Then you come into your lesson and tell me how bad you did.

“Should” and “shouldn’t”… who said that? I sure didn’t. My instruction was just to play those chords.

We know who did: the Douchebag Inside Your Head. The Demon Narrator of Brain Street. And the story it tells is always about how we suck and how far behind some mythical next benchmark that we are.

People usually assign the DBIYH to the voice of a parent or sibling or maybe that goody-goody Madison who lived down the block—whoever most intimidated us in childhood. By the time we are adults, that “voice” becomes practically a second person tagging along with us—our hello-darkness-my-old friend. And the more accomplished a person is, the more vocal that DBIYH seems to be.

So what do we do about it?

The Call Is Coming from Inside the House
The first thing to know is that this is not the person whose voice you gave it. It’s you. These are your fears and doubts, you just put them in the voice of the person you are most likely to believe them from. It’s a deepfake. It’s OG AI.The second thing to know is that in theory it’s good. When we’re kids, the stories we make up keep us safe. We’re basically TSA screeners. “Known” input gets sent down the thinking-person path. Unfamiliar input triggers a security alert. This split-second fight-or-flight triage doesn’t care how big or small the “danger” is, only that at that very moment, treating it like it’s big is the safest option. So “Mom would probably say not to put the wet cat’s tail in the electrical outlet” is a good impulse for all involved.

As an adult, though, this same process is torture. We’re (allegedly) not still sticking wet cat tails in electrical outlets, so that impulse has to go somewhere. It heads to whatever else might be new or unfamiliar—and artists are, by definition, always trying the new and unfamiliar. For many, surmounting the DBIYH can often be harder than accomplishing whatever prompted it. The narrator can be louder than the story itself.

So How Do We Shut the Little Bastard Up?
Listen: We don’t. We are grown-ass humans. We’re fully baked. Some of us in several ways! That lifelong mechanism isn’t going to stop tomorrow just because we don’t like it.

That’s the biggest adjustment. We have to reprogram from “I need it to go away,” to “I need it not to matter”—from eradication to equanimity. This starts by being aware of where it comes from. It’s not something wrong with us. It IS us. It’s a natural byproduct of our existence.

Then we have to call it out. It’s not slick; it does one thing, and it does it no matter what. It’s like a dumb bomb. It’s a bot. It’s a one-hit wonder playing the county fair of your mind with its single, “You Suck,” on loop. It’s the two old guys in the Muppet Show who heckle the skit no matter how good it is. It has only one move. You have many!

So, notice it. Tell it, “Nice try.” And mean it! The mind is amazing; game recognize game. But then pat it on its sad, imaginary butt and send it along, chattering away. Remember, you made it up. So, make other stuff up. Invent 10 other voices that also fire off when that one does: “Your timing is getting better” bot and “You used to take longer to learn this” bot and “It is not easy to take this on as an adult, you are a bad ass” bot. They take some conjuring, but remember, you conjured the Demon Narrator too.

Once you are aware that it’s not Truth, but a move your brain makes because it knows it works, it can chatter all it wants. A couple blows might still land, but over time there are fewer and fewer. Knowing that this fight-or-flight response kicks in because you’re trying something new or different, might even end up making you proud of yourself for “earning” the voice. You may, in time, even become grateful to the source of the voice for pushing you forward.

Except Madison. She can suck an egg.

Is there something I should offer unsolicited advice about in future columns? Shoot me a line via the contact form at joshweinstein.com and let me know.

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