The Inner Critic
by Sharon Good
One of the greatest deterrents to creativity is the inner voice that constantly whispers in our ear that we're not good enough, that nobody will approve of what we're doing, and that they don't really like us anyway.
This "inner critic" becomes our constant companion, not only in our work, but in everything we do.
The inner critic begins as a survival mechanism. When we're children, part of our parents' job is to teach us socially acceptable behavior. In doing so, even the best parents inevitably curb our natural instincts.
This makes us feel that there must be something innately wrong with us, and it hurts or shames us. In order to avoid future pain, we start telling ourselves what's wrong with us before others in our world get around to it.
As we grow up, we internalize all those outer voices, the criticisms and limiters on our natural behavior. This becomes our "inner critic," whose job is to store all the rules and then chastise us for not following them. Ironically, our inner voice can become harsher and more persistent than the outer ones ever were. We punish ourselves emotionally, and sometimes physically with such things as addictions. What began as a protector becomes a destroyer.
The inner critic will show up at different times and in different ways. One minute, it will tell us how hopeless we are, and the next, how much better we are than everyone else. It will appear more commonly in some areas of our lives -- usually the ones we feel less secure about -- than others. It will often speak up when we're feeling tired or threatened, and when things are going well and we feel good about ourselves, it'll remind us that we'll never be able to sustain it. When we're in the throes of creating, the vulnerability we feel is an open door for the critic to step in and judge us and our work.
* The first step in dealing with the inner critic is to recognize it as a separate entity from yourself.
It is a voice within you, but it's not you. This voice has been your constant companion since childhood, and it's likely so much a part of you, like the air you breathe, that you hardly even notice it. Realize that these are the combined voices of all the authority figures you grew up with -- parents, teachers, religious leaders or just about any adult. When you were small, not heeding these voices could result in physical or emotional pain or humiliation.
Your inner critic may even reflect the voices of childhood friends. We all wanted so desperately to belong, yet most of us are not strangers to being hurt or humiliated because we were different. When I was about ten, a "caring" friend told me that other kids thought I was conceited. It took me many years to let go of that voice, and it certainly kept me from being and doing my best for fear of losing friends if I allowed myself to shine.
* Next, begin to listen to what the voice says.
Make note of the repetitive messages you hear. How does your critic speak to you? What names does it call you? Does it speak to you in a demeaning way, calling you "stupid" or worse? How does it find fault with you? Are there particular issues it tends to pick on?
Notice if there is a particular voice that dominates. Do you constantly hear your mother saying that men don't like smart women, or your father saying that art is for sissies? Sometimes, merely identifying the voice, and understanding that you're now old enough to make your own choices, will dissipate it.
Also, step back and look objectively at what the voice is saying. Is it true? If not, acknowledge what is true. If it is, what action can you take?
Is there a skill you need to acquire? A discipline you need to institute?
Are you setting impossible standards for yourself that need to be more realistic? Whose approval are you looking for? Is it worth sacrificing your creativity to get it? Will you ever really get it anyway?
* How is your critic trying to protect you from pain?
Remember, your critic came into being to prevent you from behaving in a way that would bring you shame or humiliation. It's not likely that you need the same degree of policing you needed as a small child, yet the voice keeps up the tirade. Perhaps it's time to tell the voice to leave you alone and find it a new focus, like pointing out your strengths!
* Once you've begun to recognize the patterns, begin to change them.
As you become more conscious of what the voice is saying, you can "reprogram" it. How would you talk to a child in this situation? If you often tell yourself that you're stupid, find a more caring and encouraging way to address yourself. If you do make a mistake, acknowledge it, but support yourself in doing it better next time rather than berating yourself -- not a great motivator for self-improvement.
If your voice continually points up your weaknesses, look instead for your strengths. Tell the voice that while you may never live up to your sister's artistic abilities, you have a talent all your own that's worthwhile and valuable. That while you couldn't make it into Harvard, you have great people skills that make a difference in many lives or you're a wiz at fixing computers. Or you may need to admit to yourself that you have an extraordinary gift, even thought it might make people jealous.
* Identify the underlying fear.
What's the worst thing that could happen if you didn't listen to your critic? As a child, you might not have had the resources to handle that. As an adult, you do. Or you can develop them. And if you really look at the fears and test them, in many cases, the child's fears are no longer a threat to the adult, or they no longer need to be.
* Talk to your inner critics.
Find out what they have to say about you. In most cases, when you hear how extreme and absurd their criticisms are, it will be easier to dismiss them. Notice how contradictory they are -- they'll find something wrong no matter what you do! On one day, they'll criticize you for not being talented enough. On another, they'll criticize you for looking too good and making others jealous.
Drs. Hal and Sidra Stone have developed a technology called "Voice Dialogue,"* in which they work with clients to interact with numerous inner voices, one of which is the Inner Critic. You can also do this using meditation, journaling or opposite-hand writing, in which you write your questions with your dominant hand and respond to them using the hand you don't usually write with.
* When doing your creative work, keep the critic in its place.
There's a time to create and a time to evaluate. When you're in the midst of the creative process, you don't want this judging presence looking over your shoulder, stopping the flow of creativity. Later, you want to be able to discern what works, what doesn't, what improvements are needed. That's when the judging voice becomes useful.
* Build your self-esteem.
Seek out and remind yourself what's good about you and what you do well. When you do that, you become less vulnerable to outside "attacks." Ironically, the more we give our inner critic free rein, the more outer critics seem to show up around us.
* Become your own authority.
By listening to inner and outer critics, you give them power over you. Whose approval are you always looking to get? What gives their opinions more weight than yours? When you were a child, it could be devastating, a seeming threat to your survival, to lose the approval of parents and teachers. But you're an adult now with a much wider range of choices and capabilities. It might hurt to lose outside approval, but you don't need it to survive.
While you can learn technique and skills, true creativity is unique to you, and you need to follow your own muse. That's how we achieve innovation of expression in the arts. Caroline Myss, in her work, talks about our "tribe." This can be our family, our colleagues, or some other peer group. In order to be part of the group, certain behavior is expected. But in order to individuate, to live your life by your own ideas and values, you need to break away from the tribe, at least for a time. That can be painful, but it can also afford you tremendous freedom.
* Keep things in perspective.
Even if you have an incredible teacher whose judgments you value, don't allow them to diminish your self-trust. Mentoring is great, but not at the expense of your self-esteem and creativity. Your opinion matters, too. Remember, Freud didn't approve of the direction his student Karl Jung took. What a loss it would have been had Jung limited himself in order to please his teacher!
* Be more gentle with yourself.
Instead of listening to your inner critic, give yourself the love and approval you want. True, some of what it says may be true. Do what you can about it, then let it go. Remember how annoying it was when your mother constantly nagged you about standing up straight or being like your cousin?
Why do that to yourself?
The inner critic emerged to help you learn social behavior and avoid pain by curbing your natural instincts. But you need those instincts to create. As an adult, you know when and how you need to control yourself and when you can let loose. You have the maturity to discern that for yourself and no longer need arbitrary rules. There are still many places where you need to control your behavior, but your creativity can be one place where you can safely express yourself without limits -- as long as you keep your inner critic in check.There's one more thing you need to know. The voice of the inner critic is not going to go away. Not completely. And you don't want to force it to go away -- as they say, what you resist persists. But the good news is, you can teach it to speak to you in a more positive, constructive way. Listen to it if you choose, but make your own judgments as the adult you are.