drawing of wicked witch of the west shooting lightning bolts at a painting

Befriending Your Inner Critic

In Creative Energy Journaling, as in any creative activity, there is the possibility of interference from your inner critic. The received wisdom is that inner critics should be silenced. Or banished. Or, at the very least, we should plug up our ears and sing, “La-la-la-la-la . . . ” to drown them out.

I disagree.

My inner critic is invaluable to my creative process. But I did have to teach her some manners!

How about you? Are you and your inner critic allies in the creative process? Are you even on speaking terms?

In this post I hope to persuade you that your inner critic is not the diabolical fiend she’s sometimes made out to be. And that befriending your inner critic can help you go deeper into your creativity and be more comfortable taking creative risks.

But without some management, your inner critic can also discourage you from taking creative risks or stop you from even attempting any creative work at all.

So today, it’s time to meet your inner critic and see if you can begin the process of making him or her your friend and ally.

What sorts of things does your inner critic say to you?

“That’s the stupidest-looking drawing EVER! You have no talent. Why aren’t you doing something useful with your time?”

“Look at that! You made the same dumb mistake again! Why can’t you ever learn?”

“Why are you wasting time on this art stuff? You haven’t done the dishes/laundry/weeding/etc.  Stop being so self-indulgent!”

drawing of wicked witch of the west shooting lightning bolts at a painting
My inner critic cackling and blasting my work!

1. Get to know your inner critic.

Who is the model (or models) for your inner critic?

Let’s be clear. Your “inner critic” is not a separate entity; it’s an aspect of yourself. You are the one saying these things to yourself, but generally you’re mimicking or replaying things that others have said to you.

Whose voice(s) does your inner critic use? A parent? Your third-grade teacher? Your high school peer group? Your killjoy neighbor? Your spouse? Your older sister?

What sort of things does he/she say? Does the person (or people) whose voice your inner critic uses ever actually say these things to you, or are they things you fear that person is thinking, even though they might not say them aloud?

What does your inner critic look like? Draw a cartoon, embellish a photo, make a creative seed that “feels like” your inner critic. Write down some of the things he/she says, or make speech bubbles with one or two of the most troubling things he/she says.

2. Understand your (inner critic’s) motivations.

Ask your inner critic why she says these things.

I don’t mean in a whiny way! Really ask for the underlying reason. When your inner critic speaks, you are speaking to yourself. Why are you saying these things to yourself? What is this aspect of yourself attempting to do?

  • Protect you against embarrassment?
  • Keep you from getting too close to something challenging or scary?
  • Give you an excuse to avoid pushing yourself?
  • Warn you about the potential for disapproval from someone important in your life (spouse, parent, boss, close friend)?
  • Tell you that you are on the wrong track with this work or missing something?

3. Experience your inner critic’s point of view.

Most advice about dealing with your inner critic sounds as if there’s you (the real you) and this other (alien) entity, and takes the perspective of the “real you”. We talk about how it feels and what it does to our creative process to hear these things. We don’t often talk about how it feels to be the one saying these things.

Acknowledging that my inner critic was a part of myself and not some creature outside my control, was what really allowed me to shift how I spoke to myself about my creative work, instead of just griping about it and feeling victimized.

We generally acknowledge that we would not speak to a friend the way we speak to ourselves as our own inner critics. It feels bad to speak to someone we care about this way. Once I got in touch with the part of myself I called my inner critic and understood the real motivation for those nasty things I was saying to myself I was able to learn become the inner critic I wanted to have.

4. Take the mask off your inner critic.

On another part of the page, or perhaps a facing page, draw your inner inner critic—the real part of you behind those nasty or discouraging comments.

Why did I speak in such a nasty way to myself before? Because, in this case, my inner critic was a scared, lonely little kid who was determined not to do anything that might get me (us!) laughed at or ostracized. My creative side was determined to do some things that scared little kid knew were risky. The creative drive was strong enough that the scared little kid had to resort to fighting dirty in order to have an effect.

Cartoon of small child surrounded by laughter, derisive comments and pointing fingers.
My “inner” inner critic. Just a little kid afraid of being laughed at.

This is why I disagree with those who say we should silence or banish our inner critics.  It’s nice to think that I could be brave enough not to care what other people think about my work. But we live in families and communities and we do care what people think. My inner critic has a valid point!

I don’t think the right response is to plug up my ears and sing “La-la-la-la-la!”

5. Have a conversation with your inner critic.

See if you can find a solution that addresses the needs of your inner critic and still allows to you have complete creative freedom in some places and at some times.

My inner critic helped me realize that when I shared my work in progress with certain people their comments influenced me too much, even if they said well-meaning things. In the end, I would wind up making a piece that didn’t really express what I intended and I’d be unhappy with it.  My wise inner critic convinced me to make a rule not to show work in progress with people who couldn’t keep their mouths shut!

Ideas for a conversation between two aspects of self

  • Use one hand for one voice and the other hand for the other voice.
  • Choose a different color for each voice.
  • Put two chairs across from each other and switch seats when you switch voices.
  • Write letters or emails back and forth, allowing your”selves” some time to reflect on each other’s comments, questions and proposals.
  • If you feel you are stuck in a rut with a verbal conversation, consider a crayon conversation instead. As you may have noticed, sometimes the emotional content comes through more clearly when the conversation is carried out in color and line and shape instead of words.

I have a deal with my inner critic. She talks nicely to me, and I actually listen and address her concerns so she doesn’t have to resort to nastiness to get my attention.

My adult self still feels the fear of being laughed at or ostracized.  My inner critic has learned to be okay with taking creative risks in my studio and in my journal, because she knows she’ll have a say in who gets to see them later.

My inner critic led me to set clear boundaries about who I would allow into my studio, who could see work in progress, and to create private spaces (like my journal) where I could unleash my creativity without being distracted by concerns about what others might think.

This isn’t the only concern my inner critic has, of course. She also bops me on the head when I’m not digging deep enough and really pushing myself to be creative.

She raises concerns about specific people’s reactions to particular works. And then we have to negotiate about how we will deal with that.

Since I make art for a living, she has the perfectly appropriate role of helping me decide when an artwork really isn’t up to my technical standards or, even more importantly, when it’s a perfectly acceptable artwork that doesn’t express what I wanted to express.

Because she knows I’m going to listen to her concerns, she doesn’t have to resort to telling me I’m stupid or untalented.  She can just say, “You know, somebody might really like that piece, but it’s not what we were after, so let’s give it another shot.”

Even if you don’t make art for a living, or maybe don’t even consider what you are doing “making art” at all, you will probably have occasions when you are dissatisfied with what you’ve done. It’s comforting to be able to know when that dissatisfaction is a result of not having found the right way to express your idea or feeling, and not a matter of inability or lack of talent.

So, make a friend and ally of your inner critic! Listen to his/her concerns and make adjustments to address them. Negotiate kind language in exchange for paying attention and taking action when the concern is valid.

Listening to the real meaning of what your inner critic has to say can help you find ways to free yourself from fears and do your best, most expressive, most intutitive, most illuminating work, in and out of your journal.





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