Does your inner critic launch an attack on you every time you get close to finishing, or sharing, your creative work?
“Ugh, seriously? You are such an idiot. Who would ever want to read such garbage! Now, sit down and shut up, before someone notices you.”
That’s the loop that plays on endless repeat, like an awful commercial jingle, for so many creatives.
Day in and day out, their brains pace up and down the same well-worn grooves of painful self-recrimination, ancient doubts, and repressive fears.
Even when creatives manage, against overwhelming resistance, to overcome those feelings and finish the scary thing they’re attempting, (Write a book! Make a film! Offer a course!) the inner critic’s yammering never stops.
Those patterns are still there, and they still have the power to slow them down, to stop them, and to cause pain.
It’s natural to want to “silence your inner critic.” I googled it, and can confirm: people want to “overcome,” “conquer,” “master,” “dethrone” (love that one!), and “tame” their inner critic.
No one’s looking to “befriend,” “understand,” “empathize with,” or “comfort” that nasty voice.
Yet, that’s exactly what you need to do in order to turn down the volume on all that criticism.
I never would have thought this when I started out.
But, when I became aware of the work of Nicole Lewis-Keeber, my ears pricked up.
Nicole is a former clinical therapist who now works with business owners to unpack their relationships with their work and help them “Do No Harm” (the name of her coaching program) to themselves or others.
I invited Nicole to speak to our community, the Autonomous Creative Collective, about emotional sustainability plans and the importance of boundaries in our work, and she graciously agreed.
Pretty quickly, our conversation turned to the topic of the inner critic.
What is the inner critic?
Here’s what it looks like on the outside:
The inner critic is the voice that pops up when you’re drafting, revising, or even just sitting down and trying to get started for the day.
It can look like a list of shoulds that gets thrown at you as soon as you set your cup of coffee down on your work desk.
Here are a few from our friend Susan Olding:
I should be writing every day.
I should be writing a LOT every day.
I should be writing less but better — perfect little nuggets of deathless prose.
I should find a way to persuade my family to move to a really cheap apartment so I don’t have to do as much paid work to keep us afloat. Even if that would totally suck for them.
I should refuse all social engagements until I am finished my big project.
I should volunteer my time to good causes, esp. those that are arts related.
I should not volunteer my time to anything.
I should focus on only one project at a time.
I should not fritter my time on social media.
I should get up really early to write.
I should write really late at night.
I should read more.
I should just stop trying to make art at all because who do I think I am, anyway?
The Creative Focus Workshop is our program where students learn to take control of their focus and get their most passion-driven creative work off the back burner and finished. One of the most eye-opening exercises we do is called “The Should Monster.”
In it, students pay close attention to the litany of abuse their inner critic hurls at them to try to force behavior change. (Never works, BTW.)
Then they create a depiction of their personal Should Monster.
How this “monster” appears is different for everyone. Sometimes it’s a literal many-headed monster. Sometimes it’s a more perfect version of yourself. Sometimes—and this is a spoiler alert, by the way—it looks like your third grade teacher, or your mother.
Slaying the Should Monster is not the goal
Nicole Lewis-Keeber offered a crucial reframe for where this is all coming from: traumatic experiences from our childhoods. And not just “big-T” trauma, like obvious cases of abuse, or terrible personal loss, but also “small-t” trauma, like being repeatedly belittled, ignored, or told that we’re not good enough in some (or many) dimensions, particularly by a parent or teacher. “And over time, those critical people in our lives, their voice gets attached to our inner critic,” Nicole said.
While you’re struggling to try and silence your inner critic, what it’s trying to do is to warn you. To get you to stop whatever “risky” thing you’re attempting that will lay you bare to the kind of criticism and pain you experienced as a child.
Your inner critic is trying—in its scary, painful, ineffective way—to take care of you.
Here’s what Nicole had to say:
I think about the inner critic differently than a lot of people do.
I think the inner critic is very much wired, connected to our nervous system, in that our nervous system is set up for survival.
A lot of people will say, you need to kill it. You need to slay it. You need to bury it, fire it, whatever that is. And I’ve been there too. When I first got into the mindset world, I literally wrote an ebook called Fire Your Inner Critic. This is a journey I’m involved in, too.
What I understand to be true is that the inner critic can be a partner when you’re getting triggered and activated.
If we’re just trying to shut the thing down, then we’re spending all our energy in battle with it, as opposed to stopping and saying, oh, that’s interesting. You’re here again. What’s going on?
I don’t think that we should “exile” our inner critic.
I think that there’s information there for us. There’s usually some younger version of ourselves that has been wounded in some way that needs some attention when that critic comes up.
I think our inner critic is the protector of those younger versions of ourselves.
So if I want to give a talk and get on a stage, which I have done with lots of people, my inner critic will start to say, who do you think you are? It’s not safe. You’re not wearing the right outfit. you’re using notes. They’re going to make fun of you.
And if I take a moment and say, I hear you, what is it that you need?
Usually what happens is there’s a younger version of me that is really unhappy with the fact that I’m about to stand up in front of 300 people and give a talk because that younger version of me still thinks that I’m dumb, I’m lazy, I have nothing to say and that people are going to be mean to me.
That critic is there to try and stop it.
Your inner critic is a trauma response
It’s a part of you that’s been burned before, and it’s trying to protect you (albeit in the most hamfisted way possible).
I’ve written before about taking a step back and finding a way to be more empathetic and compassionate with yourself when you’re overwhelmed and blowing deadlines. Self-compassion is maybe THE key to being able to finish big, wonderful, risky creative endeavors. And it’s that same well of self-forgiveness you need to dip into when this wounded part of you surfaces.
When students share their depictions of their Should Monsters and what sort of “inner critic garbage” it berates them with, let me tell you, they sound exhausted.
Not just the students, but the inner critics, too.
We are tired of hearing about how we should be writing our tenth book already, and we are tired of spending all of our energy trying to silence our inner critic and just shut it down.
And our inner critics are tired of screaming for our attention.
They truly think they’re acting in our best interests, and they’re just as exhausted, frustrated, scared, and angry as we are.
In order to break the cycle of anxiety and procrastination that results in diminished confidence and self-efficacy, we need to listen to our inner critic.
Instead of shunning your inner critic, you need to tune in to it.
I’m not trying to say that your Should Monster is right about the loom that’s been sitting in the corner of your studio for 3 years (“Please for the love of god put this thing back in the garbage where you found it, you’re never going to weave a traditional Caucasian mini-rug. Really.”)— but that monster is sitting on a ton of information that you need so that you can take care of yourself and heal.
So how can we approach this thorny part of ourselves?
1. Identify your inner critic—draw your Should Monster!
Try to identify how old it seems to be, whether it’s tied to someone you know from your past, like an ex-partner or a parent. What does it look like?
Take some time to figure out when it usually shows up. Does it fire up its engines when you make a little mistake? Maybe it’s when you’re halfway into a new project and all of a sudden there are a ton of unknowns.
This is the emotional underbelly, and it’s going to be tough, but you need to get clear on this so that you’re prepared to talk to it when it slips through the crack in the door.
Yes, talk to it.
2. Ask your inner critic some questions.
The inner critic is almost like a parentified child. It had to grow up way too soon to protect you from the thorny barbs of reality, but all it’s managed to develop are maladaptive coping mechanisms.
When it speaks up, say, “I hear you, what do you need?”
Show your inner critic some empathy. Ask your inner critic what it’s trying to tell you. What is it afraid of when it tries to stop you from doing The Thing? Or when it starts telling you about all of the things you should have done by now or should be doing?
You don’t have to follow its directions. You can acknowledge the answers it gives you, and learn from them. When you access your inner critic and give it space and self-compassion, it will be more likely to ease up on you.
When we slow down, ask questions, and take a breath; when we stop and don’t try to overwhelm and undermine that voice, we’re likely to find a little bit of wisdom about something that needs to be healed.
Then you can care for that part of yourself and start to move on.
3. Learn to respond to your inner critic.
This is a really personal process, and it’s going to take time, but you don’t want to live your life in either reaction mode, constantly trying to fight or silence your inner critic, or total stasis.
You now have a more concrete idea of who this critical self is, which means you have a real place to direct your self-compassion. Respond to it with warmth rather than reflecting the negativity back at it or retreating into yourself.
The next time you feel the physical signs that this part of you is trying to tell you it’s afraid—tightness in the chest, the first flutters of anxiety, increased heart rate, or just the heavy dread of knowing that the verbal abuse is about to start again—tap into it. Resist the urge to try and silence your inner critic.
Relate to that part of you and acknowledge the fears. Over time, it will become easier to calm yourself down.
Compassion towards your inner critic will allow you to make decisions for yourself based on your goals, and not your fears.
This takes a lot of practice! Switching from trying to fight and beat and silence your inner critic to listening with empathy and validation is tough.
Think of it this way. Your inner critic is tough. It’s strong. And you’re recruiting that demanding voice to add it to your team.
The self-knowledge and compassion you learn from this process will be a game-changer when it comes to being able to step out into the world confident and sure of yourself, and ready to embrace the vulnerability that is essential to creating—and sharing—the best, most brilliant creative work you have bubbling up inside you.