For those of us with a loud and persistent inner critic it is easy to get used to the constant commentary, meaning that we are either resigned to it as a truth or we have adjusted our lives in such a way to normalise it or drown it out.
Our inner critic can be described as the voice or stream of thoughts that intrusively and sometimes continuously offers criticism. It sounds like too much, too loud, too negative, too ugly, too dumb, too fat, too skinny, too lazy, too inexperienced, too fake, too late. I am sure you recognise it. Inner critics love to preface things with “too”, just to drive home that the trait is too much and therefore negative.Other common versions of the voice are “you can’t” or “you are” It is very easy to feel that this voice or stream of thoughts offers us the truth. In actual fact your inner critic is often a blend of persistent and unaddressed fear or insecurity, vulnerability and cultural conditioning as well as habit. Depending on the volume and origin of your inner critic, mastering it can be a long-term practice. While it might confront you to think it is here to stay, with a bit of work, a whole lot of compassion and some creativity you can loosen the grip it has on you and your wellbeing.
Our inner critics aren’t always active and the times that they are will usually be relative to when we feel vulnerable such as when we are making art or trying something new. Vulnerability as described by Brene Brown is “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure”.
For those of us with a loud and persistent inner critic it is easy to get used to the constant commentary, meaning that we are either resigned to it as a truth or we have adjusted our lives in such a way to normalise it or drown it out. Many of the ways we seek to drown out that inner voice and its accompanying feelings is to keep super busy, to focus excessively on other people, to be constantly digesting information and staying hooked up to media and technology and in some cases when people really struggle they employ drugs, alcohol or other forms of addiction to try and alleviate the emotional pressure.
There is a lot of power in a voice. But understanding the power of our inner voice means understanding our emotions. If you heard that the sky is green you wouldn’t take it seriously. Yet we often take our inner critics seriously. One of the reasons why is because it provokes or is coupled with feelings. Why does “not good enough” hurt so much? Because it involves disappointment, shame, frustration and loss. All these feelings can be unpleasant and are warning emotions. Warning emotions are those that biologically and historically have told us something is wrong. Social acceptance and emotional stability have at times throughout history been essential for our survival. No one wants to be cast out whilst living in a remote tribe. It may seem like a digression but the biological, cultural and social conditioning of our emotions shape a big part of our reaction to them. You can read more about emotions and survival through Psychology today articles like this one here.
Because inner critics are especially coupled with the feeling of vulnerability I often see them become dominant during art marking. Art making requires us to take small steps outside our comfort zone and for some this can feel like quite the risk. The act of making something physical that is personally expressive can feel exposing. For a lot of people their inner critic pops up before they even start art making. If your mind tells you: your art making will be bad, ugly or messy or convinces you others will laugh, dislike or disapprove of it then you can say hi to your inner critic. For many people in a western culture they were told or learnt from an education system that art was measurable, it could be graded as either good or bad and that the more people who appreciate your art the better. If you got poor grades for art making or didn’t have positive reinforcement and focus on the process rather than the product then you can be left with feelings of inadequacy. In instances where your art was ridiculed art making can be associated with a sense of shame. These sort of experiences compound the belief that we should only pursue what we are “good at” or is valued by others. As an art therapist I am such a strong believer that art is inherently cathartic, much like writing it can be a tool for self-expression and reflection and can be made for a variety of purposes and certainly isn’t always made to be exhibited.
It is one of the saddest cultural side effects when art isn’t made or celebrated on an individual level because of low self-worth, fear of judgement (and actual judgement) and because it has been cordoned off as something you must be talented or qualified to do. Granted art isn’t something everyone aspires to do or finds joy and interest in, but unfortunately so many I meet have a momentary spark of attraction to picking up a brush, pencil or art material before they usher back to their inner critic who tells them it’s not meant for you, you will fail.
Mastering your inner critic and learning to override it, is possible and can free up a whole host of creative exploration. And before your inner critic scolds you for being inadequate at managing it, remember that it is a trait nearly everyone deals with. Why? Well (really quickly) it is believed that the inner critic is the bell ringer at a watcher tower in our brain, it is on the look out to keep us safe and sound and ring the alarm bell when something looks a bit awry. Remember a few paragraphs ago when i was talking social survival? Through association and over-activity the inner critic learns what is comfortable, uncomfortable and dangerous. It’s pretty natural that many of us don’t know how to deal with and process difficult emotions such as vulnerability so they trigger the alarm almost instantly. Not unusually warnings need to be critical, urgent and catastrophizing, otherwise we wouldn’t really listen or act would we, hence why your inner critic can be so persistent and loud. However in this instance, there is no actual crisis and the tactic of being critical and demoralising is not overly helpful.
So first i am going to give you four of my top tips for beginning to understand your inner critic and then i will follow with my favourite art activities that may help you on the journey to master your inner critic creatively.
By developing an understanding of vulnerability you begin to uncover some of your emotional trends and habits which in turn allows you to moderate your inner critic. Seeing your inner critic as a by-product of unaddressed emotions and vulnerability will reduce the weight of truth you give it. My favourite author and speaker on vulnerability is world renowned Brene Brown. She is a sassy storyteller and it is well worth reading one of her books or watching a talk. You can find her Tedtalk on vulnerability here.
Kill it with Kindness
I should probably say quieten it with kindness rather than kill it. Not dissimilar to your indoor plants but with a much more welcomed outcome your inner critic will shrink the kinder your reaction. Rather than taking your critical and demeaning thoughts and perceptions on, take a small step away from them, appreciate your brain’s gesture and ascertain if it’s useful. A lot of the time it won’t be. Then treat yourself or your thoughts the way you would treat a friend saying the same thing. Remind yourself of your value, that learning requires mistakes, that failure and risk are integral to life and that perfection is over-rated and a matter of perception. It might feel cheesy or ineffective to begin with but with practise it can work.
Sometimes the most comforting thing during a struggle is being reminded that it is a shared experience. You are in no way crazy. Talk to friends about their self-doubt and inner critic or if you’re not comfortable you can hop on the internet. There are numerous celebrities and high profile individuals that speak about their own battle with their inner critic from JK Rowling to Emma Watson to historic artists like Da Vinci and Van Gogh.
Debate the Truth
Getting into gridlock with yourself is unlikely to be helpful, but there are other ways to debate the truth. Rather than focusing on facts and fiction, dig a little deeper and focus on opinion. Drawing down your inner-critic as one opinion from one part of your brain can zap some of its power. You may want to try exploring if you have alternative opinions too. Your heart, inner critic and ego may all have different perceptions!
The following are five creative activities that can be used to get to know your inner critic, create some much needed distance, treat yourself kinder and clear the way for some art making!
Draw it as a portrait
I first did this activity 7 years ago when my inner critic was telling me i couldn’t get on a plane. It pulled out all the stops from telling me i wouldn’t cope to assuring me i would die (thanks brain!). The effect of having a visual for my inner voice was more profound than I anticipated. It creates much needed distance so you can then ask yourself some of the big questions about the usefulness and accuracy of what it is telling you. If you read my newsletters you will be familiar with this one already. Pull out some pens, pencils, crayons and paper. Close your eyes and picture what your inner critic might look like, are they human, a monster, an animal or hybrid. Mine is a wooly blue creature. Some people feel compelled to portrait their inner critic as a popular culture icon (i knew someone who saw theirs as professor Snape from Harry Potter for example). Whatever works for you, depict them on paper, it might take you a few versions to nut them out.
Write a letter
Also in my newsletter, this activity helps you on the “quieten it with kindness journey”. The activity is simple; write your inner critic a love letter. Acknowledge what it tells you but fill the letter with love and appreciation for your continued courage and your strengths. Articulate what you love about yourself and what your difficulties and life experiences have taught you. Show forgiveness for the times that you made mistakes. Complete your letter on nice paper or decorate it. When your inner critic gets loud, take out your letter and re-read it. Some people with persistent inner critic’s find writing regular letters to themselves useful.
Create a letterbox
Grab a cardboard box and some magazines, paints or stickers and get decorating. You can use a recycled box such as a tissue box or buy something from a craft store. Cover your letterbox in an aesthetic that suits you, it might be decoupaged magazine images or a bright colour. Place somewhere it can be seen with a post-it note pad and pen next to it. Each time you feel your inner critic getting too loud, write yourself a note of encouragement and pop it in your letterbox.
Sometimes healthy occupation and distraction can be a good way to divert self-doubt and inner critics. Find a warm up activity you can do before art making that will get you in a zone. My favourites include scribbling until i run out of scribbles, painting patterns to music or finding a collage/magazine image that represents your mood. You might also like to try colouring in, watercolour or ink bleeds or finding yourself an inspirational quote.
Vent it out
If you find writing is a release, then this activity could be for you. Described by Julia Cameron as “Morning Pages” the idea is simple. Write all the thoughts that come through your head until they run out. For most people this will take a couple of pages. Don’t edit what is written at all, let it all vent out, no matter how nonsensical. If you can’t bear to keep the product bury it in your compost, burn it in your wood fire or shred it to the recycle. This will add to the sense of release and make room for creativity. Your inner critic should quieten down now it has felt heard.
Do you have any other activities you successfully use to reign in your inner critic? I would love to hear them if so. Please comment below. If your interested you can also sign-up to my newsletter through the website pop up or here (at the bottom of my about page).