“Our ‘inside critics’ have intimate knowledge of us and can zero in on our weakest spots.” ~SARK
We live in a world that often glorifies the power of positive thinking and affirmations.
Don’t get me wrong, affirmations can be a powerful tool to help us acknowledge our self-worth. We need to learn to look for the positive and to be grateful for all the beautiful things in our lives if we want to be happy. Befriending your inner critic may seem to be in contradiction to these goals.
A couple of years ago I began to pursue the creative life I had always dreamed about. I wanted to be happy and change the circumstances that weren’t bringing me joy. I had always wanted to be a writer, but I struggled with blocks on every level. Every book and blog I read seemed to agree that I needed to practice gratitude. They offered affirmations to help me get unstuck. But it didn’t seem to work.
I struggled to be grateful. I couldn’t bring myself to believe the things I wanted to affirm in my life. My inner critic had long been in control of my thought patterns; trying to ignore the negativity seemed only to make it louder and more insistent.
My inner critic is, at times, a little kid who will do anything to get the attention it craves. Sometimes it is a bitter old woman, muttering to herself in the corner about all the ways life has wronged her. Until I began to pay attention, I had no idea just how constant this background noise was in my brain.
And it turns out I couldn’t learn to be a happier, more positive person without learning how to talk to my inner critic first. She was whispering in my ear all the time, trying to hold me back. I had to learn to listen to her fears and start to talk back and challenge what she said.
The more adept I got at the process of befriending my inner critic, the more gratitude started to come naturally. It had been there all along but had been drowned out by all the negative noise I had been doing my best to ignore.
Who or What is Your Inner Critic?
Scientists tell us that we have a negativity bias. We are hardwired to anticipate danger and take action to avoid it.
In the days when big brown bears were out to eat us for lunch, this was a useful adaptation. But when it comes to writing or any other creative pursuit, we are rarely in mortal danger.
No one will die if I take the risk to write about the things in my heart. But my inner critic is aligned with my negativity bias and will do her best to tell me all the dangers that await me when I step out of my comfort zone and open myself to the creative possibilities of my life.
Within my body the dangers can feel the same; it can feel as if I might die every time someone points out a missed comma. My inner critic is something of a drama queen, blowing everything out of proportion. The fear of criticism, the fear of judgment for every misspelled word, and the fear of rejection when I put myself out there all feel like they could be the end of the world.
Your inner critic may also sound a lot like a hyper-critical parent or sibling or friend. Someone who let their own fears have too much power and tried to project them onto you. But it’s not helpful to blame others, or yourself, for negative thinking. Treating your inner critic with compassion and understanding does not mean you have to believe what she says.
Once I knew this, I could see that my inner critic meant well but was misguided in her approach. She was trying to do her best for me, not wanting me to get hurt or disappointed if life failed to live up to my dreams. But I didn’t have to give her any power over whether or not I pursued my writing.
Before I understood who my inner critic was and how to respond to her, the dialogue in my head went something like this:
Me: “My writing is important, even if only to me.”
Inner critic: “No, it isn’t. Who are you to create anything? Stop wasting your time. You don’t have what it takes.”
And before I even get to be grateful to have the time and resources to be a writer, I’ve been stopped in my tracks. I may as well go check out cat videos on YouTube and distract myself back to feeling okay. What’s the point in wasting my time on this writing thing?
And I was blocked and unable to move forward.
What is it that you want to pursue in this life? How is your inner critic holding you back?
What to Do About Your Inner Critic?
In her book The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron calls these critical thoughts “blurts.” They seem to come from nowhere and blurt out. I am calling the voice of my thoughts my inner critic; I find it helpful to personify the critical voices in my mind. Others use the phrase inner tribunal, or even your inner mean girl.
In The Artist’s Way Cameron suggests that you make a list of all your blurts. First, find an affirmation about who you want to be, e.g.: “I am a creative being who has the power to create the life of her dreams.” Then write down all the negative things your inner critic throws at you when you think about the creative work you long to do.
We often think giving too much attention to our negative thoughts amplifies them. But our aim is not to dwell on those things. And trying to push them to the back of your mind rarely makes them go away. Knowing what your inner critic is telling you gives you the power to turn those thoughts around.
So once you have a list of all the things your inner critic is telling you, the next thing you need to do is gently approach each thought and ask if it is true.
Maybe it could go something like this:
Me: “I have the power to create the life of my dreams.”
Inner critic: “But you never finish anything, and you’re disorganized, and you just don’t have the talent.”
Me: “Thanks for the positive feedback. But yeah, I mean you may have a point, I’m always starting new things and….WAIT! That’s not right. I finish the important stuff. I finish the things that matter to me; not every idea I have is worth pursuing. And I’m organized enough. I can learn to be more organized if I need to, but I achieved x,y,z and …”
Inner critic: “You’re wasting your time trying to write.”
Me: “Am I? Watching cat videos on Facebook, that is wasting time. Although cats are cute. But trying to write? That’s growing, learning, and doing the thing I keep saying I want to do. How is that wasting time?”
You get the picture. You can talk back to your inner critic. You don’t have to believe anything it says. Your power comes through questioning every negative thought and asking if it’s true. Once you know it isn’t true you can start moving forward with your plans.
My inner critic is a needy child who wants attention. But I no longer believe what she says, and I don’t let her negativity control what I do and don’t do with my time.
Stop Fighting Your Demons and Make Peace with Yourself
We are often told to fight our demons, or slay the dragon of our negativity and break up with our inner critic. I no longer find this way of thinking helpful, for two reasons:
1. It puts us to war against ourselves.
2. It doesn’t work. My inner critic is amazingly tenacious!
I have found it more helpful to befriend my inner critic. She really is just doing her best and trying to save me from me. The problem is she has no idea how to do this. I am learning to treat her like we all want to be treated—with kindness, understanding, and curiosity.
She is free to believe whatever she wants even though it doesn’t make her happy. I’m listening but not letting her define the way I think anymore. Maybe she needs reassuring that everything is going to be okay. She lives in the most primitive part of our brains, the lizard brain that has no reason or logic, just fear.
Her fears are just that, fears. What’s the worst that can happen? You work on your dreams, and it doesn’t work out. That’s going to hurt, but no one will die. You’ll be fine, and you will get over the disappointment. Besides, you’ve faced setbacks before and come out of them stronger.
Which would bring you more regret? To have let your inner critic have the upper hand and never have tried? Or to have tried and failed and tried again?