The inner critic is a lifelong and complex part of us – it’s in our psyche, and it’s a hard-line character. It forces, cajoles, pressurises, remonstrates, taunts and argues with us. It can snarl and snap and bite. Yet it can also pat us on the back, give praise and say ‘well done, you’, for a good deed or a job well done. It’s function seems to me to be about making us adhere to sets of rules and values we’ve either adopted from society or devised for ourselves along the way, what we think we need or should do. Ultimately it seeks approval, both from ourselves and others, and acceptance by the crowd or society – you could say it keeps us right. But in what way? And for whose benefit?
And where does it come from?
It’s probably first formed in childhood, to make us behave, to follow the rules so we don’t get into trouble when our parents aren’t around. It curbs the fun-loving and the naughty child in us to keep us on the straight and narrow. It minds its P’s and Q’s. It listens to parental and societal authority, school imperatives, and makes you a good girl or a good boy. It gives you pats on the head from those who know best. And I got plenty of those because I was one of those annoying good girls. Work hard and you’ll reap the rewards (yes, sure!). It’s fiercely logical, reasoning, rational. It rules the head, not the heart…and this is where I have found things can get complicated, if not downright nasty.
What about when you grow up?
My own experience of tussling with the inner critic started around when I was 19. I had dropped out of a degree science course because my heart told me, ‘What are you doing? You hate this. School was wrong about you ‘choosing’ to going into science. Get out of here!’ When I followed my heart for what was probably the very first time in my life, my critic lambasted me. ‘Look what you’ve done! You’ve ruined your life!’ (You can read the poem I wrote about this on my ‘Writing’ page).
My life in tatters, I toddled off to careers guidance, where I let the authoritarian and patriarchal male there put me off the idea of pursuing art. I went on listening to my head’s inner critic and got science lab jobs, working hard to suppress my creative side, which was silently screaming – let me be me. Why did I do this? Because it was more logical for me to stick with science somehow, than start all over again with art. Now, looking back, my inner critic was simply too forceful and for a time made me my own worst enemy.
It returned with a vengeance when I finished my writing courses. According to the rules of the game, I should and was collecting information on literary magazines to submit stories to, in order to build a writers CV – for that justification and approval by the powers that be – just like school all over again ( and once was enough, thank you). I collected masses of information, suffered from information overload, submitted stories to some competitions, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do what I was supposed to do at all. This time I was older and I resented the pattern of being a good girl and doing what I was told. I railed against the inner voice telling me I simply must, must, must get a story into a well-respected magazine. When I realised what I was doing to myself, head waging war on my heart over my newly discovered love of writing, I was shocked and called a halt to the suffering. Thankfully, I then immersed myself in writing a novel and continued for the most part not to send stories off – saying to myself, not for me at this time, I’m sick of seeking approval in my life, and I don’t want to need to do this anymore.
So, the point seems to be, when you grow up, you contribute more personally to your own inner critic, for good or ill. And you still inevitably have to observe the following of some rules, because if you don’t, you simply won’t get to where you want to be.
But watch out for the inner critic with regard to writing, because it can…
Beat you over the head too much when you don’t sit down to write and make you feel lousy about yourself. It can burden you with self doubt.
Make you too critical of your own work and edit far too much in the early stages, thus interrupting the flow.
It can suppress the creative spirit, by interjecting with criticism just at the wrong moments.
It can make you compare yourself to others and come off worse. ‘Their writing is great, mine is crap’.
But there are benefits…
It can make you sit down and write. It motivates you, it can make you disciplined and committed.
It can help you with mind aspects like structure, chapter shaping, turning points, character development, continuity of the small tiny details, research – it can help you learn the discipline of the craft.
It can make you see things through, finish the story or the novel.
It can turn you into a skilful editor, making you forensically objective.
It can help you polish your work up to be as good as it can be.
It can help you dispassionately submit your story or novel, and if rejected, take it on the chin as part of the game and if others can deal with rejection well, then so can you.
When the your inner critic dovetails with the creative you, and respects and appreciates this essential input, it’s like a good marriage – each appreciating the other, working together and allowing each other to grow, so that you never end up like that married couple you frequently see sitting in a cafe, having nothing to say to one another with a silence so thick between them that you could cut it with a knife.
The critic needs the creative you, because what can a critic do without any work to criticise?
So you do need your inner critic – the key is learning to manage it and make it your friend
I’ve found to do this, you have to understand what its objectives are, and ask yourself why is your inner critic saying this particular thing? And where in you does it come from? Where in the past, or where in the present? What is its agenda? Have a dialogue with it to see if you are going to take notice, to see if it has a point, or not as the case may be. Engage with it to understand. Then you are in a better position to agree or disagree and be fine about it.
So, if mine says you still haven’t tried to get published in a literary magazine, I say, yes, I know, I don’t want to go down that road. I don’t want or need to seek this particular type of approval. And I look at why it keeps cropping up, and I know it comes from the past, from having always believed that you must do what you’re told by ‘expert’s in their field. And that simply doesn’t apply to me any longer, because I’ve changed. So you can turn it around, and ask that the critic takes on this new information, and makes sure that you don’t subscribe to this action anymore. (‘You’ll stop me, won’t you? Answer –‘yes, alright’)
In other words, you carry on sculpting and developing your inner critic, as you grow yourself. You change what isn’t working for you and you make it work for your own benefit, as you are right now.
And right now, I’m going for a walk, instead of going to my writing desk, and after some discussion with my inner critic – its response is – ‘oh, alright, you could do with the exercise’ ;>) (And yes, it often does try to get the last word in, just try and make it want you want or need to hear.)
How’s your inner critic doing?