06 Oct 2014

Gagging The Inner Critic

The Inner Critic is a nasty, picky, vindictive bully.  It’s that voice of criticism and disapproval in your head that slows you down or paralyses you when you’re thinking about doing something new and risky.  It’s such a recognised and major part of people’s psyches – especially those of creative people – that there are numerous articles and books about it, and you can go on courses to help you manage it.  It even has its own Wikipedia page!

I recognised my Inner Critic at the beginning of the year, when it got so loud that I thought it’d got its hands on a megaphone or invited some friends round to join in!  The constant stream of negative criticism became almost deafening.  It told me that my writing was superficial and boring, my plot unexciting, the characters two-dimensional, my prospects of getting published minimal, the likelihood of criticism guaranteed, etc. etc. etc.

Inner critic post-it

I wanted to stop writing.  I LOVE writing, but I wanted this horrible bullying to stop and giving up writing seemed the only way it would happen.  I felt like I was cowering wreck in a corner, waiting, wishing for it to go away.  I can hardly believe it myself now, but it really did get that bad.

Everyone’s Inner Critic is personal to them – how it manifests, its intensity and frequency.  Sometimes the “voice” can be that of a former bully or other negative influence in your life, e.g. parent, teacher, coach.  Your Inner Critic knows what will best cause you to falter, stop you in your tracks and make you give up (or never even start).

“Instead of spending our lives running towards our dreams, we are often running away from a fear of failure or a fear of criticism.”  Eric Wright

Are you going to let your Inner Critic make you run away from your dreams or are they important enough to keep pressing on with and fighting for?

“Life is either daring adventure or nothing.”  Helen Keller

How can you silence, or at least muffle, the Inner Critic?  As what they’re doing is tantamount to bullying, my advice would be similar to that for tackling bullying in general:

1. Recognise it as bullying.  It has no legitimacy and no power except for that which you allow it.  

2. Realise you’re far from the only person this happens to.  It’s too easy to think that no one else has these struggles or doubts or battles.  Everyone does (if they say they don’t then they’re probably obtuse, arrogant or deluded!).

3. Talk to someone.  Choose that person very carefully though – you don’t want to add an Outer Critic to the Inner Critic!  Share the thoughts you’re struggling with.  Sometimes just vocalising them is enough for you to see immediately how ridiculous they are. 

4. Ignore it.  In the same way you’d walk away (or try to) from someone who was bullying you verbally or physically, actively refuse to acknowledge or listen to the Inner Critic’s jibes.  This can be difficult and will need to be done many many times, but it’s a good habit to learn.

Or more importantly:

5. Harness their help.  Being self-critical can also be a huge benefit.  But there’s a world of difference between thinking “I’m a crap writer” and “I need to work on showing rather than telling.”  One condemns and demoralises, the other challenges and focuses.

It’s very useful to get external feedback for your work, but if you can polish and correct it as much as possible before it gets to those critics then you’ll save everyone time and trouble.  Let your Inner Critic have their turn, at the right time, pointing out what’s wrong with your work, then shut down their negative voice again.  Look at the areas they’ve highlighted and work out why they’re wrong.  Then work on improving them.

This is where I was at a couple of weeks ago.  I shut down my Inner Critic completely during the 2-3 months I’ve been writing the restructure of CAF (which was essential because first drafts are always shitty so there’s no additional need to be reminded of that fact).  However, they woke up again as I read through the whole manuscript and took great delight in telling me what was wrong with it.  I let them have their say for a few days and then gagged them again before I slid at full speed into the pit of depression I was heading for.  Now I’m taking positive action (aka the editing process), correcting and improving the areas they pointed out.  

Inner critic reply post-it

Ultimately if you learn when your Inner Critic can be trusted and when they should be ignored, you may find yourself in a beneficial partnership!

“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”  Vincent van Gogh

A key reason my writing journey started was because I didn’t want to be lying on my deathbed (!) wondering “what would have happened if I’d tried to write that story?”  I knew that I’d rather try and find out it was unsuccessful, than have that unanswered question hanging over me.

The only real failure is not trying.





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mart. says:

Nice article, tagged and logged for future reference.

Mel Green says:

Thanks Martin!  Hope your writing is going well 🙂

Norah says:

Guilty as charged although it helps to know that every writer is or was the same. We're our own worst enemies. I too had the deathbed conversation in my head 🙂 I'm a pretty late starter (53 now) but Catherine Cookson was 49 when she published her first of so many books and lots of others who I can't remember right now. We regret the things we haven't done much more than the things we have. Thanks for this Mel – I like your style of writing. 

Mel Green says:

Thanks Norah!  I agree that it is always good to realise that a lot of us face the same issues.  My revelation moment came when I read a magazine interview with Harlan Coben (who's had lots of books published) and he said that in the same 15 minutes he can go from thinking his MS is the worst piece of rubbish ever written and the most amazing!  I figured that if he felt like that then it was to be expected if I did too.  And it's never to late to start or change course – go for it 🙂

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