The Harsh Inner Critic: 6 Things You Can Do

When sitting down to write a song or a blog post, play an instrument, or do any other creative work, the inner narration begins. Should I be wasting my time like this, and don’t I have some “real” work to do? In moments of heightened expectation, such as performing on stage, the messaging can become harsh and assaultive, my worthiness suddenly on the table. “Who do you think you are?” this voice says with a sneer. It knows my buttons and pushes them. Fight/flight/freeze may kick in, causing my throat to tighten, breathing to go high and shallow. I may find myself foraging for carbohydrates.

This is the inner critic: the often relentlessly negative interior voice that can drain the joy and the life force from your creative work. The discomfort it engenders can be severe, causing some to give up their art in despair.

Because it sounds like the truth.

Sigmund Freud identified this part of us that believes in standards and rules, naming it the superego. It resides in a primitive and fear-based part of the brain which scans the environment for threat, such as, for our highly social species, situations that resulted in hurt or rejection in the past. An arched eyebrow from a revered teacher. Not getting the part. Rebuff when you reached out for care and support.

The self-critical messages are an alarm system from the threat-response part of the brain. They speak directly to our vulnerabilities, which is why they seem so plausible and why we may feel an urgency to take this “feedback” into account.

Highly self-critical individuals are often achievement-oriented and perfectionistic: qualities which helped us develop self-discipline to practice and hone our skills. And, we have been awash in critical feedback from teachers and experts: some kind, some not so kind. It can seem like this commentary on our creative output also applies to our intrinsic qualities as people. This can lead to the sense that our value is determined externally by others, and depends on how well we do.

In its way, the inner critic is wanting to protect us. To notify us that rejection is immanent. To keep us from putting our work and ourselves out there.

What to do? Here are 6 ways to respond to the harsh inner critic:

1.     Mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness of thoughts and feelings. Notice the autopilot response to perceived threat, including the activation of the inner critic. Choose whether to identify with the critic’s assessment. We can cultivate a habit of noticing ourselves thinking, which gives a little space between us and the message, which is also coming from ourselves. We can get to know this risk-averse part of us and come into deeper relationship with ourselves. Maybe thank the critic for trying so hard to protect you, let it know that you hear it, and that you are handling things this time.

2.     Self-compassion. Bring yourself into your own support system. Imagine how you would respond to a friend who was suffering, and give yourself the gift of that same compassionate response. Separating yourself from your work, and offering yourself kindness without regard for achievement or whether you “deserve” it. You do. This will help you locate your value within yourself rather than ceding to others the right to determine it.

3.     Show up. Focus on the work at hand and not on assessment of the work. Imagine you’re a worker bee gathering pollen and work work work. The inner critic will be there with an opinion but you do not have to heed it. Use persistence to keep going even if self-criticism is also happening. This will give the inner critic much competition for your time and attention.

4.     Accept imperfection. Contrary to the critic’s message, a perfect performance or piece of art probably does not exist. And, paradoxically, it is often the imperfections that unite us with others and allows others to see themselves in our work. In traditional Native American beadwork, a perfect design was believed to entrap the soul, and a flaw was always included to allow the spirit to flow and the art to live. Imperfection requires vulnerability, which allows for connection, which counteracts the shame of harsh self-criticism.

5.     Create work that you like. Attune to your sensory experience of color, texture, air, sound. Get curious about what would happen if you ignored the critic and privileged your own experience of creating. Rather than despair that you can’t play like Coltrane or write like Ann Patchett, offer what could only ever come from you. What might that be? Consciously choose to respond with awe and wonder even if your self-critic also has something to say.

6.     Lovingkindness meditation. Attune to yourself and tenderly ask what you need. If there is a word of encouragement that you long to hear, offer it to yourself. Be the teacher you needed when you were little or that you need now. Recognize your own strengths and value where you are right now. Validate your own bravery and hard work and persistence. Self-criticism is isolating; offering lovingkindness meditation is an evidence-based practice to increase your sense of safety and belonging.

References :: :: :: :: Shut your Monkey by Danny Gregory (2016) :: The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown (2010) :: The Ego and the Id by Sigmund Freud (1923)