Unmasking “The Inner Critic”: Finding Your Voice
by Jennifer Paros
Correction does much, but encouragement does more.
~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
The Inner Critic is psychology shorthand for all the crappy things you think about yourself – a discouraging imaginary figure with a penchant for diminishing commentary. Though we created this idea and even named it, we have not bothered to imagine its opposite. We pay a lot of attention to the negative stream of inner talk (mostly because we’re trying to escape it) but virtually none to the voice of encouragement. For some reason, we don’t choose to personify, title, and make that more real. Though words like Praiser, Encourager, Appreciator remain conspicuously unused or even un-coined, they are key to the voice so many talk about “finding” in life and in writing – our unique, authentic expression.
Critics sometimes praise, but Inner Critics never do, so we are instructed not to listen to them – sound advice, though often hard to follow. Perhaps we’ve undone ourselves with making T.I.C. (a fitting acronym) a figure separate from us. Maybe instead of attempting to ignore, gag, or fight the phantom we created, we’re better off remembering what it’s actually made of: thought. And we are the thinkers of those thoughts. We’re not being victimized; we’re being creative – except we’re inadvertently creating against ourselves.
The impulse to criticize can be a reaction to seeing something as a threat. Without a sense of threat there isn’t much drive to criticize; we might reflect on an experience or person, but without vitriol. If we’re criticizing our own work, appearance, or intelligence, we’re probably trying to protect ourselves from the threat of negative judgment from others and, ultimately, from feeling bad. The strategy is to detect what’s wrong, so we can fix ourselves before those flaws make us vulnerable. But it doesn’t work, in part because the momentum of critical thought just finds another and another thing to disparage. If criticism shuts us down, it’s a strategy for protection from the perception of a threat. If it provides insight and encouragement we can call it “instructive reflection” rather than self-criticism.
You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.
~ Louise Hay
When I was thirteen, I started taking piano lessons after having stopped years earlier. I was advancing nicely and enjoying it until it became clear I didn’t really understand time signatures, meters, and counting beats. So I was given much easier music on which to practice. But to my Inner Critic that meant demotion. I felt embarrassed, caught in inadequacy, and I quit – despite how much I liked piano. Those rudimentary pieces were seen as a threat. The Inner Critic, if believed, has the power to shut down beloved pursuits.
Since T.I.C. is considered guilty of making it harder for writers to write (or for anyone to do anything), The Inner Appreciator must be relevant in making things easier. Appreciation and encouragement provide unconditional inspiration and a feeling of safety in going forward. Learning to hear inner praise helps us sustain our work and discover our voice. When we express this perspective of appreciation through each of our unique personalities it becomes the voice we’re all trying to find.
I remember being eight and wanting to write a story, pacing around my room thinking, when I stopped to survey all the figurines and decorative dolls arranged on my bureau. I picked up a wooden cat and imagined a story in which it had magical powers. It occurred to me then that I could create anything, that writing was like magic. Those thoughts were The Inner Appreciator – reverence for the inherent creative ability in us all – no judgment on what I might do, only inspiration to do. It was an invitation and an open door.
Although criticism is often seen as necessary for improvement and might effectively point out what’s not working, it never represents our creative vision. And our vision is always our best guide. The remedy for The Inner Critic rests in a perspective of life that knows our goodness, whose interest is solely in the dynamism of the creative act, not in its evaluation. This outlook sees our endeavors as fun regardless of the result; it’s excited; it likes us and is always rooting for us. We find our voice in writing (and in life) when we listen for it. We listen for that which assures that there is never any threat in striving to create what we love; and we listen for that which appreciates us for all we have to give.
Jennifer Paros is a writer, illustrator, and author of Violet Bing and the Grand House (Viking, 2007). She lives in Seattle. Please visit her website at www.jenniferparos.com.