Taming the Inner Critic: Facing Off with the Voice in Your Head

by Alyssa Colton

March 2016

We all walk around with voices in our head telling us what’s right and what’s wrong. It can be difficult to separate out useful feedback and advice from negative messages, but it’s crucial to notice those messages that get in the way of our creative work. The Inner Critic is that voice in our head that can stop us from acting, keep us from change, or urge us to do things that aren’t serving us. There are things we can do, though, to recognize the Inner Critic and combat its toxic messages. The following is an exercise I created from working with writers to help them relieve anxiety over expressing themselves.

First, take a few moments to get into a quiet, relaxed state – do some deep breathing, close your eyes, and consciously notice how your body feels. Tune in to the energy flow of your body, and pay attention to where you meet your seat, which in turn connects you to the earth. Then, gently and non-judgmentally, take a look at what’s going on in your mind. What is your Inner Critic saying about you and what you want to accomplish as a writer? The voice might be telling you anything: that you can’t do it; that you should be doing something more practical; that you’ll screw up; that you aren’t creative or cool enough; that someone is going to call you out for mistakes. For now, don’t worry so much about what you hear. Ask yourself where that voice coming from. Can you hear the voice of a teacher, a parent, or a critical friend? Perhaps the voice isn’t from a specific person. If not, then assign the voice to a fictional being. Mine is “Cool Suzie,” who is always telling me I’m not hip enough. Anne Lamott describes two Inner Critics in her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird: Lessons in Writing and Life. One is the thin, pinched-face teacher-type and the other is William Burroughs. Maybe your Inner Critic is not a person at all—maybe it’s a grumpy old cat or some other kind of being. The point is to try to attach the voice to someone not you, real or not.

Now, draw the picture of the person or being you’ve summoned up in your mind. Don’t worry if you can’t draw! Stick figures are fine. What does this person look like? Many students draw a teacher looking stern; others might draw a parent-figure; I’ve had some draw big, hairy monsters.

Next, draw a cartoon bubble (make it big!) coming from its mouth and write the most damaging words the voice says. It’s important to do this because you are consciously identifying these words with that Inner Critic, rather than with your own mind.

Just doing this exercise will help you create some distance between yourself and the voice of the Inner Critic, but to make it really work, try one of the following:

● Talk back to these voices. You have something worthwhile to say. Tell the voices you don’t have to be perfect. Fear of making mistakes and fear of failure is what keeps us from risk-taking.

● You may want to draw another person – perhaps a superhero figure – who stops this voice in its tracks. It also might help to post an affirmation where you will see it every day, such as “I am a published novelist.”

● Another approach is that you let the voice talk and you merely listen. You don’t take it in; you just watch and listen to what this voice is saying. Buddhists are familiar with this in meditation practice: the chattering voice is called “monkey mind.” Then, after a certain period of time passes (don’t let it go on too long), say to the voice, OK, you’ve had your say. That doesn’t make it true, and I’m going to go do my work now. Buh-bye!

The key to overcoming the paralyzing power of the Inner Critic is to acknowledge it and learn from it, but – and this is the most important – don’t embrace it. Instead, open your arms to the positive messages – those voices in your head that say, “Go for it!”

Alyssa Colton has taught writing for 18 years at universities, colleges, K-12 classrooms, continuing education programs, and at a retirement home. Her essays and articles have been published in GlamourMotheringIris: A Journal about Women and Moxie: For Women Who Dare, and at Womenwriters.net. She blogs at abcwritingediting.wordpress.com and lives in Albany, New York with her two daughters, who also love to write.

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