Illustraion by Zeeksie
You know about your inner critic, right? It’s that unkind voice in your head, the one that belittles, discourages, and disparages, the one that tells you what you can’t do, how untalented you are, and why you will never (ever) accomplish anything worthwhile.
I think we writers have it tougher than most when it comes to the inner critic. After all, we are storytellers with fertile imaginations. Our writer’s minds conspire against us by bringing our inner critic to life with personality and character. We endow this internal naysayer with a sharp wit and give it all the best lines of dialog. And, perhaps most damaging, as if it weren’t bad enough that we allow our inner critics to unleash such venom in our minds, we also give them free reign to serve up near-spontaneous visions of a bleak future brought on by all our shortcomings.
Let me give you an example.
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I have been paying more attention to my inner critic lately – not so that I might heed her words, but so that I might notice when she starts sniping at me (and, therefore, have the chance to counteract her negative influence). Sadly, I’ve come to realize that she attacks far more often than I ever consciously knew – pretty much every time I sit down to write. (The only writing space that seems safe from her derisive commentary is my morning pages, but all my client work and blogging appears to be fair game.)
The other day, for instance, I was working on a piece for a client when her voice (which sounds, confusingly, very like my own voice) began pecking at me. “You have no idea what you’re doing,” she said. “You’re just making this up as you go along, and they’re eventually going to figure that out.” I wavered, my fingers poised over the keyboard in doubt. Despite the fact that I’ve been successfully earning my living as a freelance writer for almost a decade, her words made me stumble. Despite the fact that the assignment I was working on was one in a long string of similar assignments (each and every one of which had been very well received), faltered and wondered if maybe this was it – this was the point at which I was going to crack and it was all going to fall apart.
And that’s when my writer’s mind really went to work on me.
My inner critic’s voice faced only to be replaced by vividly depicted scenes of my downfall. In the space of only a few seconds, I had played out multiple scenarios that began with my being fired and ended with me losing my house. These lurid daymares branched out in a dozen directions at once to include scenes of loss and shame and grief: having to tell my daughter we were moving again, having to quit riding, having to take a 9-to-5 job and not being there for my daughter after school, my ex-husband gloating. I experienced it all as my fingers hung over the keyboard, frozen in terror at the prospect of such possible futures that all now appeared to hang in the balance of the next sentence I was about to write.
No wonder I felt blocked!
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One of my dad’s favorite books is a little self-help number that was published back in the 80s. What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter is something of a cult classic in certain circles. And, while Helmstetter’s “self-talk” approach to self-improvement may call up visions of SNL’s Stuart Smalley earnestly reciting affirmations into the mirror (“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”), I do believe there’s a lot to be said for retraining your inner critic, or – as Helmstetter puts it – “reprogramming” your brain.
Again, as writers, this concept shouldn’t be all that foreign. We know the power of words. We understand how real a story can become in our minds, the way a writer can create an entire world and characters so real that we feel like we know them personally. A well-rendered story can make you laugh out loud or bring you to tears in very much the same way a Real World experience can inspire the same outward display of emotions.
It’s no different with the stories you tell yourself in your head.
If you let your inner critic hammer home the same “story” over and over and over again, you’ll start to believe it. You will embrace it. Own it. Become it. That is not a good thing. Your inner critic is not looking to help you succeed. If you listen to those tall tales and believe them, you’re seriously handicapping your ability to accomplish your goals. Think of it like The Matrix – your thoughts create your reality. (“There is no spoon.”) I know it sounds totally SciFi and maybe a little crazy, but Real Science has proven the truth of this over and over again. The power of our story-driven minds is immense. Honestly, we don’t give it enough credit.
Take something as simple as the way thoughts can trigger physiological reactions. You watch a scary movie and your heart rate goes up. You’re worried about an interview and you get nauseas. You have a nightmare and break out into a cold sweat. You anticipate a kiss and go weak-kneed with butterflies in your stomach. You think about the delicious ice cream you’re going to have and start salivating. All of these instances are examples of thoughts manifesting as physical reactions – words in our heads causing things to happen in the Real World. How hard is it to extrapolate from this point to understanding that the stories we tell ourselves (“I’m a bad writer,” “I’m lousy at saving money,” “I’m fat.”) also manifest in the Real World?
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Defeating your inner critic may not be easy. In fact, it may not be possible at all. The truth is, our inner critic is part of who we are. I tend to think that if exorcising it entirely is how sociopaths are made. But, that doesn’t mean we have to give credence to every word that comes out of it’s mean mouth. I like the approach Amy Poehler describes in her memoir, Yes, Please. In this passage, she’s talking about how her “demon” used to make her feel bad about her appearance, but I think the same approach makes sense for writers whose demons are belittling their creative efforts.
“Hopefully as you get older, you start to learn how to live with your demon. It’s hard at first. Some people give their demon so much room that there is no space in their head or bed for love. They feed their demon and it gets really strong and then it makes them stay in abusive relationships or starve their beautiful bodies. But sometimes, you get a little older and get a little bored of the demon. Through good therapy and friends and self-love you can practice treating the demon like a hacky, annoying cousin. Maybe a day even comes when you are getting dressed for a fancy event and it whispers, “You aren’t pretty,” and you go, “I know, I know, now let me find my earrings.”
That seems like a pretty healthy self-talk conversation to me.
P.S. I know it’s only been a month since I said I was going to take a sabbatical from my Saturday posts, but somehow the “shorties” I keep meaning to write to accompany the Sunday reading & writing links keep outgrowing their intended word count. I’m not committing one way or another about Saturday posts, but I felt this one deserved a little space, so … here it is. Maybe that’s the best approach for the weekends: Don’t overthink. Don’t over plan. Just do what feels right.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.