Befriend Your Inner Critic
August 12, 2022 § 17 Comments
By Deborah Sosin
You might be familiar with your Inner Critic—the nasty voice that says you’re not good enough. Or talented enough. Or compares yourself to others. Or expects nothing but perfection.
For writers, the voice might sound like this: I’m stuck. Again. Obviously I’m undisciplined, untalented, unmotivated, stupid, delusional about my prospects. I suck. Others are better than I am. I might as well give up. What’s the point of trying? Blahblahblah.
No wonder our instinct is to push that voice away. In fact, an entire literature exists around that notion—books such as Bitch in Your Head: How to Finally Squash Your Inner Critic; Shut Your Monkey: How to Control Your Inner Critic and Get More Done; Your Inner Critic Is a Big Jerk: And Other Truths About Being Creative.
But here’s the paradox: trying to vanquish the Inner Critic (IC) doesn’t work. The more we try to ignore it, the stronger it gets. It might take a temporary timeout, but, as the saying goes, it’s just gone to the basement to lift weights.
Why? Let’s look briefly at the brain. The amygdala, the reptilian part of the brain that triggers fight-flight-freeze responses, tracks our universe for threats 24/7 and warns us of danger by activating stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. This is a good thing in the face of real danger, such as an oncoming car or an attacker. But not so good when it fires up in the face of imagined danger.
The primary intention of the amygdala, and the IC, is to keep us safe—not just from physical harm but from emotional harm in the form of humiliation, embarrassment, rejection, failure, and abandonment.
As you can guess, the roots of the IC usually develop in childhood when we absorb overt or covert negative messages from parents, teachers, friends, or society in general. Those negative messages can linger, sometimes forever, blocking our potential, our artistic urges, our true selves.
To make matters worse, neuroscientific research shows that the brain adheres to negative thoughts and experiences more powerfully than to positive ones. Some say the brain is like Teflon for positivity and Velcro for negativity—what Rick Hanson, PhD, and others call the “negativity bias.” Ouch.
What if we were to move toward that critical voice? Listen to it with curiosity and compassion? Befriend it? Life would be more pleasant, yes? And here’s a bonus—recent research suggests that those well-entrenched negative neural pathways can literally shrink as we grow new, positive ones.
So where do we start? Every time you become aware of your IC, pause, sit quietly, and breathe. Instead of Shut up, you might think, Oh, there you are. I know you. Tell me what’s on your mind.
This strategy immediately interrupts any automatic negative thoughts. It can feel awkward at first. Keep breathing. Tell yourself that those thoughts (and associated feelings) are not true. They’re just thoughts! If your kind voice lacks credibility at first, another strategy is to “fake it till you make it.”
Talk to your IC as you would talk to a friend. Notice the difference in tone and content—would you ever berate a friend in the way that you berate yourself?
Get to know the IC’s habits and routines—when does it show up the most? When is it the loudest? Softest? What are its main themes and variations? Try taking notes as a way to interrupt the negative thought stream—practice phrases such as “I’m OK as I am” or “I don’t need to be perfect,” or create your own. Thank your IC for trying to protect you.
Notice what else is going on in your life when the IC kicks in. Are you tired? Hungry? Aggravated? Depressed? Stressed out? Are your writing and productivity goals realistic right now—or is it OK to take a break or switch things up for a while?
Befriending your IC takes awareness, patience, persistence, and, above all, repeated practice. If you notice the urge to flee or distract yourself, try hanging out a bit longer with your IC each time. If difficult feelings arise—shame, anger, guilt, fear, sadness, regret, envy, despair—that’s normal and understandable. But nothing dangerous is happening. Pace yourself. There is no right answer. Ask for support as needed.
Befriending your IC is not a one-and-done event—it is an ever-evolving process. One that can both fuel your creativity and also offer you a lasting, reliable, joyful relationship with a previously unwanted part of yourself.
“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”
Deborah Sosin is a Boston-based writer, editor, psychotherapist, and GrubStreet instructor. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Boston Globe Magazine, Brevity Blog, Salon, Cognoscenti, Writer’s Digest, The Writer’s Chronicle, The Manifest-Station, and elsewhere. She wrote the picture book Charlotte and the Quiet Place, which won the Gold INDIEFAB and Silver IPPY awards, among several honors; and a clinical workbook, Breaking Free of Addiction. Since 2009, Debbie has led “Write It Like It Is” free-writing groups. She also offers individual and group motivational coaching for writers and other creatives, with a special focus on the Inner Critic. On September 24, Debbie is teaching a three-hour Zoom workshop, “Befriend Your Inner Critic: Skills for a Productive Writing Practice,” through GrubStreet, Boston. Find more on her work at www.deborahsosin.com.
Thank you for sharing this piece, Deborah
My pleasure! It’s great to share among a community of like-minded writers!
I love this because it explains the brain’s part in our inner critic and gives some practical examples of how to manage it. Today is a writing day for me, so I might have to talk nicely to my inner critic a few times today.
Thanks for commenting, youngv! Go for it, and let us know what happens. I find that when I tune in closely, I can work on identifying the negative thoughts as “blahblahblah” and not as truth. As I said, it takes repeated practice, though, because those thoughts are so deeply embedded.
Thank you Deborah. I’m going to try this. What a great strategy!!
Thanks, Diana! That’s great to hear! Keep us posted!
Well said Deborah. Thanks for not suggesting anyone try to get rid of the IC, but rather appreciate and use it. This the correct use of those voices in our head.
Exactly, charwilkins! (Spread the word.) 🙂
Smart. My first writing teacher would, literally, walk her negative nay-saying voice to the door and shut “her” out. This seems like a worthwhile alternative! Thank you.
I get it! That’s the impulse, isn’t it? What fascinates me is the neurology that suggests otherwise. Thanks for your comment, Jan!
Thank you Deborah for these much needed words on the inner critic. I have spent my professional life as a classical singer and vocal coach. Here is a joke from that world: If you give a soprano five compliments and one criticism she will remember the criticism but not the compliments. If you give five compliments and one criticism to a tenor he will remember and quote the five compliments but forget the one criticism. I have written a memoir that is, among other things, abut my relationship with my super critical adoptive mother, whose daily criticisms began with ” you are not.” Of course I internalized the nots. So, what AM I? I have spent a lifetime figuring that out and most of the time now I am accepting of myself and my worth, as a writer and a musician. I tell my students to shut off that nasty inner voice that does nothing but destroy confidence and self – worth. Go away!!
Thanks for the anecdote, Anne! I’m a singer too so I can relate. Learning to have a different relationship with those internalized messages is definitely a process. If the “go away” message isn’t working, it might be interesting to try the “befriending” strategy and see what happens, as counterintuitive as it sounds! Good luck with the memoir! Sounds interesting!
Hello Deborah, Thank you for this super doodle essay! It arrived right on time. I’ve been told your tongue is the part of your body that heals the fastest when hurt. The tongue can also do the most damage or the most good when you talk to yourself or in this case, the IC.Peace and love. Jerry
Thanks for the comment, Jerry. I like the analogy! Yeah, those harmful words can do a lot of damage. Glad you can see a way out, though.
I never thought about making friends with my inner critic. I’ll take your thoughtful (and entertainingly written) advice, Deborah. My inner critic has been living in my head for 65 years. Obviously, she’s not going anywhere so we might as well get along 😉
Exactly, Marie! Thanks for the kind words and good luck with the process. I have found it SO useful!
Great post thanks for sharing wise words. I enjoyed the bit about the amygdala and the IC. Let’s continue, listening and writing, in harmony!