Befriend Your Inner Critic

August 12, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Deborah Sosin

Headshot of Deborah Sosin smiling. She is wearing a pink top, with red glasses on and looking at the camera.

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.”
—Winston Churchill

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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

Panic at the Pitch

June 14, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Jodie Sadowsky

“El titulo è Panic at the Bus Stop.” The professore, a balding painter in black jeans, handed out sketchpads and pencils and watercolors.

My heart fluttered with panic at the art studio. I peeked at my classmates deftly sketching in the dusty classroom in Florence a few cobblestoned streets from the Duomo.

In keeping with the assignment, the out of proportion, Picasso-like passengers I created were unnerving. Thankfully, they were waiting for the bus, so I didn’t have to draw an actual bus. 

I slid through that first week, relieved I hadn’t been found out as a complete novice. I dreaded every Thursday, comfortable only during lunch, which I spent with an oily hunk of focaccia. For our independent project, my flatmate sketched stills to stitch together for an animated short of the crucifixion. I picked something more practical: creating a logo for the city’s first Jewish deli. Late one afternoon, the professore leaned over my page, sighed at the cartoonish bagel boy holding a “Ciao! Bagel” banner, then erased everything between the rounds. He hastily redrew the eyes, mouth and hands I’d spent all day fashioning and I mumbled an embarrassed grazie.

By the end of the term, I settled on this: I was creative, but not artistic. So what? I thought, I can’t draw. I was smart and had good ideas. A year later, I headed to law school, a not-so-creative place where lots of people who like to read and write and think end up.

Now, after twenty years of lawyering and many mommy-and-me art classes later, I’m trying to write and publish for the first time. I’m haunted by my old view of myself as someone who is not artistic, and I’m terrified it’s true. 

In writing workshops, I learned about “pitching” the idea of an essay, selling the notion of a piece instead of the work itself. This seems easier to learn—and teach—than the craft of essay writing. It’s an art form with a formula: lead with a catchy or timely headline, compliment the editor’s work or the publication, keep it short and get to the heart of the story.

Sometimes, the formula works. Still, as soon as I celebrate having a pitch accepted, the insecurity takes over. What have I promised? Have I shared a vision for something I can’t possibly pull off? I begin writing, with two rivers surging: one, a happy endorphin stream that celebrates the acceptance (“I’ve got this, it’s working. I’d doing IT!”) alongside a powerful stream of self-doubt (“I’ve fooled them. I’ve sold something I can’t deliver. I’ll be found it.”)

The drafts I’ve held onto the longest, the pieces I’m not submitting or even pitching, are about the ultimate imposter in my life. My biological father played the part of being my dad until I was six. He built a swing set in our backyard, set up a darkroom to print stunning black and white photographs of my sister and me and developed a hilarious repertoire of Sesame Street character impressions for bedtime stories. Then, diagnosed as a sociopath and mixed up with drugs and affairs and bad business dealings, he walked away without looking back. I know his leaving was about him, not me, and that my life turned out beautiful without him, but there’s an ugly undercurrent that doesn’t wane: I wasn’t enough

After one essay I wrote was approved on a pitch, it took three months of slow correspondence and several rounds of edits to publish, each pause opening space for me to question my worth. The day the piece published I couldn’t look at it. I was certain I must have bamboozled the editor, that she felt bad I’d tried so hard and buried it on the website somewhere as a bit of charity. But there it was, under the Personal Essay banner, with a custom illustration to match. And there it was in the newsletter and on social media.  

Soon, I shared it too. Writing—and putting my work out there—is an act of fortifying myself. I’m building a dam against those negative thoughts. I notice them, and given the endless articles a new writer can read on imposter syndrome (I liked this and this), I’m beginning to accept that this insecurity may never dissipate. I work through the edits (and the panic), opening myself to critique, to tracked changes and the abrasive rub of erasers. I’ve given up charcoal and watercolor, but I’m painting my thoughts into words, revealing myself, hoping each time that they are enough, and on my way to believing that finally, I’m enough.  

Jodie Sadowsky lives in Connecticut with her high school prom-date husband and their three children. Jodie’s writing centers around her life’s biggest roles–daughter, sister, mother, partner, friend. Some of her work has been published online at The Kitchn, Tablet, and Cottage Life Magazine; the rest exists on her laptop, her notebooks and in her head. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.

What I Say vs. What I’d Like to Say About My Writing

March 7, 2019 § 58 Comments

Sandy Pic (1)by Sandra Ebejer

Ever since publicly declaring myself a Writer, I’ve had well-meaning friends and family express interest in my work. This is a far cry from the days of yore, when no one in my orbit understood what I, then a nonprofit grant writer, did for a living.

But once I began publishing my creative work online, suddenly it clicked: Oh, she’s a Writer. Cool. To the uninitiated, the title “Writer” conjures images of successful novelists — the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons of the world — who publish at breakneck pace, giving the impression that all it takes to pen a bestseller is a few free hours and a laptop. So, naturally, people are intrigued.

The nice thing about the Writer title is that, for the first time in my life, people want to talk to me about my work. The unfortunate thing about the Writer title is that, well, people want to talk to me about my work. Like most writers, I’m introverted and not particularly fond of talking about myself, so questions about my writing make me uncomfortable. I smile and offer up some terse response, though my internal monologue offers a glimpse into how I’d really like to reply.

The question: “How’s the writing going?”

What I say: “It’s fine.”

What I’d like to say: “Well, today I spent 45 minutes watching cat videos on YouTube because the personal essay I’m trying to write isn’t coming together and it’s easier to ignore the work than accept the fact that I might just be a hack. I took a break to get a snack and while eating, I read a story in a Pushcart Prize collection that was so moving it made my chest ache and I sobbed from the realization that I will never, ever write a piece so well-crafted. After that, I went back to my desk and stared at my essay for a while, wondering if maybe giving up my grant writing job wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve made, and then just before my son arrived home from school, I churned out a listicle of silly writing memes for my blog. I feel pretty overwhelmed and terrified most of the time but otherwise, you know, it’s fine.”

The question: “What are you writing right now?”

What I say: “Oh, I have a few things I’m juggling. Nothing I want to discuss in detail just yet.”

What I’d like to say: “Everything and nothing. I have drafts of numerous essays, blogs, and short stories saved on my hard drive. I have an excel document with hundreds of ideas and a long list of places where I’d like to submit my work, but I suffer from an overwhelming case of impostor syndrome so very little is shared with the world. I’m nearly done with one piece that might be okay once it goes through a couple dozen revisions, so I’m guessing it’ll be ready to submit to literary journals in six months or so, and then who knows if it’ll ever actually be accepted.”

The question: “Have you been published?”

What I say: “I post my work on Medium.com and my own website, and I have a piece coming out in Boston Globe Magazine in the spring.”

What I’d like to say: “I have a piece coming out in The Boston Globe, which is really exciting because it’s a publication my friends and family have actually heard of, though I don’t anticipate having additional work published anytime soon because that one Globe piece was clearly a total fluke. I’ve since tried writing for similar columns in The New York Times and other outlets, but my pieces are all terrible. I mean, who am I kidding? I’ll be lucky if I get a story in an unknown, soon-to-be-shuttered literary journal. That is, if I ever finish writing something, amirite? Have I mentioned I have impostor syndrome?”

The question: “How would you describe your writing? Any authors you can compare it to?”

What I say: “Well, a friend described my fiction as ‘slice of life with a dark edge,’ which I think sums it up nicely.”

What I’d like to say: “Oh, I don’t know. Unfinished? Look, I’m doing all I can to write decent stories in various formats. Please don’t ask me to compare my work to that of critically-acclaimed authors you’ve read in some book club. That’s just embarrassing, especially for the critically-acclaimed authors.”

The question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

What I say: “Just from day-to-day life.”

What I’d like to say: “Most ideas come to me when I’m unable to jot them down. It’s usually right as I’m drifting off to sleep that the most incredible narrative forms in my head and by the time I wake the next day, it’s long gone. When I try to consciously think of ideas, nothing happens. At all. Literally. You know how Homer Simpson gets dancing monkeys in his head when Marge is talking to him about something important? That’s me, trying to come up with plausible story lines.”

The question: “Are you able to make a decent living as a writer?”

What I say: “You know, that kind of thing takes time, so right now I’m just focusing my efforts on building an audience and working on my craft.”

What I’d like to say: “No. No, I’m not. Thanks for pointing that out. Can you pass the vodka?”

I’m hoping that as time passes, I’ll learn to accept that these well-meaning (albeit uncomfortable) questions are just another aspect of my fledgling writing career. But for now, my inner voice continues to rant as force a smile, a few polite replies, and subtly change the topic.
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Sandra Ebejer is a writer living in upstate New York with her husband, son, and two cats who haven’t figured out how to get along. Her work has appeared in numerous publications on Medium and will be published in The Boston Globe in March 2019. Read more of her work at www.sandraebejer.com.

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