How to Manage Your Inner Critic

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This is the first in a series follow-up posts  to last week’s post on removing barriers to creating amazing things. The last post was on removing physical barriers. The following posts will deal with removing mental barriers.

First: Before I start, I want to say first that I’m a little uncomfortable writing these kind of posts. Why?

I’m suspicious of anyone who tells people how or what to think.

While Happenchance is about helping people do more and better creative work, and I’ll concede that’s a kind of personal development, a lot of personal development (a.k.a. self-help) creeps me out. There’s a lot of bad advice out there. Sometimes people die. Others waste thousands of dollars on feel-good seminars, books, programs, etc.

But there’s also tons of good advice, some created by wonderful, well-intentioned people. Today, I hope to share some of that advice without sounding like a charlatan, a self-righteous toad, or a pseudo-guru.

Remember two things:

  • There is no change without action.
  • The only people who (think they) have all the answers are either insane or candidates for assassination.

Here goes….

Inner Critics and Editors

“As long as a man stands in his own way, everything seems to be in his way.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

The inner critic is a rotten friend to have around, like the guy that shows up at your party just to tell you your party sucks…while he drinks all your imported beer.

The mind is a funny thing. It can conceive things unrivaled in nature and unimaginable to past generations, but it can also turn a man into a quivering jellyfish, afraid of his own toaster. In the case of inner critics, it can fill a person with self-doubt and prevent them from creating something amazing.

Anyone who creates anything has critics. That’s the price of playing the game. Yet, our inner critics are the harshest and most destructive critics of all.

Judgmental, intimidating, berating, etc., inner critics are actually the mind’s perverse way of trying to protect us. The mind wants us to be comfortable and complacent, to avoid shame and ridicule. Their logic is like this: ‘if I don’t create anything bad, I will avoid shame.’  Yet, not trying is the most shameful thing of all.

Inner critics may speak in the voice of teachers, friends,  or parents, but the message is the same: “this is shit.” These voices are an accumulation of negative experiences, surrounding  us like iron shavings around a magnet.

Other things the inner critic might say:

  • You’ve never done anything right.
  • Everything worth doing has already been done. Why bother?
  • So many people are so much better than you.
  • You’re a phony, a fake, a fraud.g
  • You have the brain of a marmot and the heart of a gila monster.
  • [insert your favorite negative quote here]

Note that the internal critic tends to speak in the second person, as if it is a voice outside your own head. Remember, though, that these are voices in your head. As such, you can manage them, control them, and eventually beat them into painful, bloody submission.

How to Manage Your Inner Critic(s)

A negative inner monologue is essentially a learned behavior that must be unlearned. This may take some time, but it is possible to learn to manage or even silence your inner critic. You may have to try several different methods. As far as I know, there is no silver bullet for silencing inner critics (unless your inner critic happens to be a werewolf).

Here are tricks for managing and silencing your inner critic.

  • Separate early drafts from revisions. For me, the trick is telling the inner critic that I will do well,  but I  must go through several revisions and make some mistakes along the way. Nothing works right on the first try. Once I learned this lesson, things became much easier. I suppose I gave myself permission to fail.
  • Tell them to take a leave of absence. If you have a running dialog with your inner critic, tell them to take a leave of absence (with pay) and promise they can come back and help during revisions. The inner critic can be a pretty good bullshit detector if you can learn to work with them, but just like any relationship you need plenty of space.
  • Question the voice. If you have one voice that is particularly bad, ask yourself what right that critic has to stop you from what you want or need to do. Others say to question the motivations of these voices.
  • Acknowledge the voice. One psychologist recommends a technique called ‘thank you-goodbye.’ He says that inner critics are well-intentioned but they only know how to convey their message in negative terms. I haven’t used this but it seems legit.
  • Make a deal with the critic. Write down (on paper) what they say, make a promise to deal with it later, then forget about it. This technique makes the most of our tendency to procrastinate. Who cares if you break a promise to your critics? They’re jerks anyway.
  • Decouple what you create from who you are. I’ve written some awful stuff, but its not who I am, just something I made while I was learning. When I look back at what I’ve done, it’s easy to see a progression from awful to less-awful to mediocre. Along the way, if I had said ‘that’s awful, so I’m awful,’ then I never would’ve reached the level of mediocrity I’m so proud  of today.
  • Give yourself permission to fail. Every failure is an education. By failing, we learn what doesn’t work. Sometimes we learn what does. The people who succeed are usually people who have a nice track record of failures and clusterf$@ks. The only way to have good ideas are to have lots of  bad ones.
  • Write about it. While journals won’t solve all your problems, they are useful for keeping your inner critics in check. How? By writing their arguments and objections, you can see how silly and irrational they actually are. Then you can craft arguments to destroy them once and for all!
  • Have confidence in yourself and your abilities. This may be the most important trick in the book. If you say you can’t do something, you probably can’t. Trust your own judgement and let nothing stand in your way.

Go kick some ass.


Article from Psychology Today: Before You Create, Pacify Your Inner Critic

Fighting the Internal Critic by Betty W. Phillips, PhD

Wall Street Journal Article on Silencing Your Inner Critic

Over to You:

  • Do you have any tricks for managing your inner critics?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of inner critics?
  • Am I a charlatan?

Later this week, I’ll be putting up a collection of resources on language learning. Next week I’ll continue the series on removing mental barriers with a post on How to Manage Fear of Failure.

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photo credit: fpat

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James St. James May 24, 2011, 4:40 pm

    I like how you describe the inner critic as “…an accumulation of negative experiences that accumulate about us like iron shavings around a magnet.” I can relate to feeling so fuzzy that I’ve lost much of my magnetism (my created purpose).
    I have had a makeover in terms of this inner voice over the last 2 years – where I have broken down any mind-barriers to my success. The world has opened up, and I am free to do anything, it just involves my choosing to. An example: I have stopped saying I cannot afford something. I have started asking “how can I afford this” and after counting the cost, deciding whether it is worth it or not. Since it is usually not, I end up with the same result, but feel empowered.
    I also realized my weakness. I have a difficult manager at work, and I think I have labeled my inner critic at work as her voice. I’ll need to work this out and be honest about what is my inner voice. I think I have internalized her criticism.