Last week I gave tips on how to get past writer’s block. One thing I didn’t touch on, though, was that writer’s block, as well as procrastination, is also often caused by that nasty set of inner voices collectively known as “the inner critic.”
The inner critic is the voice of our ego—that mostly but not totally unnecessary creature that causes us so much grief. It’s the voice of fear, of the debilitating beliefs and thoughts we’ve nurtured and accumulated through our interpretations of what’s happened to us as we’ve grown.
The inner critic is not really us speaking. It’s a whole lot of overwhelming, powerful, and erroneous thinking. Ultimately, it’s what we imagine others think of us, which we project onto ourselves. And this is why it’s bullshit. For one thing, it keeps us from doing anything we’re passionate about. For another…well, who are we to presume what others are thinking?
These are some things you might hear in your head and which you’ll probably recognize as the inner critic:
- You suck at this!
- You’ll never be good enough.
- Who are you to think you can do this?
- What makes you worthy of being published?
- Don’t bother, man, you never finish anything anyway.
- You’re not as good as you think you are.
- You’re a fraud.
- You’ll never be as good as X.
- Why bother doing this when so many others are doing it already?
- Who’s going to read your stuff? Who’s going to care?
- Why are you writing that stuff? It’s depressing!
- Stop, you moron! Don’t submit! It needs to be perfect.
- This is a waste of time and you should be doing something more important, like making money or cleaning the bathroom.
- It’s just too damn hard, and too much work, and for what?
- So you’re getting published. So what? Millions do. Doesn’t mean you’re good.
- Getting published? Dream on. It’s all about who you know and what you’ve already done.
Any of these sound familiar?
When you read them all together like this, how do you feel? Mostly, I feel really sad. I’ll get to why in Tip 2.
The important thing to remember here is that you are not your ego. You are not defined by your fears or shame or self-doubt. You are the creative being who desires to write. You need to separate your inner writer from your inner critic.
Here are two tips I use to allow me to write.
Personify your critic
This isn’t a new concept, but it’s a powerful one. It’s greatly diminished the time it takes for me to get writing again after a period of self-doubt.
All my life I’ve struggled with people telling me what I can and can’t do, particularly the latter. You tell me I can’t do something, I get upset. Because of my rebellious nature, I find it easy, then, to personify those voices in my head and then talk to the character who represents them—er, just as I used to with my parents! I was a terrible backtalker, I admit.
Some people have an item, like a horrifying cat statue, for instance, that they use to personify their inner critic. Some draw a picture of their inner critic and hang it on the wall. I just have an image in my mind. It’s not even troll-like. It just looks like me, with crossed arms (because it’s actually scared and thus lashing out).
Sometimes I get angry and defensive. Inner Critic, I say, don’t tell me what I can’t do. What do you know? Who are you to think you own me, or know me? I’ll write if I want to write. And I’ll write what I want.
Sometimes—and this is actually more productive—I’ll say, Inner Critic, hey. You again, huh. Okay, since I notice you keep showing up every time I want to do something I love, I’m going to go ahead and guess that right now you’re Fear. You’re afraid for me. You’re afraid I’ll get hurt or be disappointed. So what are you trying to tell me about myself here? What can I learn? And then: Can you step back and let me do this? I got this. I’m all right. I don’t need you right now—all I want to do is create. I’m not doing anything life-threatening. You can relax.
You can also say, Um, really? Is this supposed to help me? At least my trying gives me something instead of nothing! Just how are your criticisms serving me? You know what? You’re ugly. Judgemental. A coward. And mean. You’re a bully! Is that any way to talk to me? I would never talk that way to anyone else!
Which leads me to this, the most powerful tool in my personal arsenal.
Imagine yourself, the writer, as a child
I put up a kindergarten photo of myself in my office. I’m sweet-looking and have big blue eyes. More important, I was unhindered by self-doubt at that time in my life. I learned to read at four. I was putting together words and stories early. I drew pictures, and I imagined myself in the stories I was reading.
I think of my creative self as me when I was little. Or my inner child, if you want.
When I hear my inner critic start up, I turn things around by imagining my adult self saying all the nasty things to that child, to the me who wants to write. I imagine looking down at this sweet little girl who just wants to be free to create and colour the sky purple if she wants and write stories about aliens named Pookie, and saying:
- You can’t.
- You suck.
- You’ll never be good at it.
I don’t make it very far before I start to get all choked up.
Is that any way to talk to a child? It is not. It’s not any way to talk to anyone. It’s cruel. Not only that, it’s actually lying. Now all I want to do at that point is hug that little girl and say, I’m sorry! You are worthy. Have at it! Make what you want, you beautiful, light, unfettered being!
Listen. You can’t control what others might say. And that’s okay. Let them think what they want to think. It actually has no bearing on you: that’s all about them. Allow them to think your writing is good! Allow them their opinion. It’s out of your hands, so decide not to waste your energy.
What you can control is that inner critic. Let the doer in you be in charge. Let the one who wants to “embiggen” your life be in charge. Let the creative self, who you were born as, be in charge.
What you can control is your writing practice. Your job is only to show up and to do your best as a writer, with the talent you have and the tools available to you. Give yourself permission to do this every day.
No one can stop you but you. See that inner critic and push him into the wings. Take that stage and step into the light.
Sometimes things are easier said than done, especially for those whose inner critics are strong and debilitating. You either start and then stop, or you can’t get started at all, and you struggle with this daily so much that it makes you hate yourself even more. That makes it really hard to banish the inner critic, I know.
If this is the case, I understand. I have a hard time working on my own to get rid of the inner critic sometimes. Sometimes my ego requires a boost from someone else. Sometimes my creative being needs some outside encouragement.
If you need help getting past your inner critic, someone to talk to your writer self and nudge you past your procrastination or blocks, I can help.
If you’ve got a draft but are suffering with self-doubt about it, consider a short story critique, which is constructive help to get you ready for submission.
Don’t allow your inner critic to keep you from shining. You can write and you can do it well. Decide you will. Then do what you need to do.