But you wouldn't know it to listen to them.
During most of the two-hour class, the conversation in the room revolved around how much every woman hated her painting and how her canvas wasn't as good as everyone else's. Complaints ranged from a perceived inability to hold the brush correctly to lines that weren't straight, leaves that weren't the right color green, or tree branches that didn't have enough twigs.
I had a good time, but I was saddened by how critical the women were of their efforts, how difficult it was for them to have fun, and how little faith they had in their creative visions. Even though every single painting turned out beautifully, most of the women expressed this thought: "The rest of you did a good job, but I did not. I have no talent."
I suspect each woman was saying aloud what an insidious little voice whispered in her ear. I call that insidious voice the inner critic. If we let it, that voice can prevent us from starting--much less finishing--any creative dream.
In my previous posts in this series, I've talked about identifying your creative process, putting it to work, and dealing with the emotions that accompany creativity. But all that advice is worthless if we let our inner critics stop us from creating. That's why we need to befriend our inner critics and use them to our advantage. What follows are a few steps to help you do just that.
1) Acknowledge you have an inner critic.
Many negative emotions or experiences only grow stronger when we ignore them; therefore, the first step to befriending your inner critic is to acknowledge that this voice inside your head affects your ability to create.
Now that I've published several books, I have many people tell me, "I'd like to write a book."
"You should!" I say. "You can do it!"
"No, I can't," is the common reply. "I'm no good at writing."
That's the inner critic talking, folks. If you've ever said you can't do something because of x (x = ridiculous, invalid reason), you have an inner critic, and it's not going away. You might as well make friends with it and harness its power to your benefit.
2) Visualize what your inner critic looks like.
Silly as it may seem, befriending your inner critic is easier if you think of it as a person. For example, my inner critic looks and sounds like a male teacher I had who was consistently critical of me. When I'm dealing with the statements My Inner Critic makes, visualizing him helps me put the comments in perspective. Visualizing also helps me remember that my teacher didn't criticize me because he thought I was worthless. He saw my potential and wanted to help me improve--even if his comments weren't always helpful. He had my best interest at heart even if his execution was at times flawed.
Your inner critic may resemble anyone or anything you choose. There are no rules--even if your inner critic tells you there must be. But putting a human face on your inner critic can help you remember that the critic doesn't hate you--it just wants you to improve. That's power you can use to do just that.
3) Recognize your inner critic doesn't always tell the truth.
When you create something, what does your inner critic say? Listen closely because not everything your inner critic says is true.
Sure, sometimes it's right. As I've been editing this blog series, My Inner Critic has said things like, "Can't you come up with a more specific word?" or "I don't think that sentence is communicating what you want it to." In those cases, he was correct. I did need a more specific word and the sentence did need to be reworked.
However, after a conversation I had with a friend recently, My Inner Critic said, "That was a dumb thing to say, but it's typical for you since you're stupid." In this case, My Inner Critic was wrong and needed to be ignored. Sure, sometimes I feel stupid, but I'm not stupid.
What about you? Are there statements your inner critic is making that are completely untrue? If so, what are they? What truth can you use to combat the lies your inner critic tells you?
4) Identify when your inner critic is helpful.
Any time your inner critic stops you from creating or makes you feel badly about yourself, it isn't being helpful. Your inner critic is often harder on you than any real person could ever be. What does that tell you?
But your inner critic doesn't want you to feel awful (regardless of what he or she may say), just as my teacher didn't want to completely destroy me every time he criticized my efforts. The purpose of the criticism is to improve. I absolutely did grow and improve as a result of my teacher's critiques. In the same way, I can grow and improve from My Inner Critic's remarks as well, as long as I only pay attention to the beneficial remarks.
Here's an example of how I allow My Inner Critic to be helpful. I've already confessed how difficult writing a first draft is for me. The last thing I need while slogging through that awful process is My Inner Critic saying, "This is terrible. To think you call yourself a writer!" When I listen to those statements, I can't write a single word. What My Inner Critic says at this stage of my creative process is not helpful at all.
However, My Inner Critic is very helpful when I'm revising my writing. He's also good at reminding me to proofread carefully (sadly, I don't always listen) or to rewrite an email so my message comes across in a kinder way. I credit My Inner Critic for helping me turn poorly written rough drafts into a final pieces I'm proud of.
As you consider your creative process, when would it would be helpful to have your inner critic around? What types of advice does it give that help you improve?
5) Control when your inner critic can speak.
Just because your inner critic makes a statement doesn't mean you have to listen to it. Most of us are pretty good at ignoring other people occasionally--even people we care about. Why not add your inner critic to the list of voices you ignore on occasion?
I have a friend who has an action figure that represents her inner critic. When she doesn't want him to speak, she moves the action figure to another room. My approach is a little different. I keep a sticky note near my computer which reads, "Michelle, you have my permission to write an awful book that everyone will hate." When My Inner Critic leans over my shoulder and says, "This rough draft is terrible," I read that note aloud and ignore him. (Some days this is easier than others.)
What actions can you take to ignore your inner critic so you can create in peace?
6) Invite your inner critic to be part of your creative process.
You can't keep your inner critic silent forever, nor should you. Under the right circumstances, it can prevent you from showing your slip to the world, so to speak.
I can't tell you how many times My Inner Critic has saved me from sending an embarrassing text message or career-or-relationship-endangering email. He's also pointed out some problems with my creative work that, when addressed, proved crucial to the work's later success. Some of my favorite characters and plot points were born when My Inner Critic pointed to a place in my draft and said, "Michelle, you've got to improve this section somehow. It's not working."
I find it easier to ignore my inner critic during first drafts because I know he'll have a chance to say everything he needs say when I'm revising. Because I've planned to work with him during revision, I can keep him away from drafting--guilt-free.
Remember, you're the boss. You have the ability to tell your inner critic when to "show up to work" and when to "stay home" and away from you. Consider how you can incorporate your inner critic into your creative process in a way that is helpful and results in a product you're proud of.
7) Permanently banish perfectionism.
Healthy critique in the interest of improvement is a good thing. Unending criticism that you'll never achieve an impossible standard is not. In a previous blog, I discussed perfectionism as a particular enemy of Christian creatives.
Remember the ladies in my painting class? Many of them would have had a lot more fun if they had accepted that nothing they do will ever be perfect. Instead, we must embrace our imperfections and learn from them. Perfectionism is an unreasonable standard that cannot be reached.
Remember, your inner critic has the ability to help you create beautiful things, but only if you are able to make it a friend who works for you, not against you.
Click here to read the final installment on how to embrace your limitations.