The Inner Critic
[Warning for possibly triggering content regarding mental health, specifically depression.]
I’ve been reading a fair number of how-to creativity books (yeah, I know, creativity is not something you can “learn” from a book) recently in preparation for a long-term project, and one thing I have noticed about some of these books–and a lot of the “advice” floating around out there about creativity–is the notion of the “inner critic.” The inner critic, according to some Professional Creative Types, is the voice that tells you that you are not creative, that you can’t write, or draw, or paint, or accomplish whatever creative project you want to. The inner critic is supposed to stand in for everyone who’s told you that you are a crappy artist, that your creative pursuits aren’t good enough, and all of that fun stuff that apparently wasn’t there when you were a kid. And, in the course of becoming truly creative, you are supposed to silence your inner critic.
This got me thinking, however: What if that critic was there when you were a kid? What if the inner critic is, well, part of you, and you cannot “just silence” that part?
One thing that I really don’t talk about publicly (on the internet or off) is my history of major depression. There are many reasons as to why, and I think that those might best be saved for another post. However, there is something that really bugs me about the “inner critic” model of creativity: it does not take depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions into account. What if that voice in your head has been there for a while, and is an active part of your mental health issue? It’s not so easy to turn off that voice that tells you that you suck, or that your art or writing is a bunch of crap, or that you will never amount to anything when that voice is there because of a mental health condition.
There’s another assumption in writings about the importance of “turning off” the inner critic, which is that all children have a magical reserve of resilience and that is why they are so creative. These children simply don’t care what anyone else thinks, and the Creative Adult must recapture that sense of adventure by silencing the inner critic! It sounds so easy! But what of the depressed child, or the child with mental health issues? As someone who had depression issues as a kid — and still does — I question the supposedly “universal” applicability of this whole inner critic business, the assumption that it can be turned off like a damn light switch, after which we will all Recover Our Childlike Capacity For Creativity, or something.
I remember having my own Inner Critic as a kid, and it was not fun. Certainly, I did have years where I had that sense of Childlike Creativity and Wonder, but those were also interlaced by a voice in the back of my mind that would tell me awful things. And it never left, after a while. It would hiss: You do not belong. You are weak. Your bum leg is punishment for something, and you sure as hell aren’t going to “make up for it” with your stupid cartoons, give me a break! You think you’re going to be popular because of your cartoons? Because of your writing? Please. You are worthless, and also none of the other kids like you. Your art is just a hobby, nothing more.
Then, once the depression came on the scene, those little hissings became, well, much bigger. They’d been there when I was a kid, no doubt, but with major depression, they stuck in my brain like a particularly awful tape loop that just couldn’t be turned off. Things with my depression are much better now — as they have been for a few years — but I am always, always on the alert in case it comes back full-force. My depression not totally gone (nor do I expect it to be), but I manage it with care. And the “inner critic” that artsy self-help types slam? She’s still there, and I think she will be there permanently. The trick, for me, is learning to live with her instead of assuming that silencing her is an easy step.