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.

5 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve had much of the same problems when I was kid, because when I was kid my depression was at its worse but I also loved art. But that depression part of me would take severe hold and I would just completely give up on art, because there was no way I would ever be good enough, that there was no point, and I was just fooling myself to even try. I’ve gone back and forth with art, some years obsessing over it and some years ignoring it. I’ve had art teachers criticize me again and again for not “shutting down the inner critic”. I’ve always thought that that too made me a bad artist, that I just couldn’t shut down the critic and get on with my work. And even though I’ve passed much of my depression (that sort of ‘for now’ deal) I still have trouble working with art and feeling like I’m allowed to do so. But thank you. This article made me feel better about it. 🙂

  2. That really is the problem with the vast majority of self-help books; they claim to want to be helpful, but they reiterate the same damaging stuff that hurt people in the first place, and do passive-aggressive victim-blaming and shaming to boot. I guess I have strong opinions about this since my reactions to it are so strongly negative. 🙂 But yeah, it’s really incongruous for someone claiming they only want to set you free to turn around and say “There are some parts of you so bad that you should shut them up and ignore them.” As if Inner Critics respond to that–as if the places in ourselves that have suffered trauma respond well to that. Maybe that sort of advice just isn’t as painful to encounter if you don’t already have depression or trauma stuff going on, who knows. Anyway, I’m with you: I think the Inner Critic, like all the narratives in our heads, are part of us and need to be witnessed, examined, and lived with rather than shamed and suppressed.

  3. On top of ignoring the realities of people who can not simply tell their “inner critic” to shut up (and yes, the worse my depressionis, the harder it is to motivate myself to do everyday things, never mind even think about feeling good about myself and my attempts at creativity), these books also ignore the fact that the sime kind of distructive “criticism” can also be coming from other people.

    I mean, tearing people down, telling them they are bad at what they do, that they are useless and have no talent, that nobody would ever like what they are doing- those are ways of psychological abuse. And that is sadly far to common.

    So how is “silence your inner critic and remember how freely creative you were as a child” supposed to help someone who wasn’t allowed to be freely creative as a child? Someone whose attempts at art were met with derision instead of the praise we whish all children would get? Someone who now has an inner critic repeating things that others actually said? Or someone who is still a victim of that kind of buse, since it is certainly not limited to children? How is does it help someone to be told not to listen to their inner critic when, if even they could do that, there are still “outside” critics happy to continue belittling everything that person does?

    I am not saying that creative how to books should tackle issues like emotional abuse, but they should be aware that there are people for whom the “inner critic” really isn’t the biggest obstacle, as well as those for whom telling that critic to shut up isn’t an option.

  4. I remember…oh, I must have been 12 or 13…I did something that disappointed my mother. I can’t remember what it was now. And she asked me to make a list of the things that were good I did, and the things that weren’t good. I believe the point she was trying to make is that we are the balance of all the things we are, and that we have to mind how the ill things we do are part of who we are and thus need to be minded.

    I came up with twice as many things that I did that were bad, and came to the conclusion that I was a horrible person. When my mother came to check on me, I was trapped in this state of…of…shock at just how awful I was. I remember trying to explain to her through such bad sobbing that I couldn’t get more than one word out at a time.

    I also remember how completely shocked my mother was that I came to such a conclusion. Mom has never thought I was a perfect person, but I believe she has always thought I was a good person, and for me to come to such a diametrically opposite conclusion stunned her. Oh, yes, the inner critic was deeply rooted in me. The same message my parents gave of disapproving of something I’d done wrong that wouldn’t have phased my best friend, eventually became devastating to me to the point where it led me to believe in my teens that they would be happier without me (and I believe that if not all, at least the vast majority of things I’d been scolded for deserved scolding, and that the degree was reasonable for an average child). I was never told that I was bad or ungrateful or horrid or any of the other sorts of really negative things people say about their children, I was only told that an action I did caused my parents to be disappointed. How little a push it takes for some of us, eh?

    I am lucky that my creativity was always praised and encouraged, to the point where even when depressed, I am able to look at (most) of my own artistic efforts as worthwhile. To be sure, I don’t think ALL of my art is worth doing – I know I am terrible at doing full-body representation, for example, and that my visual perspective never looks quite right when I try things like buildings. But I know I make beautiful jewelery, and I sew well, and knit and crochet both with talent and creatively. I also know I write well, if I’d ever FINISH an idea. I think for me, part of what helps is being able to separate myself from the artwork somewhat. Creating is almost a mystical experience for me, whereby unremarkable items are transmuted into beautiful things. When I make things in a hypomanic state, I actually tend to have very little memory of how I felt while making the thing. For a long time, I did almost all of my art when I was in that elevated mood-state. I haven’t for a few years now because my mood has been well controlled and I have had to learn to create without that, which was really difficult at first and necessitated moving into new forms that I hadn’t tried before.

    Sorry, that got longer than I intended.

    ~Kali

  5. Thank you for this post. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own inner critic because, well…I haven’t been writing much lately. And I think when I was younger I internalised a lot of messages wrt what constituted “good” or “valid” art–I’m still convinced I can’t express myself in a visual medium for shit, though I’m a pretty good singer.

    And yeah, maybe for some people silencing that voice is easy. For me, however, it is so far from that. It is always there. Sometimes I can work around it, but it is still there, undermining my conviction.

    Bah.

    Anyway, thanks again for writing this.