Making friends with the inner critics…
As a writer, you are on your own, so who do you want to be locked up with? You get to choose your cell mate, although most people don’t realise they have a choice. I have worked with many clients over the years, and I have taught the creative process to students of all ages. It always fascinates, and sometimes frightens me, to see just how much people torture themselves. Women, in particular, tend to be highly critical of themselves, and many of us are dangerously unaware of the subconscious commentary that runs in our minds on a daily basis. Some people cannot identify the words of their mind’s narrative but they can experience it as images, colours, shapes and feelings. I have seen these inner voices expressed as black blotches, faces with no eyes, various forms of demons and zombies, and in one case, a young woman simply drew a page of swastikas.
There is usually a predominant internal voice that prevails, which people can live with for years without realising it’s there. It is impossible for us to truly befriend ourselves while these mean, mad critics are ruling our minds. The first step is to identify who the voices are. As fiction writers, we are more than capable of turning these guys into characters. It is essential to learn that these self-admonishing, grumpy, fastidious, killjoys are not you. That’s the first step. They are separate to you. The real, true you, is a loving being, full of light and empathy and kindness. You are your own person, your own unique expression of the universe in action. Your inner critics are just passengers who have come along for the ride, things you have picked up along the way. So if they are not you, then who are they?
Until we become aware of our inner voices, it is impossible for us to do anything about them.
You’ll know who they are when you find yourself attempting to write, or reading back over a chapter you’ve written, or actually telling people you are a writer. They swoop in and try to stop you in your tracks, making a mockery of everything you are trying to do.
One of my own worst inner critic voices was the one that always said, ‘you are not good enough!’. I have learned that this is a fairly ordinary, run of the mill type of critic. But how did it get there? I’m not entirely sure. I’ve always beaten myself up about things, been very sensitive, and when I was a little girl, I had a really hard time moving from England to Scotland. I was teased, ridiculed because of my accent and something just festered. Sometimes we don’t know how these voices form, only that they are there.
When I started taking my writing seriously, I found that my not good enough voice was a huge, booming, all-powerful presence in my head. It would not leave me alone. I would creep along that writing path intrepidly, trying to get a story down, but every five minutes the voice would return: what are you trying to do? Write a book? Don’t be ridiculous, you’ll never be able to do that. You’re not a writer! You’re not good enough. And anyway, it’s far too late for you. No one will ever take you seriously. Look at that sentence for a start, that’s rubbish…etc…etc. This ongoing nitpicking turned my creative process into a kind of continuous torture.
When I trained to become a creativity coach, I was finally able to identify that voice as being separate to me. For far too long I had honoured its words, given it priority over my desire to write, and let it boss me around and bully me. When forced to examine it, I had to give it a name, enquire, find out who it really was…and so Dave Vader was born.
The voice was definitely dark and black, so my immediate association was with Darth Vader. But it wasn’t quite as sinister as Darth, more nagging and annoying than brutal and intent on killing me if I didn’t come and join it on the dark side. It was kind of like a younger, wannabe version of Darth Vader, so I made it his younger, more insecure brother, Dave.
I started getting to know Dave and he quickly became a comedy figure. I just couldn’t take him seriously. He was like a puppy trying desperately to be aggressive and ferocious but being so cute that it was impossible to be afraid of him. I was lecturing at a local college at the time, and I bought a small Darth Vader Lego figure which I attached to a black hairband and wore often, even through lectures, presentations and workshops. I would introduce Dave as my inner critic. There he was on my head, waving his lightsaber with his little Lego head and black cape. Naturally, he made people laugh. The more of a character I made out of him, and the more I introduced him to other people, the less he got in the way of my writing.
When he popped up in my writing process, I’d have an internal dialogue with him: hi Dave, thanks for your comments. I don’t need them just now. Go and practise fighting with your light saber, or, hi Dave, I’d love to chat, but I’m busy right now. And anyway, Darth has invited you over for dinner with the Emperor, hurry up and get to the Death Star or you’ll be late. Dave was such a cute and harmless little guy that it was very difficult for me not to like him. He even featured in a newspaper article about my creativity courses.
Creating Dave Vader was one of the most healing things I have ever done. My not good enough voice eventually disappeared completely and I transformed it into something much more positive. Instead, I now say things like, how can I make this sentence sound better? Whose work can I read to inspire me? I am a writer, this is what I do, I trust the process, I trust that by doing it, the inspiration will come, which is a lot healthier than constantly beating myself up and telling myself I’m not good enough.
Since then, my coach and I have worked with many other voices in my head and had a lot of fun doing it. No matter how your voices got there, or how bad they may seem to be, they all have one thing in common, which you will find surprising: they all love you. They are only trying to protect you. They come from a part of your brain that is great to have if you suddenly take the notion to run naked down the high street, or sing at the top of your lungs on a packed train. We need censorship in those cases, we need a part of us to be the internal social police. But when that tough love stops you from doing your creative work, it is actually doing more harm than good. Our critics mean well, regardless of how scary they might sound. They don’t want us to make a fool of ourselves or be humiliated. All they are trying to do is protect you. So face them, find out who they are, give them a personality and get to know them and you will diffuse their power and dissolve the negative impact they have on your work.