“D-  This blog is not up to standard. Must try harder”  – Investigating our Inner Critic

“I don’t know why you’re bothering to write this blog Steven.  You might get one or two positive comments from loyal friends but overall people aren’t really interested in what you have to say.  Nobody whose opinion is worth listening to will read it.  Why would they?  There are far better blogs out there, written by people who have really done their work and who can write in a far more articulate and insightful way than you ever could.  You don’t really offer anything new – only your own rather immature and confused thinking.  You are simply inviting criticism and displaying your lack of intelligence and insight in a very public place.  Overall I think you’d be better off not bothering. Somehow you’ve got away with it up until now. I suggest you quit while you’re ahead or else people might suss out that you are actually an unqualified imposter!”

 

Meet my inner critic.

I’ve spent many years listening to his constant commentary on everything I do but only fairly recently have I stopped and thought to myself “Who on earth is this guy and when did he become such an expert in everything?”  In January last year I began a CIA style investigation into this character and the source of his constant, de-motivating propaganda.  Who is he?  Where does he come from?  And what are his motives?  Through various experiments I began to compile a dossier about him.  I began to notice that the overall theme of his unhelpful mantras were that I was an imposter, I hadn’t “done my work” (whatever that means) and that I should quit doing what I do until I was “appropriately qualified.”  I began to notice the type of places that he would typically show up and how I would often project his cruel voice onto others, experiencing them as colluding and agreeing with him.  Eventually I began to chat with him through personal journalling, drawing pictures of what I thought he might look like and recently I made a puppet of him that allows me to turn the tables, interrogate and challenge his perspectives and put him on the spot! (A creative variation on gestalt two-chair work.)  Through doing this I discovered him to be far more ignorant than I had imagined.  I discovered that his reasoning was rather childish and immature.  I discovered that he actually embodied every criticism that he habitually aimed at me!

It seems that the more curious I have become about my inner critic the more his power has diminished.  The more I learn about him, the more choice I recover whether to listen to his advice or not.  He is still there but I am starting to experience him more as an annoyance, rather than an authority.  I’ve even began to find compassion for him.  He is old in body and voice but young in age and experience.  He looks and sounds like a wise sage but has the intellect and temperament of an overtired toddler.  He is a composite of various introjects and rules I encountered as I grew up.  He is a manifestation of the  opinions of others that I swallowed whole as true statements about who I was and who I ought to be.  Through finding this compassion I have learnt that, behind the powerful facade, he is scared and simply trying to protect me in a rather deluded way.  He is a frightened, bewildered child trying to advise a grown man.

Last weekend I went to visit my parents and whilst in the loft (retrieving some of my old toys for my daughter to play with) I came across my old High School reports.  I laughed to myself as I remembered their content portraying me as a pleasant, helpful but distinctly average and unremarkable pupil.  However, as I started to read the comments my teachers had made, I began to feel a rising sense of upset and anger.  I remembered that the grades my teachers gave me were average at best (our reports graded effort and achievement on an A to E scale and my average scores were C/D) but what shocked me, as I read the scrawly handwriting from 30 years ago, was how pointed, critical and scathing the accompanying comments were:

Steven’s work is well below standard.  He does not listen enough and work is often incomplete.

Steven has not worked well.  He Still makes little effort.

Steven’s work is satisfactory only.

Steven needs to make more effort.

Steven seems to have difficulty with the work.  He would make more progress if he made more effort.

Steven has a lively imagination but does not pay enough attention.  Work is often incomplete.

When Steven is interested he produces good work, otherwise his results are poor.

Steven’s work is not at the standard we would expect from him.

Even my art teacher had written “Steven’s drawing lets him down – his work is very sketchy” which I now actually take as a compliment!  However, what I found most hurtful about these comments was the advice to “try harder” and “make more effort” when I was exerting as much effort as I possibly could.  I now see how this simply triggered a pattern of stuckness.

As I sat and read these comments I experienced the words coming to me in the same voice that my inner critic uses in his most powerful moments. My anger then gradually turned into excitement.  It was as if I had discovered the source of his power.  As if I had accidentally stumbled upon an ancient book of his favourite scripts that he used to torment me.  I realised that I must have been around 11-13 years old when these comments were written and, being a rather deferential, consciencsious pupil who wanted more than anything to please my teachers, I must have swallowed these comments whole and believed they were a true description of who I was.  Over time these comments must have slipped out of my conscious awareness to lurk deep in the shadows, ready to pounce when the moment was right.

I was left with a number of curious questions.  How would things have been different if my teachers had sought to understand my difficulties instead of simply describing them? (As I help my own daughter with her dyslexia I am beginning to believe that I may have had similar difficulties during my school years.)   What if my teachers were to turn 50% of these critiques back onto themselves and the rigid, inflexible curriculum as the partial source of my problems?   In particular I am struck by the comment that I produced good work when I was interested and can’t help but think that the state of being interested wasn’t solely my responsibility.  As I reflect on these questions I notice that I don’t personally blame my teachers for any of this.  They were likely struggling with their own projections and inner critics so I assume they were doing the best they could with the resources they had.  Nor do I harbour any grudges or regrets as my difficult experiences of school eventually led me to the work I love doing now.  Nonetheless the discovery of this document, ironically titled Record of Achievement, felt like a very important one.

The gestalt paradoxical theory of change suggests that change happens through becoming more aware of what we already are, as opposed to striving to be something we are not.  Whilst my inner critic is still alive and present, my deepening awareness of his form, his origins, his motives and his tactics have resulted in his power diminishing a little.  Whilst it was difficult to read, I am very grateful that I ventured into my parent’s loft and found these old school reports as they provided some vital intelligence for my ongoing investigation.

I am left wondering how much these seemingly insignificant comments from our childhood suppress and suffocate our creative spirit and spontaneous self confidence in the subsequent years.  On one hand they are only sentences, scribbled in the moment by time-pressed teachers with piles of other reports to write.  But on the other had they are powerful words that, in my experience, can provide a lifetime of material for our inner critic.  If you are curious then it might be worth digging around in your own attic!


Steve and gestalt psychotherapist Simon Cavicchia occasionally run “Playing at the Edge – Discovering our Inner Critic” workshops.  This workshop uses a variety of gestalt, mindfulness, creative practices, masks and movement to help us begin our own investigation into our inner critic.  More details can be found here.

As part of his research, Steve has been asking people to draw their own Inner Critic as a way of getting to know them better.  A growing online gallery of Inner Critics is available here:  http://innercriticexperiment.tumblr.com/   Please feel free to contribute your own.

You can also view Steve’s TEDx talk on the Inner Critic here.

  1. Clare says:

    Great blog Steve as ever. This one resonated as I woke up in the early hours of this morning with my inner critic (I am now wondering what she looks like!) poking me in the head with a whole heap of unhelpful stuff about my inability to complete a key chapter of my dissertation! This rapidly became my inability to complete the whole thing and for the first time I felt a sense of descending gloom. Reading this has allowed me to separate me from my inner critic and see her for what she is. I am back writing again this morning with a smile on my face…..Thank you.

    Clare

    1. Hi Clare. Thanks for the comments – glad you found it helpful. I find that paying attention to Inner Critic, personifying them and making the image bigger/exaggerated works in a similar way to how Fritz Perls worked with clients. Deepening awareness and recovering choice. Separate to integrate. Recently my Inner Critic (who is called Tom by the way) was giving me hell over a piece of work. Using the puppet I asked him what he thought was going to happen. “Errr….people will….er….think you are…..er….silly and not like you.” “Is that all you’ve got?” I replied. He then shut up! This blog is the next step in challenging his power.

  2. robertpoynton says:

    Love the phrase: “I am starting to experience him more as an annoyance, rather than an authority.” That shift, from ‘authority’ to ‘annoyance’ is really useful for all sorts of inner work I think.

  3. Sleepless says:

    Thanks Steve – was really surprised to find you have an inner critic – you always seem to able to play, explore, fail happy! – I think your inner critic doesn’t stand a chance, which is great for the rest of us (by the way do you think inner critics have inner critics?)
    kate

    1. Thanks Kate. It seems many people are surprised that others have active inner critics. I guess that is our inner critic making things worse for us by suggesting others don’t have them!

      I know a couple of successful reasonably well known artists and performers and was surprised to hear that they still had an active inner critic despite their very visible success. In some instances the success had made it worse.

  4. Katy says:

    Excellent blog, the sound of many nails being forcefully struck, thank you. Many fateful lines helpfully ricochet about my head… “Out of all of you, I expected better from YOU” (a teacher during a mucking-about-behind the sheds moment, perhaps one of the milder assaults). I find the inner critic to be particularly proficient at linking up unconnected past comments to make all encompassing, super critical comments…it’s a trier for sure!

    1. Thanks Katy. Love that idea of the inner critic linking up comments to make them bigger. (I imagine him having a huge white board with post its and all sorts of arrows joining things up!) The whole seems to be bigger than the sum of the parts in that respect. When we start to pay attention to the individual parts it starts to unravel a little.

  5. Jennifer Lopez says:

    Steve,
    Thank you so much for this post! It is so hard to face our inner critic, and your tackling the topic in such a meaningful and simple way was so helpful! Thank you!

    1. Thanks Jennifer. I think part of the inner critic’s objective is for us to be scared of him/her – if we were to get close and face them then we’d realise they weren’t quite as powerful as they would like us to know.

  6. Simon Cavicchia says:

    This is a lovely piece of writing. I love how easy and authentic you are with what is a very delicate process. I found myself welling up at times with both sadness at the pain of those reports and joy at your new found perspective. Shame thrives in silence and shadows so anything we do to bring it into the light helps us and others.

  7. Powerful, soulful writing, Steve. Makes me wonder what purpose our inner critic serves apart from (not) managing our anxiety – our deepest fear, as Marianne Williamson puts it.

    “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?…”

  8. Simon Martin says:

    Great piece Steve, enjoyed it. “Record of Achievement” – there’s a weighty phrase that’s just chimed in from the past. I now remember the colour of the paper, a sort of off-white/buff. Think I may take a trip up that creaky ladder next time I visit the folks…

  9. Andy Brett says:

    Well written and thought provoking article. A pleasure to read and a process that I can identify with. Here’s to the (gentle) outing of shame and to learning to live with our inner critics!

  10. Stuart Reid says:

    Sorry to disappoint your inner critic Steve, but I think this blog post is one of your best ever!

    I love the idea of conducting a CIA style surveillance operation on your inner critic, and compiling a dossier. As well as playing into my own fantasies of being a spy, it makes the whole thing feel playful. Nice.

  11. Thanks for providing such a personal post. It was very timely for me. I can relate all too closely to the inner critic syndrome, as I currently find my own IC trying to discourage me from taking that risky leap on a new creative endeavor.

    I have a little plaque on my desk that reads, “Sometimes you just have to jump and grow wings on the way down.” This mantra has served me well whenever I find myself second-guessing my own abilities

    -Steven

    1. Thanks for the comment Steven. I can very much relate to what you say. My IC was incredibly active at every stage of me leaving a ‘proper’ job, telling stories of how much of a big mistake I was making.

      “Leap then look” has since become a personal mantra.

  12. Steve, really enjoyed reading this post and the threads of how the critic is formed going back to school reports! I recently read a piece about the value of ‘self critical’ thoughts in a world that champions confidence and certainty. I think there is an exploration of critic, when fully integrated and not introjected, that allows for humilty and the acknowledgement of our limitations.

    1. Hi Steven, thanks for your comment. A really interesting point you make there and helps make more sense of the idea of awareness, choice and integration being a healthier approach to our Inner Critic than attempting to fight and overthrow.

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