The Biggest Danger to Your Creativity

Last Friday I caught up with an old college friend. She had been a fine arts major and was now helping curate art for different businesses around the country. As we were catching up over drinks, I asked her what art she does now.

“None really.” She said.

I was shocked. Here was an amazingly talented woman who could spend hours in front of a pottery wheel or sculpting a model. That was part of the problem: her mediums are expensive and time-consuming.  She didn’t have the time or money to pay a model to pose for hours.

But what about her photography, drawing, and her other creative projects? Those had dried up too.

“I’ve had to be so critical of art,” she said, “that when I try to start, I can’t finish anything.”

My heart broke. This gifted artist was being stymied by her inner critic.

What your inner critic looks like

Every inner critic looks a little different. Some are worriers, afraid of every shadow and jagged edge. Others are condescending, berating you for every smudge or flake of dust. My inner critic, Nagging Nancy, is a worrying perfectionist. She wants a piece to be flawless. No work is good unless everyone loves it. Oh don’t show that one, she says, what will people think of you for showing that?

Your inner critic may look radically different from mine. Yet they share one dangerous quality. They are calibrated to attack us at our weakest and make us believe that our art isn’t enough. Living inside of us, they know our insecurities. They will say anything and everything to stop our creativity.

Why? Because they want to protect us.

Wait, how is creativity dangerous?

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The inner critic’s original role is to protect us from shame and embarrassment. We internalize the criticisms, worries, and fears of our parents and elders. Instead of waiting to be corrected by others, the inner critic tries to point it out early so we can be spared judgement from others.

So why does the inner critic care about creativity? It seems so innocent. But the creative process involves risk taking. Often it asks us to put ourselves out in front of strangers, friends, or family in a whole new light.  It can also bring up questions like

Will it be good?

What will people think?

Will I be judged for this?

Creativity, however, can’t answer any of these questions. Suddenly, the inner critic suddenly doesn’t know if we will be safe from judgement and shame. It can’t protect us from potential shame and embarrassment from the project. The only way it can protect us is by shutting down the creativity.

Yet, the inner critic isn’t perfect. It can never fully protect you from shame, embarrassment, or hurt. The inner critic can’t predict when you’ll split your pants in public by accident. It can’t catch every typo in a presentation. It can’t make you become inhumanely perfect.

Yes, it may prevent you from feeling some shame, some hurt. It will also keep you from creating amazing things, whether it’s documenting your child growing up to creating the next great love song.

Creativity is a risk, but then again, so is living.

Strategies to Overcome your Critic

Feel like you can’t get a break from your inner critic? Try some of these strategies

Just do it

Almost every morning I sit down and do morning pages, more or less 3 pages of free writing. Good, bad, or ugly, I get on the page. No edits allowed.

Most days It’s a hodge-podge of worries and lists. Sometimes, great things will emerge. This blog post started in my moleskin journal.

Inner critics are scaredy cats. The best way to silence them is to just start and don’t stop. Whether you write music, draw, or dance, just give yourself some time every day to show up. For awhile, don’t even look at what you’re making. This exercise isn’t about output, it’s about showing up. Like an athlete, this practice will keep you warm and make starting a real project even easier.

Choose resilience

marching ahead

Inner critics are the best doomsday prophets. If you put that song out, the whole world will realize you’re a fraud! God, even a four-year old could draw better than that. Just burn it, no one has to know. 

When this happens, sometimes I play a game. I try to logically go through the awful scenario. For instance, my inner critic might say: God, don’t publish that blog post, everyone will hate it. 

Ok, what then?

Well what if you get negative feedback on Facebook?

Depends. If it’s unnecessarily mean, I can report them. Worse case, I learn something important about writing and audiences.

My inner critic doesn’t go quiet every time. Still, going through these scenarios helps me focus on my resilience. Yes, bad things may happen in creativity. That doesn’t mean you aren’t strong enough to face anything that comes your way.

Remembering your own resiliency is a great way to help you keep moving forward.

Name your critic

My inner critic is Nancy. I can almost see her in my mind. She wears glasses, has her hair in a bun, and wears a button down shirt and a pencil skirt that are perfect. Like an evil librarian, her finger is always read to accuse me of breaking the rules.

My friend has named her inner critic Sister Mary Margaret. My guess is she’s a severe nun that likes to believe Vatican II never happened. I like to think she also has an Irish accent.

Take some time to name and get an idea of what your inner critic looks like. What’s their name? What do they wear? What do they value? What do they hate?

This may seem silly, but answering these questions can help you get some space from your critic. Many of us are used to the inner critic, we don’t question what it says anymore. It’s a lot easier to doubt the mean questioning voice when it doesn’t feel like it’s your own voice.

You have the choice to believe your inner critic. It may seem incredibly difficult at first, but naming my inner critic really helped me step back and understand what those thoughts were really about.

No matter which tactics you use, please know this: you deserve more than to constantly look over your shoulder. You deserve to create and enjoy the projects that make you happy. You deserve to experiment, to see what lies behind those close doors.

Yes, there may be some risk involved. But I promise you, it’s always worth it.

Any ideas for dealing with your inner critic! Please share. 

3 Comments

  1. I could write pages of romantic fiction about 30 years ago. I was even into poetry and composed a hymn of 4 stanzas with a tune to boot. The tune was written down on a music sheet by a late friend of mine; he did this by playing it on a rickety organ and making the notations. I was a good chess player. I don’t know how and why but I totally lost all interest in these activities. I think it is a character trait of mine; I lose interest in things, activities, people, programs, etc., with the passage of time. After over 30 years something has woken up my interest in writing. I have started writing non-fiction narratives. However, there is a mental block which is hindering me from writing creative fiction. My conscious mind says, fiction is not reality. I want to create stories. I just can’t start. I’m reading a lot with the hope of sparking that interest in presenting my creation as reality to my readers. But how do I go about it? I know all about creating characters and them having individual backgrounds, plots, tension, climax, conclusion. My inner critic says, that’s not reality. How do I break this wall down or kill it? Any ideas?

    1. Thomas, I’m so sorry for the long delay in this.

      As far as your particular inner critic what would happen if you just start writing your characters? What if you just started writing from their perspective, or describing their days?

      It’s interesting to me that your inner critic is all focused on reality. In your case, I might turn it into a game. Think of it like role play: you’re telling an entertaining story to yourself, and as you do, you’re writing it down.

      With the inner critic, gamefication can be a great way to get around your inner critic and enjoy it. The other main thing I do is give myself permission to freewrite. I’d set a timer, cut off all distractions, and just write. It doesn’t have to be on point exactly for the character. But it sounds like you’ve done all the work in mapping out your characters. It’s just about connecting the dots.

      Let me know if that helps or not!

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