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The Inner Critic and the Undertaker

inner critic

Originally written for Writing From the Centre on April 29th, 2013

Just about every book on writing that you pick up will dedicate some pages to the inner critic. This inner critic is often typified as the teacher(s) you had in the past who made you feel like a failure, or the family member who encouraged you to be small, be afraid, and stay on the traditional, safe, and familiar paths. Although this may certainly be true, I’m going to argue that in many respects it is also part cliché.

There are not many people who’ve made it through life without being subject to some criticism. To learn anything we have to try, make errors, and be corrected. These corrections are the thankless job of parents, teachers, law enforcement, social structures and even our own psyche. The so-called super-ego (to use Freudian terms) is designed to internalize social codes and mores so that we can learn to play well with others.  As writers and imaginative types we like to think that a world without these constraints would be better, more creative, more exciting—and it might be—but it also could be complete chaos. (I would suggest going for a drive in Manila for anyone who would like to experience driving without rules).

Not all of our self-criticism originates from outside of our selves. It is also a trait we pick up instinctively from our role-models. Chances are that if your parents were extremely hard on themselves you will be too, even if they had nothing but praise for you.  There are also matters of temperament to consider. Any parent can attest that some personality traits are present almost from birth. One child in a family may be naturally self-assured where the next one may be shy and diffident.

Regardless of how self-critical you are, the general agreement is that the inner critic can completely shut down your writing. But I’d like to argue that it isn’t so much the criticism as the timing that is at fault.  Constructive critique (i.e. criticism that is objective, impersonal, focused and delivered in a positive manner) can improve your writing immensely. (Check out the wonderful posts on the Reading as Writers website on this topic). The problem is that critique can’t be of any use until there is actually some writing there to work with.  The issue is not criticism itself but premature criticism: criticism that happens before the piece has actually unfolded.

Criticism is like an undertaker. We don’t want to see him or her at our door until someone is actually dead. Premature undertaking is rude, upsetting and hard to explain to the neighbours.  Monty Python did several skits on this theme, including a very memorable argument between a corpse collector and a peasant during the black plague. The collector wants to take the peasant right away, to save a trip, and the peasant responds by arguing, “I’m not dead yet!”  We don’t want to give over our writing to any critic until we’re ready to step back and let go of it.

So what to do about those premature inner voices?  Here are a few techniques to try.

  1. Close the door in their face. Don’t take the flyer. Just let them know you will call them when you’re good and ready.
  2. Or, do the opposite. Explore who they are and where they come from. Try to discern where inside your physical body they reside. What emotions drive them? Are they fearful or are they angry? Can you stop and listen to them before you dismiss them? The general wisdom about dealing with phantoms is that most of them just want to be heard. Once they’ve been heard and answered it can be much easier to send them away.  For further insight on this topic check out The Sixth Sense (I see dead people!)

Here are some questions to ask your inner critic:

What do you want?

What do you fear?

What is the worst thing that could happen?

If you’ve listened to your inner critic and he or she is still not going away you can try this yoga exercise (inspired by Derek Jensen’s Walking on Water):

Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Letting your wrists soften, vigorously shake out your hands for about thirty seconds.

Now bend your elbows and hold out your hands with the palms facing up.

Reach the thumb all the way over to the base of the baby finger and stretch. Hold.

Now fold your pinky to cover your thumbnail.

Next, stretch your first finger to cover the base knuckle of your thumb. (It’s hard).

Take your ring finger and cover your thumb’s middle knuckle.

Extend the middle finger and voila!  Inner critic mudra.

Use this finger position therapeutically to let your inner critic know where you stand and then get back to your writing.

Thank you to Irena  P.  for passing on Derrick Jenson’s wonderful advice.

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Until next time,


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Yoga and meditation teacher, writer, reader, cat-momma, environmental warrior, friend

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