• Elise V Allan

Inner Critic - Fun and Games

first published June 2018

One of the highlights in my other job1 is running an inner critic workshop with Year 2 art students. At that age and stage in a creative life, many believe that they are alone in having a negative stream of thoughts commenting on them and their work, many are affected by listening to its unpleasant judgements, and many have not yet learned that the mean internal voice is not who they are.

What a pleasure it is to deliver the good news that they are not alone, that this voice nearly always comes with the package of working creatively, and that not only do you not have to give its opinions any credence, you can also learn to have fun with it. And the sense of relief in the room is often palpable.

I wrote ‘nearly always’ as I know one creative person who reports that he doesn’t have an inner critic. He’s not arrogant, he’s not insensitive; he’s immensely likeable and inspiring. If anyone tells him his work is terrible, he isn’t phased; he’ll take a second look, and decide whether he agrees or not. And if he does agree, he’ll consider how to make the work better. He’s straightforward in dealing with it. Imagine being like that. I’m suggesting that you actually take time to imagine being like that. How good would that feel?

For it’s not just the young or inexperienced that get conned by their inner critic. Most of us, hilariously, get the opportunity to play games of cops and robbers, hide and seek, or even kiss, kick or torture with those voices throughout our lives. Inner critics are sneaky; they creep up on us, and we have to have our wits about us or we can find that we’ve been dragged down, pulled off course, or have ground to a halt because of something as insubstantial as a thought, often a not particularly useful or original thought. Sometimes it’s a series of them as banal as, “This is awful,” leading to, “Everything I do is rubbish,” followed by, “I’m no good.”

Different critics have different personalities, put downs and attitudes. Much of their script is created by the society we grow up in. Americans, according to Stone and Stone2, get anxious that they’re not special enough; Scots, along with the Dutch and Australians, learn that they mustn’t stand too tall or they’ll be cut down to size.  Then we have our own peculiar family traditions of criticism –“Why can’t you be normal like us/less volatile/take up golf” - our educational ones – “You must never use black/a blunt pencil/colour straight from the palette” - and our peer group ones – “Anyone who's cool is making out-of-focus photographs /no-one who’s cool is doing installations with orange fake fur any more/your artist statement doesn’t sound intimidatingly obscure enough to impress anyone.”

It’s good to identify the critics, watch what they get up to, catch them in the act, and challenge them. This is where the fun begins. It can be like learning to stand up to the school bully. The part of us that’s disempowered by the internal criticisms usually feels young and vulnerable.  With the students, we find it helps to differentiate between the critical voice and the criticised part of ourselves, as often, while experiencing the process, they identify with both. Most of us do.

So the first assumption is “this is me criticising me.” But if it’s reworded instead as “I’m experiencing critical thoughts, followed by experiencing unpleasant feelings,” we can begin to see the thoughts as external. Their source is as external as the lyrics of a song that’s got trapped inside our heads, or a catchphrase that we find ourselves repeating silently. But although the inner critic opinions may even have been created before we were born, we nevertheless believe that they originate from us.

So, it’s time for the fun and games. Once we’ve watched the inner critic at work, and learned that it’s really quite two-dimensional, like a cartoon, we can play with it. Draw it, give it a nickname, laugh at it and its little mannerisms; does it have a tightly pursed mouth? Eyebrows arched and a lip curled in a sneer, like Jeremy Paxman mocking a wrong answer in University Challenge? Does it accuse you of being pretentious, boring, derivative, incapable, stupid, or unimaginative? All of this is standard inner critic behaviour.

One client, with a good sense of humour, described her inner critic as being like a disapproving old aunt with a sour expression, pouring cold water on every creative possibility. We had a mutual friend who used to do hilarious impressions of a real curmudgeon of an old auntie, with a face that looked like she was chewing a wasp, and so we began to laugh at this internal one, with its outrageous negativity. “What will we do with her?” I asked, and this is where we can play inner critic ‘kiss, kick or torture’. We can be kind to (kiss) the bitter old woman, recognising that she comes from a time and place where there weren’t many opportunities to have fun, or to be creative. We can deliver a short sharp blow to the internal old hag, just as we might kick someone if we were physically attacked. Torture? Perhaps humiliate our inner critic by imagining it looking ridiculous, like Neville did, in Harry Potter, dealing with his boggart, the viciously critical Professor Snape, by visualising him wearing his grandmother’s clothes. 

But first, we have to catch it red handed.

1I also work part time as a lecturer in Higher Education. The workshop was one of a series on motivation created in collaboration with a colleague, Susan Roan, inspiring me to train as a creativity coach. 

2Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-Criticism into a Creative Asset by Hal and Sidra Stone 

If you’re not sure whether one to one creativity coaching is right for you, but would like to find out, I offer a free 30 minutes trial session, in person, by Skype or Zoom. Contact

Image: Elise V Allan, oil on canvas, 1984

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