Working with the Internal Critic

by Ruth Folit

written July, 2003

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, written by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, describes “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Author Susan Perry has taken Csikszentmihalyi’s work and examined the “flow” state within the context of writers and their writing. Perry’s Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity specifically looks at how writers can get into a flow state while writing. In her book she states: “The optimal conditions for creativity (and thus for flow entry) include a condition of psychological safety from external evaluation. When you feel (and fear) your efforts are going to be judged, you quickly lose the ability to marshal all your mental and emotional resources in the quest for a new way to express yourself. No one wants to fail or look foolish for writing something that others (or you yourself) will judge to be bad, stupid, or silly.”

Journal writing creates a safe haven. I write with no intended audience. I don’t feel judged by some unwelcome, sneering being, breathing over my shoulder. I have the freedom and space to think, to express, to be as I please. It’s not easy to find that in the everyday world.

However, even within the confines of “no audience” journal writing, I can sometimes find myself being both writer and audience. This inner and sometimes negative inner voice has been dubbed by many as the “Internal Critic.” Sometimes the Internal Critic can be as cruel and damaging as an external audience. The Internal Critic seems to be universal. Everyone has heard that nagging internal voice saying something akin to “What are you thinking? This is horrible! You think you can write?”

To make journal writing psychologically safer (and hence increase your creativity) you may want to learn to tame your Internal Critic. Here are some thoughts about working with the Internal Critic:

  1. Acknowledge that everyone has Internal Critics of some kind. Get to know yours. Usually, people incorporate parts of their parents, teachers, siblings, or others that may have been critical when they were younger to create their Internal Critics. Bring those Inner Critics out of hiding, into the light of day, and learn everything you can about them. You may want to dialog with your Internal Critics using the dialog tool within LifeJournal. Write down what your Internal Critic is saying: It may be an eye-opener. After a while you will be able to identify the voices of the Internal Critics.

  2. Recognize that Internal Critics have both beneficial and damaging qualities. At times your Internal Critics may be protecting you from external criticism. They may motivate you to edit your essay one more time and improve it.

  3. Discriminate when it’s a good time to listen to your critics and when to dismiss them. When you are first gathering your thoughts and putting them into words, the Internal Critics may limit your thinking and confine the range of ways to express yourself. In the early phases of writing, keep your critics distant. They will never really go away, so consider different ways to detach from or ignore them.

    You may temporarily turn a deaf ear, like when a neighbor’s dog is barking loudly: sometimes you confront your neighbor and his dog, and other times you choose to turn the din into benign background noise. You may choose to talk to your Internal Critics directly–perhaps kindly and firmly, or harshly and bluntly–and let them know that you know that they are there, but you’ll interact with them later. Or you may work with them proactively at the start of the day, as Julia Cameron suggests in The Artist’s Way. Cameron writes “morning pages,” the daily routine first thing in the morning of writing three pages about whatever you want as a way to clear out, clean out, and prepare for a day of creativity. Within your morning pages you may want to have a conversation with your critics, letting them know how you will interact with them that day.

    The more you acknowledge your Internal Critics, the more you’ll be able to make them smaller than life.

  4. Stay committed to staying in control of your Internal Critics. With time and patience and practice, you’ll figure out the best way to use these interior characters to your advantage.