The Voice Inside Your Head
How it used to be
Remember when you were a child? When you were so excited to paint, not because you “knew how” to paint but because there was nothing more impressive than having green hands? Those were the good old days. The teacher would command the class saying, “paint a leaf!” You would paint a shoe and call it a leaf anyway. And nobody cared. Don’t you miss that? Don’t you miss those days of childlike wonder when you could play the happy birthday melody on the piano? You played all the notes wrong, but you sang the entire song anyway because it didn’t matter. Today, you may not be excited to sit in front of the piano because that beautiful marvel of wood and ivory no longer represents the wonder of music, it just serves as a reminder that you can never play as good as Ludwig Van Beethoven.
In those days, it didn’t matter who sounded like Beyonce; we all sang together. Today when someone sings better than you, you let them sing alone while you remind yourself that at least you can do math better than them. Long boring years have replaced the good old glory days. But what happened between those innocent days and now? Why is it that in adulthood, a severe lack of confidence and irresistible comparison sweeps over most creative people? (Holtz, 2018) The unfortunate truth is that while we went about care-freely trying things out, we were not aware that in the deepest parts of our minds, we were feeding a dark monster – the critic.
Meet your critic
The inner critic is probably the greatest dread for artists – musicians, painters, writers, you name them. Believe it or not, every artist has an inner critic that seeks to influence their work (Renee, 2017). I believe the critic has an idea of how the outside world defines perfection. It is the inner critic’s job, therefore, to try to impose this external perfection on the artist as they do their work—failure to attain this level of perfection results in the artist constantly and severely under-appreciating their art.
I do not believe that the critic’s intentions are bad. Essentially, the critic is just trying to protect you from shame and other unpleasant things. But this may come at the cost of your creative freedom, and creative freedom may be more important than the fear of being ashamed (Borchers, 2013). To understand these inner critics better, let us see how they begin to exist.
What’s up with the critics anyway?
I think that we do not necessarily create a critic. Almost always, we can trace the critic back to outside influences. By outside influences, I am not talking about nature. Of course, nature can affect us but not as bad as people. Think about it.
When your teacher told you to paint a tree, and you painted something that looked like a mountain, it was never a problem because all the kids did the same thing. Everyone did it except for that one kid – Moses. Moses drew a perfect tree with details so fine that the leaves seemed to move with the wind. That’s when everything changed. The teacher saw your tree and said, “nice.” But when she saw Moses’ tree, she said, “this is the most beautiful perfect tree I have ever seen in my life. The tree is so good I want to climb it! Moses, draw a fire around it so it can become a burning bush.”
As your teacher invited other people to come and see this magnificent tree, you realized that it did not matter that the tree you painted looked like a mountain. The real problem was that the tree you painted did not look as lovely as the tree that Moses painted. The critic within you picked up the lesson that the only tree worth painting is Moses’ tree, and any tree below perfection is utterly useless. For most people, that is how their inner critic develops. According to Dinkelspiel (2019), we develop our inner critics “as we internalize the messages we hear as children about what is “good” and what is “bad.”
Inner critics develop as we internalize people’s perceptions of good and badAnne Dinkelspiel
Well then, what should we do?
First, you need to understand that your art is about you, not necessarily other people. Even if something external inspires you, remember that YOU are the one creating. No matter how awesome your art is, some people will love it, and others will despise it. That’s okay. Therefore, create art that is pleasant to you first. Other people are secondary. Do not let the inner critic tell you that people will not like your work. Remind the critic that personal satisfaction is a reason enough to create. (The dynamics slightly change when you are working for a client. In this case, the priority is to deliver the client’s request. But even then, make sure that you produce work that makes you proud.)
Furthermore, let us face another fact: not all your art is going to be a masterpiece (Dinkelspiel, 2019). Make peace with that too. Even Da Vinci did not perpetually paint Mona Lisas. When you make peace with that, you will be a lot freer to create without feeling like you have to make something so mind-blowingly remarkable that the world will fall at your feet in reverence. And there is much more pleasure in the possibility that what you consider to be average might unexpectedly turn out to be your masterpiece. So don’t let the inner critic tell you that you have to be creating a masterpiece every time you work. Trust me; it significantly frees your creativity.
As a person who geeks out on music, I understand that most musicians would love to create “hits” that will stay with their listeners for a long time. Who doesn’t want to succeed in the mainstream? However, this approach to creation will most likely hinder your creativity because it will toss you back and forth, trying to create the perfect song. And the more you go on the endless path of trying to create something perfect, the farther you drift from your creative genius. Don’t let the critic make you a stranger to yourself.
The more you go on the endless path of trying to create something perfect, the farther you drift from your creative genius.
Finally, walk away from your art if you need to take a break. Always bear in mind that when you create, you are working. Just because creating is fun doesn’t mean it is not mentally taxing. The more tired you get, the easier the critic can get to you. When the voice of the inner critic gets too loud, walk away from your creative work and come back to it later. It won’t go anywhere unless someone steals it, but people don’t like stealing incomplete things anyway. You’ll be fine. Usually, artists get the best ideas for their art when they take a break from it. Don’t be afraid to leave your art and return to it with a fresh mind.
Let’s wrap it up
Like I said earlier, I don’t believe that the critic is some bad guy who is trying to mess up everything you do. I think the inner critic is a knowledgeable character that wants the best for you. The problem may be that the critic doesn’t know when to stop, and that can negatively affect your creativity. But I would not completely dismiss inner critics because sometimes they might be right. Just make sure you have a good conversation with your critic, allow them to contribute but not to control your creative work. Make them understand that just because they think your creation is not lovely does not mean that no one else will like it.
Borchers, M. (2013). When Your Inner Critic Stifles Your Creativity: 4 Helpful Truths. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://tinybuddha.com/blog/when-your-inner-critic-stifles-your-creativity-4-helpful-truths/
Dinkelspiel, A. (2019). 6 Ways to Silence Your Inner (Art) Critic – OutdoorPainter. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://www.outdoorpainter.com/silence-inner-critic-art-advice/
Holtz, M. (2018). Comparing Yourself to Other Artists: Internal Conflicts, Creativity. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://creativemindspsychotherapy.com/2018/06/01/create-your-unique-self-artist-step-out-of-the-comparison-trap/
Renee, K. (2017). The Dark Side: 7 Ways to Tame Your Inner Critic – What Art School Didn’t Teach You. Retrieved 6 May 2020, from https://whatartschooldidntteachyou.com/2017/05/self-sabotage/