Befriending the inner critic

Dear Friend,
Do you get tormented by critics around you? What about the critic inside of you? If so, you would relate to this.

It was a sunny afternoon in Silicon Valley and I was having a coffee break with a colleague. We were enjoying the conversation and after we finished talking about work, we started talking about what else is going in each other’s lives. I happen to tell her that I am painting a lot lately and showed her photos of some of the paintings I had recently finished.

She enjoyed the photos and said “Wow! such a great way to spend time. I totally see you relaxed and enjoying the act of painting. Must be so peaceful”.
I sat there feeling surprised because painting is pretty stressful activity for me. I then wondered why it is so? Any art is supposed take you into the “zone” where you lose yourself in this wondrous joy of creativity. Then how come I am stressed?

Well I knew the cause of stress. It is because, I get to visit my inner critic! Oh, God! That is one stressful situation. This inner critic is voice in my head who criticizes, doubts, provides unsolicited advice, questions my decisions. If I had to imagine this inner critic as a person, I can visualize him as a middle-aged man with glasses and gray hair and a permanent frown on his forehead, sitting with his chin resting in his right hand, leaning in to watch my every move. He has an opinion (often negative) on everything I do and he feels entitled to express it.

So when I paint or when I write or when I am doing something new that I haven’t done before, he makes sure that he is there to provide running commentary. But of course, I still paint but it feels like an inner struggle between two voices in the head. The voice of creativity and the voice of inner critic and it goes something like this.

Creativity: “Oh, wow. I am inspired by that sight. It will make such a good painting.”
Critic: “Yes, nice sight. Do you think you can make justice to it? It is going to be so hard to capture that”
Creativity: “Yes, but I want to paint this regardless”
Critic: “Sigh. This will be a long, time consuming painting, probably going to be a waste of time. But if you insist, Okay let’s do it”

Then I start and lay down my paints, plant the canvas on the easel and pick up a nice brush. The first few strokes are all good and fun and then of course I make a mistake. Either the stroke is not right, drawing is off, color is dull, whatever it may be. I go “oops!” And the critic returns, this time with more vigor than the last.

Critic: “Oh no. That is so terrible. Didn’t I tell you that this would be hard. Why do you continue with this?”

Now my creativity is speechless and mostly trying to find ways to undo what I did or to find ways to fix it. But I feel drop in my enthusiasm. Critic loves it. Enthusiasm is what had been blocking him to come closest to me. I know that the critic is now leaned forward, too close to me, watching me. It gives me creeps and makes me more prone to mistakes. My heart beat goes up; my palms feels sweaty. One more mistake and that’s it. Critic successfully takes over my thought process.

In fact the Critic is so close to me now that he starts to talk in first person, as me. His voice is now feels like my voice.
Critic: “I don’t think art is right field for me. I do not even have training. Why did I think that I can do this? I should just be happy with I know already. Sigh. What a mistake to take on this activity and what a loss of time and energy”.

This is the point when I typically drop my brushes and go away from my painting and my studio. I feel tired, frustrated and defeated.
After I get enough break, which could be either few hours or sometimes days, my creativity bounces back and beacons me to finish what I had started. Enthusiastically I come back again to the painting. Of course, Critic is there for visit in his due to time.

If you see this mental, emotional process, it is not the “Zen mind, going with the flow” kind one would hope to be in. It is stressful. The fact that I finish painting is not because there was absence of inner critic but despite the inner critic, I used my will to finish. Using your will continuously takes up a lot of energy.

However, after that chat over coffee with my friend, I realized what the inner critic is robbing me of. Though I eventually create beautiful painting, he does not let me enjoy the process. I wondered what I can do to silence the inner critic?

I tried many ways. I tried playing loud music when I paint, it worked to some extent but the critic still managed to get close. I started listening to audio books, that worked a bit better than music because it kept the critic busy analyzing and criticizing the contents of audio book but it also reduced my concentration on painting. The inner critic can’t be silenced.

So one early morning, I decided to try something different. I decided to talk to my inner critic before I begin painting. I prepared my palette, I put up a canvas and I picked a brush. Then I sat there with my eyes closed, talking to my inner critic in my mind.

Dear Inner Critic,
I have decided that I will paint. I WILL paint this painting. That decision is made and it is not up for debate.
You have great analytical mind my dear critic and I would like to ask for your help while I paint. You are very good at spotting mistakes.

When you see something that is not quite right, question my future options, not my past decisions.

The questions could be something like this: Is this color right for this spot or is there other color will work better? Is this brush right for this or should I use the other one or the pallet knife? Should this shape be darker than the other?

Provide sound judgment on the best option to move forward instead of judging my abilities.

Basically what I am asking you to do is to participate in creation by asking me constructive questions and providing sound judgment on best option to move forward with.

I appreciate your commitment to excellence and perfection. I know you will always be part of me and so will be my creativity. I think you and creativity hand in hand are great collaborators. I invite you to participate in the creative adventure!”

This small monologue which I just say it in my mind before painting, increases my joy, enthusiasm and effectiveness and has reduced the stress significantly. I am not in total Zen state yet but of course I have made lot of progress in that direction.
This experience has also helped me with other areas of my life. When I start out new things, learn something new or I am just being bold, I often hear voice of the inner critic bubbling up. I then politely but firmly ask him to generate constructive questions. I no longer need long dialog with the critic but I reiterate two points to him, which are “Question me to generate more options and then judge the best option.”. This gives the critic something constructive to do with his unique skills of doubting and judging.

We all have inner critic, and in addition, we also have people around us who are critical of our ideas or our work. The outer critic’s voices over time merge with inner critic’s voice. The inner critic if left unchecked is more dangerous than the other people because the inner critic can pretend to be you and kill the creativity in its roots. Guard your enthusiasm and creativity from such critics. See if you can direct their skills to get further in your quest.
 I hope what works for me might help you in your creative adventures, or inspire you to find or share your own way to befriend your inner critic.

Let’s create!

With love,

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