We spent a lot of time talking about my inner critic today during therapy. I’m finally becoming aware of how all-pervasive he is in my life, no matter whether criticism is appropriate or not at any given moment. Take yoga for example. I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with yoga, because the critic shows up on the mat before I’ve even had a chance to draw in my first breath, and just won’t leave me be for a split second as I’m going through the postures, not to mention meditation and corpse pose. Is it any wonder I’m not rushing to get back into my yoga routine? “Send you critic away, he shouldn’t be allowed to take yoga!” is what my therapist said, which gave me a good laugh.
If only it were that simple. If I could say to him “Hey buddy, I’m going to do yoga for about an hour, so why don’t you take a nice long break, go have lunch or go see your girlfriend or something. I’m sure you’ll find plenty to criticize when you get back!” God, if only. Then my therapist suggested I try telling my critic to sit or lie down comfortably while I do my sessions, which in principle is a great idea but it doesn’t work that way. It’s not like I can see him or tell him what to do or anything. And it’s certainly not as if I can control when I want him there or not. He’s always there and he’s just a disembodied presence in my head, which, most of the time doesn’t even have to use voice. He just pulls on a string to let me know when he’s not happy about something, and when I feel that painful pang of anxiety, I know he’s spoken.
I’d been thinking about writing about self-criticism for a while. It’s been hard to get around to because the inner critic hates being exposed and will stop at nothing to keep a firm grasp of things around here. But then I got the prompt to write this piece repeated to me over and over again, when I posted my lotus flower sketches for all the world to see. I wasn’t happy with those drawings, but I thought ‘what better way to show the process’ but I certainly didn’t want anyone to think that was satisfactory work to me. I didn’t even think twice when I wrote my self-deprecating comments. I mean what if one of my professional contacts saw those drawings and thought I was endorsing them? So I was surprised when I saw how many comments came back saying I was being too hard on myself and shouldn’t be so critical. Each time I read one of those comments, I thought, “Of course you’re right, but how does a person go about that exactly?” Because I haven’t the slightest notion what it’s like to not rip out my own guts and trample them every time I do something that doesn’t live up to it’s full potential. You’d think it would be easy enough to stop doing something so painful, but old habits die hard. The critic and I have the closest thing to an abusive relationship I’ve ever had, it goes back a long way and I simply don’t know what it’s like to live without it.
Interestingly enough, one of my earliest memories of the critic manifesting himself was during a yoga class I attended with my dad. I had seen my dad practice yoga twice daily and he himself being quite the perfectionist, did the postures beautifully. I had attended a few classes as an observer and seen books too, so by the time I got to that class I had a good idea of what I should be doing. I had been told to try the easier versions of the postures and not mind too much about what the adults were doing. The thing I remember most is how shocked I was by the fact that instead of feeling peace and contentment, which I understood to be the whole point of yoga, I had this voice inside me telling me I was doing everything all wrong, and that I was basically worthless because a small child like me should be much more graceful and limber. Poor little girl. I couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 then, and there I was in my first yoga class thinking “Your legs are supposed to be straight when you’re in candle pose, you know that, stop being so lazy!”. It’s so ironic that all this took place during yoga of all things, where the practice of self-acceptance is so strongly encouraged. Today my therapist said something about having to protect the little girl from that hateful critic. I can’t change the damage he’s done in the past but I can try to make things better for myself and that little girl now.
Very early on I became convinced that whatever was wrong with me was simply a character defect, and that I just had to work harder to overcome my shortcomings. Of course, if I had known then that the inner critic had a hand in that, I might have thought twice about giving any value to that voice that kept telling me I wasn’t ever good enough. Some of these standards were and still are impossible for me to reach. I will never, ever be perfect, I know that intellectually. But since he took hold of me when I was young and impressionable, that inner critic has pretty well been able to run things around here as he sees fit. It took a long time for me to realize that he was way out of line, and it was quite a paradigm shift when my therapist told me that not everybody has such an active inner-critic. I had just assumed that everybody had that inner voice telling them they weren’t ever good enough at whatever they were trying to do, all the time, the same way I do. I wonder what life is like without that inner bully hitting on all your soft spots all the time. It must be nice.
My critic seems to be interested in all areas of life, and no detail is too small for him to express his opinion and let me know how much better I could have accomplished any number of tasks. He’s there in the morning, giving me a hard time for not remembering my dreams, and if I do make the bed, he tells me I haven’t done a good enough job of it, “which figures because I’m such a big slob anyway”. I got fed up of that abuse first thing in the morning, so I don’t make the bed these days. Of course the inner critic has plenty to say about that, but I’ve gotten used to him saying I’ll never amount to anything. Food is a complicated issue. No matter how well I eat the critic has something to say about the ingredients, or the amount of fat, or the quantity, or the overall presentation, and it seems every dish, whether it’s a snack or a meal, should look ready to be photographed on any given day. This in part explains I’ve written off cooking lately. There are so many steps and details involved that the critic can give me a hard time about. If I cut carrots to go into a soup, then they’re never cut in the right shape, or precisely enough. If I decide to throw everything into a pot and not care what it looks like, then I’m hopelessly lazy and it’s no wonder my life is in such chaos. I frequently burn things because I’m so caught up with all the insults and instructions the critic is throwing at me… that I forget to check on what I’m actually doing. No, most decidedly, cooking with a critic inside your head is just no fun at all.
For some reason, aside from cooking, drawing seems to be one of the territories he’s got the strongest hold on. Of course the trick is to just keep on persevering no matter what awful things he says, because eventually I do tap into the right brain/non-verbal mind where the critic can’t get to me, but the problem then isn’t so much while I’m drawing but rather all that time spent not drawing. How he enjoys pounding on me then. He’s still at it about those damn lotuses. When he gets going on something, nothing shuts him up.
For some unexplainable reason, I’m mostly able to drown him out while I write, which may be because as I’m busy writing and reading the words in my head, he simply can’t get a word edgewise, which might explain why I tend to use quite as many words as I do. But I’ve taken several breaks as I was putting together this post, and he almost convinced me to just scrap the whole thing a few times, because of course “it’s one of the worst texts you’ve ever written” and also “you could do a much better piece if you slept on it — think of all the wonderful research you could do — this is just amateurish as it is”. Ha.
He mostly leaves me alone with photography . I think he’s thrown off by it. Maybe because I’ve decided I want to be an amateur and do “bad” photography. The same way I decided I would be a “bad” writer. That seems to take a lot of his power away and he doesn’t have much to get a grip on when I’m not taking something seriously. But even there I have to be careful because if I get too many compliments and start believing that I have even the smallest smidgen of talent, he’s all too glad to show up at the very first opportunity. If, for instance, I were to have a passing thought that my writing might be good enough for me to create a readable novel — he’d intercept that thought and find a way to bludgeon me half to death. It’s not beneath the critic to suggest that I would be better off dead than living with the shame of _______ (fill in the blank). The result being that I would associate writing a novel (or whatever else it is) with too much emotional pain and something to stay away from.
For a long time, I thought my inner-critic was actually helpful to me. I didn’t want to be “average” at anything and so when I’d discover areas where I had natural abilities, the critic helped me surpass myself. It’s safe to say that I owe my career as an art director to my inner critic and I actually did gladly invite him to participate on every project I worked on since my student days, since I didn’t trust myself to catch every single detail whereas he never misses a thing.
Sometimes I was asked by aspiring designers, photographers, or illustrators to give a critique of their work. Sometimes established professionals asked me for the same when they trying out a new style for example. I was very flattered when they asked of course, but I also felt that it was a big responsibility, and that my appraisal would inevitably have an impact on how they would chose to continue on. When I looked at their work, my inner-critic felt it was his obligation to be just as harsh and rude as he is with me, but I managed to temper that and give what I thought were honest but fair critiques. One photographer once told me I had given him the toughest critique he’d ever had, but that no one else had ever challenged him before. He found I had been fair and encouraging in my overall evaluation, which spurred him on to make some changes, which in turn translated into more work for him. I never did figure out how to do that with my own self.
I was mentioning to Lee very recently that I experienced, probably for the first time in my life, something that I’d stopped believing was possible for me. For a fleeting moment, maybe a second or two I suddenly felt… calm. Everything seemed much quieter. The constant pressure I chronically feel in my ears, jaw, neck and shoulders just lifted. I felt like I was experiencing true grace. I caught myself trying to imagine what it would be like to live like that and thinking I would probably be an entirely different person. As soon as I got on that train of thought, I felt fear creep back in immediately and everything came back to “normal”. That place of wellbeing is the very place the inner critic wants to keep me away from. Because of course, there would be no need for him there at all. I look forward to my next visit. A place like that… it’s the ultimate escape. I could get used to that.
Illustration: “The Critic at Work” by Smiler