Why Your Inner Critic Is Your Best Friend

The Inner Critic gets a lot of bad press, especially among blocked creatives who wish the nagging critical voice at the back of their mind would disappear. No wonder there’s so much creativity advice on how to banish, silence, or obliterate the Inner Critic. By the time the creative thinking gurus are done, the Critic’s had a tougher pounding than an extra from Kill Bill.

But do you ever wonder why the Critic keeps coming back for more? Could it be that the Critic is actually a very important part of your creative process?
If you think about it, you’d be in big trouble without an Inner Critic. Without some kind of internal quality filter, you’d be happy to churn out any old rubbish – and join the ranks of mediocrities. A finely honed critical faculty is one of the things that separates a creative professional from the legions of amateurs.
In the words of musician Mike Monday:

A good producer and a great producer have the same number of ideas – some good, some great. But a great producer will know the difference.

And the great producer’s Inner Critic is the difference that makes the difference. Because the great producer has listened more keenly and thought more sharply about music, she has a more powerful and useful Inner Critic.

So the Inner Critic isn’t the enemy, just an over-zealous friend who’s delivering the criticism too forcefully and without considering your feelings. We all have friends who do that from time to time.

The trick is to get the Critic back “onside,” delivering genuinely constructive criticism. Like the inspiring mentor who urged you to do your best and didn’t accept anything less – but with a supportive and encouraging tone of voice.

Criticism and Creation Are Not Mutually Exclusive

One of the sacred cows of the creative thinking industry is that we should separate idea generation, execution, and evaluation, so that they don’t interfere with each other. But my experience as a writer and coach suggests that this isn’t how many creative professionals work.

When I’m writing, I’m reading, evaluating, and tweaking as I go. I’ll write a few sentences then pause and go back to read them through. Sometimes it’s immediately obvious I haven’t quite captured the thought or image, so I’ll make a few changes before I go on. If I get stuck, I’ll stop and read through the whole piece, trying to pick up the thread of inspiration where I lost it. Once I see where I got tangled up, it’s a relief to untangle it and get going again.

For all of this, I have my Inner Critic to thank. And I hear a similar story from many of my coaching clients, who include musicians, designers, filmmakers, fine artists, and all kinds of other creative disciplines – so I’m pretty sure it’s not just a writer’s thing.

One of the sacred cows of the creative thinking industry is that we should separate idea generation, execution, and evaluation.

Yes, it’s helpful to have designated times when you’re mostly focused on dreaming up ideas, or tinkering with a prototype, or getting the first draft down as quickly as possible. But the next time you’re doing this, you may well notice that you’re bringing your sharp critical intelligence into play even at this stage – so you’re improving the work even as you create it.

It’s also helpful to have dedicated time to review your work, especially toward the end of a project. But even as you critique your work, you’ll probably find yourself itching to do some hands-on remodeling or redrafting – calling your freewheeling imagination into play as well. Once again, creation and criticism work hand in hand.

How to Get the Critic Back on Your Side

So what difference does all this make to your work on Monday morning? Here are some suggestions for incorporating the Inner Critic in your creative process in a more useful way. Experiment with one or two of them at a time, to see what works best for you.

Before you start work, take a moment to reflect on the advantages of having a finely honed critical faculty – such as understanding what makes a good piece of work, knowing how to assess your own work and improve it. Sometimes this kind of appreciation is all it takes to get the Critic to quiet down.

You might find it helpful to use one workspace for drafting/sketching/experimenting, and another for reviewing your work.

Before you start work, take a moment to reflect on the advantages of having a finely honed critical faculty.

Another thing to try before you start work is telling yourself, “I’m not really going to start just yet, I’ll just make a few sketches” – or scribble a few notes, or practice a few scales, or the equivalent for your creative medium.

When you’re working, if the Critic starts telling you what’s wrong with the piece, ask yourself, “So what does the work need instead?” or “So what do I need to do to make it better?”

If the Critic keeps interfering, promise yourself that you’ll do a critical review at the end of this stage of execution – so you can afford to ignore her now and keep your momentum going.

You and Your Critic

When have you been most grateful for possessing sharp critical judgment?

Do you agree that your Inner Critic is – potentially – your best friend?

Any tips for utilizing your critical faculty more effectively in the creative process?

More insights on: Iteration, Skill Development

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach. He is the author of Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success, and the free course for creative professionals, The Creative Pathfinder.
load comments (48)
  • Matthew

    Another nice piece Mark. My inner critic probably is my best friend, though I get mad at him often enough. We’ve recently made strides in developing a more productive relationship, which has been quite nice. Thanks for the tips.

  • Studio K&M

    Enjoyed reading this. We’ll definitely keep this in mind when trying to develop diverse content for our blog. Thanks for the post! -Studio K&M, http://www.studiokandm.com

  • Erica Heinz

    Good post, I think an important part is that the Critic needs to appear at the end, it’s a separate phase from the creative part. I’ve heard it explained as the Head/Heart dialectic, we want to let the heart lead, but then use the head to execute.

  • Mike Monday

    My inner critic was just struck dumb when I was quoted on one of my favourite blogs!

    Great post Mark, and a refreshing reminder that in the pursuit of completion we mustn’t forget to listen to that pesky voice in our head at some point in the process.

  • Jeffrey Davis

    Mark: Another brilliant tip. I’ve written about my and others’ Inner Heckler. A few weeks ago, a client and I discussed some matters very similar to what you’re suggesting. Her Inner Critic was hyperactive. So she started befriending it in a sense, talking to it, assuring it it would have its role later, once she had finished a sizable portion of her project. Two weeks later she reported that the Inner Critic was still present but near so nasty. I’m forwarding her this link today.
    Thanks, again. Jeffrey
    http://www.trackingwonder.com

  • Preeshel

    Our inner critic is like brakes in our cars , which save us from future Accidents.

  • Tomas Luoma

    Wow Mark. Good stuff again.

    For me, the Inner Critic works best when I return to my project after a good night sleep. This takes time though.

  • Gibsongoff

    You nailed it with this one, Mark! Great article.

    When I was a youngster my dad worked the tugs for a while on the Chesapeake Bay. I had a chance to go along sometimes in the summer, acting as a deckhand. One day the skipper allowed me in the wheelhouse and asked if I wanted to drive the boat.

    The huge 5 foot wheel stood before me. The captain calmly said “steer for that buoy straight ahead’. There were no white caps out, but the seas were rolling pretty good. A wave offside to the bow and the boat moved in a different direction. I spin the wheel the opposite direction.
    The boat started to come about. Then way past the mark! I spun the wheel the other way. She started coming around, then again way past on the other side.

    …”just an over-zealous friend who’s delivering the criticism too forcefully and without considering your feelings.”

    The skipper stepped up and calmly said ‘keep this knot at the top of the wheel within 6 inches of center. Let the boat come back to the mark. Here you go . . “.

    …”Sometimes this kind of appreciation is all it takes to get the Critic to quiet down.”

    I went at the task with a new appreciation. The critic of my criticism of his boat was gentle, instruction, and clearly knowledgable. I trusted my critic. And I smoothed out. We went to the mark. (They only let me drive the boat for about another mile :-(( ).

    Gentle criticism. Finding personal balance. Trusting in what others, and more importantly YOU know.

    You’ve nailed the elements Mark! Great post.

  • MichelleDEvans

    Great post. Thank you

  • Roger von Oech

    Good stuff, Mark (as always). Best wishes for a good Twenty ‘Leven!

  • Michel

    What about considering inner critic as just another “angle” in the creative process, as an additional (and deliberately challenging) point of view that can bring more/better/alternative ideas.
    As explained in the post, no deep disruption is therefore required between generation and evaluation. To push the id, evaluation should also be creative (to anticipate the risks, the potential failures …).
    Make sens ?

  • Mark McGuinness

    Makes a lot of sense to me Michael, that’s pretty well the way I see it.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks Roger. I was wondering over Christmas what you would have to say about the number of syllables in 2011! Not nearly as elegant as last year, eh?

    Hope it’s a good one for you.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, creative work often needs marinading – maybe there’s another post in that…

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes, AND it could also be like the accelerator, pushing us to go further… ;-)

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks Jeffrey, I sometimes take a similar approach with clients, it’s great when the Best Friend starts acting like one!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Heh, my work here is done. ;-) And thanks for a great series over at your blog.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Ummm, to me it’s more a matter of emphasis – I think it’s worth involving the critic from the start, although he/she/it takes centre stage more towards the end. I agree about the head/heart analogy.

  • Mark McGuinness

    I hope this turns out to be the year the two of you really start to get along with each other. :-)

  • Mark McGuinness

    Great story! And the analogy fits perfectly. But I’ll take your word for it as far as boating goes…

  • Ted Bilich

    Mark, this is an excellent article, but I disagree with the notion that the inner critic is in fact one’s best friend. The problem faced by most creative people is inhibition, not excess. Many people don’t accept the possibility that they could be creative because they are afraid to take the risks associated with creativity. Yes, the critic has his (or her) place. But he is not a friend. I think Steve Pressfield’s War of Art nailed this point. I talk about creativity a fair amount on my blog (http://www.tedbilich.com), and I am really interested in the subject. So thank you for writing this — I will Tweet about it, and I’ll likely blog about it as well. Best – T

  • Mike Kammerling

    Completely agree with this sentiment Mark, the inner critic is the thing that separates the good from the great and helps us sift for gold from the creative vomit pipe that is our brain. Once again, an enlightening piece from you.

  • Edwina @FASHION+ART

    Smart article. Our inner critic can really kick the poop out of us but that’s not a bad thing at all once you get it in check. As a writer, a designer, an artist, that inner critic, allowed free reign but under control (it takes years of practice) is the only thing that stands between you and complete humiliation sometimes. Embrace it.

  • Kitty Kilian

    Interesting. But you still advocate seperating execution from evaluation.

  • Mark McGuinness

    No, not separating… they go hand in hand. It’s more a question of emphasizing one more than the other at different stages.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Now why didn’t I think of that metaphor? It’s obvious when you put it like that. ;-)

  • Mark McGuinness

    Thanks for a different perspective Ted, we may have to agree to disagree, but Iet’s see…

    I’m not sure who you mean by “most creative people”. Inhibition may be a bigger problem for most people, but here at The 99% I’m writing for an audience of creative professionals, most of whom DO “accept the possibility that they could be creative”. The tagline “It’s not about ideas, it’s about making ideas happen” – suggests to me that excess IS a bigger problem than inhibition for most creative pros.

    Re The War of Art – Steve’s target is Resistance, not the Inner Critic. He says that Resistance enlists criticism for its own ends, but “Critics are not the enemy. Resistance is the enemy”.

    Anyway, I look forward to your blog piece – please send me a link when you publish.

  • Mark McGuinness

    “the only thing that stands between you and complete humiliation sometimes”

    When you put it like that, it’s hard not to love him/her/it, isn’t it? :-)

  • Awaken Creativity

    Great article. I think the inner critic can definitely be a boon to creativity once you can harness its power. I have been working on that and I love the challenge of it and how it can really spark new ideas if you don’t let that critic take over.

  • Marija

    Thanx for such a constructive advice!
    What do you think, Mike: if a fear of inner critics and the critics from outside has deep roots in a past (childhood, for example), if it is more about personality, than about creativity, can this method work, without going deeper into psychologie and starting from the question: why are you actually disturbed by critics, not only as an artist, but just a person?

  • Kriswanto82

    Thanx for such a constructive advice!

  • Mark McGuinness

    Yes! I’ve actually worked as a psychotherapist with people in that situation, and even then I’ve found this approach useful.

  • Jeffrey Cufaude

    Emphasis is key as to much critical thinking during the creative stage can unnecessarily silence some of the free associating that ultimately might lead to more powerful possibilities, as well as disrupt energy and engagement when creating out loud with others.

  • Business Logo Design

    Nice and very interesting post.

  • Dasiths

    Nice article. It also helps to know in what subjects your inner critic is best at. The good inner critic tries to be objective while understanding the constraints under which the item in question was produced. Creativity and Criticism in this context can not be seperated. Not practically atleast. The question I ask mysefl often is “how can I improve this? and at what cost?”.I do both software development and 3D animation and my inner critic sometimes is the only person I listen to.

  • Mark McGuinness

    Heh, I hadn’t thought about it like that, but you’re right, the IC has specialist subjects!

    Mine wouldn’t presume to critique graphic design, but it will happily lay down the law about poetry. :-)

  • Wild Cherry

    Great article but I think sometimes we might be lost in a problem of semantics: I believe that what we harness to help us assess and improve our work is our ‘critical faculty’ but when we are inhibited by what is popularly known as our ‘inner critic’ we are actually delving into the realms of insecurity and lack of self-confidence which is usually rooted in childhood or some truamatic experience. The ‘inner critic’ is, in this sense, the perverted alter-ego of our helpful ‘critical faculty’ that tries, to continue Gibsongoff’s analogy, to stop us even steering the boat by telling us we are incapable rather than helfully guiding us as to how to like G’s skipper. I’ve thought about this a lot and I still can’t decide whether the answer is befriending the IC or kicking it off the boat! Always ensuring that we don’t boot off tbe critical faculty at the same time of course, without which we would definitely be lost!

  • Sharon Little

    Great article.. the inner critic is something I deal with in people learning to make music “from the inside” rather than from the outside (written down). This inner critic comes out as “I’m a dork, I’m unmusical, I can’t improvise, I’m no good and so on.” It’s debilitating! It’s more than tweaking a phrase (I also write)— it’s a programmed past coming to haunt the present. It has more to do with one’s inner self-perception…

  • Mark McGuinness

    Well it’s always hard to know with the subconscious, as we can’t get all the little parts out on the table and inspect them with a torch. :-)

    But I find it more useful to think of them as one and the same – on a good and bad day!

  • Mar Murube 

    Great illustration

  • jojoluca

    Thank you for this post. I agree with the best-friendship issue and am in a love-hate relationship with my inner critic. He is my greatest and best valued adviser who happens to make a really good partnership with my common sense avatar. But sometimes it can become in that really annoying close friend who puts you too many rules while at his home. I struggle with my inner critic which fortunately wakes up lazy and gets stronger as the day brighter. So I’ve realized that my most naive ideas -which often end up being the ones I appreciate the most- arise during the pre-wake period in form of dreamality… and I take note before the IC got awake. So my approach is to invoke him the later I can, because once he has set I can’t get rid of him until the next morning.

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  • Damurm

    within never ends up without.

  • Barb

    Oh yoiks, this is an elderly article. But oh well: speaking as a writer who has done a lot of work as an editor, I really like to make a distinction between the inner editor and the inner critic. The inner editor is generally the helpful one. The inner critic may or may not be helpful; if so, you will have to pick through the left-handed compliments and the damning-with-faint-praise to find the useful info.

  • Eshops

     We should learn how to treat our inner critic because he can be very useful or destroying.

  • Clive Jerry

    I can so relate to this, thank you . . .

  • The Solutionist

    We all have our inner critic to thank. I think of her as a quiet voice whose existence makes me more authentic. After 25 years of scrutinizing everything I produce, I am certain that being friends with your inner critic is the single-most attribute that successful/fulfilled people share.

  • Jacob Jan Voerman

    Years ago I did a vilualisation.
    I imagined I was a conductor of a huge orchestra. Beautifull setting in an old cathedral no less.
    Someone came walking towards me in the isle.
    I didn’t want to look, because I knew it was my critic who would say that I was a fool to try this.
    But when I did look, the critic wasn’t nasty at all.
    Tears were in his eyes, when he said that this was beautifull, but I was not yet ready for it. He promised me though, that somday I would be, if Ik kept working at it.

    (PS I’m not a conductor, that was just the image.)

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