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.
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