Chapter 6b of Meeting the Voices in My Head and Searching for an Inner Adult
Shame has such an important job to do, to protect me from rejection, that it spawns a horde of minions to do much of its work. These are the Inner Critics, who dominate a great deal of airtime in my mind.
As a writer and a shrink, I’m intimately familiar with the inner critics, both my own and others’. You might expect us to be natural enemies. Most of my clients come to me complaining about their inner critics and asking me to silence them. If only they didn’t have this voice in their head constantly demeaning them, they would be happier than they are.
I would caution you from taking up arms too quickly against your inner critic, much less enlisting a therapist in the battle. You already have one critic; you would not be better off with a second, criticizing the first for being too critical. They will not get along.
I have my own Inner Critics that second guess me on everything from my tennis game, to my therapeutic method, to the way I look, and everything in between. Whenever I write, I have one whispering in my brain that my work is garbage, no one will read it, and I’m just wasting my time. He’s here right now. For decades, I called myself a writer without ever completing anything because of this constant discouragement.
I tried starting a private journal where the standards could be lower. It didn’t help. The critics multiplied. All I did in my journal was scold myself for not writing. I had to consider the problem in a different way. Since I knew people get persistent when they don’t think you’re paying attention, I started paying attention to my critic to see if it might shut it up. In doing so, I discovered who the critic was.
Some of its criticisms were sensible. It policed my use of grammar and spelling to the best of its ability. A good inner critic can stop you from committing many foolish things. It’ll help you pick out the perfect outfit and make sure your fly is zipped when you leave the dressing room. No matter what you’re doing, it’ll help you learn from your mistakes. A good inner critic is like a personal trainer, a portable therapist, a life coach, and a father confessor, all rolled into one. In my case, it tried to be an editor. You should thank your stars you have an inner critic. It might save you from public humiliation. But you need a good one.
A lot of what my Inner Critic said was less than helpful. “No one will ever want to read this stuff,” was a thought that frequently came into my head, originating from him. Sometimes, I would ask the critic why, what’s wrong with my work? If it said something like, “No one will ever want to read this stuff because the title is not intriguing,” then at least that was an intelligent point of view I could consider. Maybe it’s right. Maybe it’s wrong, but at least I could reason with it. When the Inner Critic didn’t do anything more than declare that no one would want to read it and didn’t give any reason, then it was no different than a bully taunting me on the playground. Its words were hollow, its arguments specious. I could dismiss its claims because it had nothing to back them up, but that only made it more insistent.
I began to realize that my Inner Critic was not who or what I thought it was. I had assumed it was like my tenth-grade English teacher; someone who was not impressed by my metaphors, but demanded I master the semi-colon. I was thinking of it as an authority, an expert, someone I had to please if I would ever be successful. But my Inner Critic was not as helpful as my tenth-grade English teacher tried to be. I rarely got productive feedback.
The True Identity of My Inner Critic Is Revealed
One day, I was with my kids on a playground and witnessed something that showed me what the Inner Critic really was like. There were two siblings at the playground without their parents. The younger one was a shy, awkward little boy who stuttered. The other one was his big sister, ten years old, who spoke for him, bossed him around, and never let him climb the monkey bars.
“You know you can’t climb the monkey bars,” she’d say. “The last time you tried, you fell and cracked your head.”
That’s what my Inner Critic was like. It was not a respected expert, possessing vast knowledge with the power to give me a bad grade. It was like a sibling, barely older than I was, and given too much authority without knowing how to use it. The Inner Critic had my best interest at heart, it was only trying to protect me, just as the big sister was trying to protect the little brother from embarrassing himself by speaking and hurting himself on the monkey bars. But the big sister should have shown him how to climb the monkey bars, not just tell him he couldn’t do it. She should have helped him speak, not prevented him from talking. Like the sister, my Inner Critic was immature. It didn’t know how to help me, so it just bossed me around and made me feel bad about myself.
A little later, a third sibling appeared to complete the picture by showing me what happens when a critic of the critic enters the fray. The third sibling was a little older than the big sister. He saw his sister bossing his little brother around, told her to cut it out, and ordered him up on the monkey bars. Pretty soon the two older siblings got in an argument over how to treat the little brother, who stood there, frozen, not knowing what to do. He was afraid to both play on the monkey bars and not play on the monkey bars. He was divided, just like I was when part of me attacked my writing, and another part attacked my not writing. The awkward, stuttering little brother didn’t have a voice in the matter. No one was listening to what he wanted. If only the two older siblings would just shut up and stop trying to control him, he might just master those monkey bars when he was ready.
What the Inner Critic Fears
I started to wonder what that little brother represented in me. What was the voiceless part of me that wanted to write? If it were to write, what would it have to say? If it were to say it, why would that be threatening to the critic?
This is what I found out. This little brother in me is none other than Linus. Linus, you remember, is the part that plays around with reality and comes to be attached to a security blanket in place of his Mom. Setting the blanket aside, what is it about Linus? He wants to play. His favorite game is pretending things are different than what they are and pretending I am different from what I am. He took an ordinary blanket and turned it into my mother. He’s always looking for new experiences, new thrills, and beginning foolhardy escapades in the land of make-believe. He had me believing things that aren’t true. No wonder it needs a protector assigned to it. All my Inner Critics, including the Writing Critic, have been trying to keep me grounded and shield me from humiliation. The only problem is that they defend me from humiliation by humiliating me. They keep me so grounded I’m unable to soar. Clearly, my Inner Critics have not thought things through.
For Linus, writing is all about make-believe. When I’m writing non-fiction, such as this personal essay, I sound like a little kid, dying to tell you everything he just learned about dinosaurs. That’s Linus is pretending to be a teacher. When I first invited Linus to speak, nothing he said was particularly brilliant. He was inarticulate because he never got to use his voice. You learn to climb the monkey bars by climbing the monkey bars, so I let him fumble around till he got the hang of it.
When I’m writing fiction, it’s my way of living a different life. Writing fiction has given me the opportunity to be, among others, a Black man in the Witness Protection Program, a brittle old biker, a troubled barista, and an estranged father, toying with suicide. Linus is not interested in writing what I know. He’s always been more interested in writing what he can imagine. The joy of creation consists of having something emerge that I barely knew was there.
It’s impossible to write well in my first draft; for when I’m starting a project, I know little about it. Therefore, I secured an agreement with my Inner Critic to stand aside during the first draft, so Linus can play. I did so after acknowledging it’ll be crap. I praised the Critic for being ready to protect me and promised to let it help on the second draft. Thus mollified, the Critic allows Linus free reign over first drafts. I follow his lead, even if he does sometimes fall off the monkey bars. The Inner Critic is there to catch him in all the subsequent drafts.
What Makes the Inner Critic So Stubborn?
I wish I could say the Inner Critic never speaks up during the first draft. It still does, but now I know what to say back. When I do, it goes quiet till it speaks up again. The critic is very stubborn. Why won’t it just do what I want? It’s because I created it to do what it wants.
The Inner Critic is another bot like I described in Chapter 4. You will recall, when I was a child, I needed to be able to predict what other people would do, so I programed simulations, first of my caretakers, then of everyone I’m apt to meet again. I had to give these bots free will. The bot must be able to operate on its own, without too much additional input from me, so it would respond the way its namesake would. My Inner Writing Critic may have originated as such a bot. Perhaps it was based on a teacher from my early grades or a smart-assed classmate. Maybe it was built on speculation, not because I already had someone critical of my writing, but because I knew someday someone would be. Regardless, this inner critic needed a will of its own. I gave it one so its behavior can be like the free will behavior of actual critics. I can’t just have my Inner Critic say what I want it to say.
The reason my Inner Critic was so immature, pre-adolescent in its comments, was because I was immature and pre-adolescent when I began writing. Neither the Inner Writing Critic nor Linus aged with the rest of me. Linus didn’t mature because the Inner Critic had him locked up most of the time. The Inner Critic never mellowed because it never got feedback from its actions. Since I never did any writing, it could just sit back and spew inane criticisms without ever being accountable.
When my tenth-grade English teacher came along years later, I hated him for the way I thought he stifled my creativity. In truth, I never got to know who he really was because I had him confused with the bot critic created before him. If the Inner Critic was not modeled on any one person and necessary to simulate accurately that person’s behavior, then it’s free to spout all kinds of unfounded statements. Anything that anyone could ever say about my writing comes out of its mouth, even if no one would ever say it. It is the worst kind of troll, spouting bile because its identity is unknown.
Since I began to understand the true nature of my Inner Critic, I’ve had a stretch of extraordinary productivity. The Inner Critic still does its thing, but it mostly encourages me to listen to my proofreaders and editors. It still does some bullying after a rejection comes in or I look up my Amazon ratings. Then it speaks up to say I told you so.
There certainly are conflicts between the parts of me, but they exist for conflict. I now enjoy a fragile balance of power. My Inner Critic, Linus, and the Critic of the Critic have a tenuous relationship of conditional respect.
Next in the Series: The Critic in Disguise