I remember being in art school and thinking to myself, “I must be in the wrong place. I’m not really an artist.”
“Real artists” experience art making as an escape, as “blissful”, as some kind of mythical “timeless state of consciousness.”
On the contraire, I was tortured, desperate, and facing demons I didn’t know how to face. My internal monologue insisted that I sucked; I was wasting my time; art making was a luxury; I couldn’t paint and everything I did was shit.
The Unwanted Parts of Myself
At the time I didn’t have the awareness or the vocabulary to know that there was such a thing as the Inner Critic, let alone that it could be an ally. I had no idea that this critic, this most unwanted part of myself, actually held the key to my most authentic art.
I did what all of us do when such an unpleasant, ugly, and nefarious voice rears its head: I tried to push it away. The problem with this strategy is two-fold:
1. It doesn’t go away. What we resist ALWAYS persists.
2. The Inner Critic is one of our most powerful allies in the creative process, if we know how to listen.
The Inner Critic Holds The Key to Your Most Authentic Art
Something powerful happens when you bring these voices out of the darkness and into the light. I liken this to inviting unwanted and unwelcomed parts of ourselves in for tea.
When a door is opened and the rejected part is invited in, we discover that these voices that seemed so dangerous have been trying to protect us all along.
The distortion happened when the Inner Critic learned that we didn’t want its help, perceived it as the enemy and banished it to distant corners of the psyche.
What do small children do when they need attention? Anything they can to get it.
Your Inner Critic is doing the same.
Your Inner Critic Needs You and You Need It
STEP 1: Stop Trying to Push The Inner Critic Away
During my Master’s program I created a box – a sanctuary if you will for my Inner Critic and me. I found a giant, wardrobe-sized, cardboard box, set it up in my studio, cut a door in the side, and climbed inside with a big fat Sharpie marker when the Inner Critic began its tirade.
Holed up in that box, I sat there in the dark and scribbled until something started to shift. After some time I would calm down, exit the box, and carry on. The effect was quite therapeutic.
The box was a physical reminder to engage with what was going on.
Step 1 is to acknowledge that the Inner Critic is there and be willing to sit in the discomfort - it’s the only way that something will shift. Too often we push these things away. I used a box; you can use a piece of paper or your journal. Throw a tantrum on the bed if need be – anything that helps you to acknowledge what is actually going on.
STEP 2: Listen to What The Critic Has to Say
Inside the box I engaged with the energy of the critic; outside of the box you need to listen to what your Inner Critic is actually saying. When the Inner Critic said, "What are you doing? Art making is a luxury. This is shit!" I wrote it down, verbatim, in a journal.
When it said, "This totally sucks, you don't know how to paint, and it's ugly," I wrote that down too.
Keep a journal nearby and listen closely. Be the observer and be curious. What does the voice have to say? More often than not, it’s a recurring monologue with the same set of allegations.
When you start to separate the critical voices from your own, and hear them for what they are, you set the stage for Step 3.
STEP 3: Ask Your Critic to Guide You
Once you know what the Inner Critic has to say it becomes much less threatening. Giving it a voice means that it’s no longer some dark, nebulous and ominous voice coming from a hidden corner of the psyche, but a scared, hurt part of ourselves acting as any scared, hurt part of ourselves would.
Ask your Inner Critic to come out of hiding. Invite it to be a part of your process. At first I gave mine a place on the canvas. I listened and wrote down whatever it said. I trusted that once I gave it a proper role and a place of honour, things would change.
Later, I had conversations with it in my journal – asking to see what it saw, trusting that it had my back, allowing it to become an ally, a voice of wisdom and a support.
Remarkably, the Inner Critic became the key to my most powerful, authentic, creative voice. It stopped robbing me of my power and instead, gave it back. My Inner Critic taught me how to listen intimately to myself.
When intimacy, curiosity and tenderness are present we come into a very different relationship with our Inner Critic.
What would a deeply nourishing relationship with all parts of your psyche look like and how would that affect your art?
Explore this very question and learn how to love what you’ve rejected: 5-Day E-Course for Artists: The Key to Creative Flow.
When we acknowledge that all parts of ourselves have a role to play, we open the door to true authenticity in our art and our lives.