I was on an acting course this weekend and the subject of the ‘inner critic’ came up. Everyone knows what the inner critic is, it’s the character inside you who says ‘you’re doing it completely wrong, you’re going to look like an idiot, you’re not clever enough, you’re lazy, you’re deluded.’ As Scott Williams the acting teacher said, everyone has one, it is the loudest voice in the room and will drown out everyone else, it tells lies, it speaks in the voice of your mother and father; and it can’t be gotten rid of. Scott also went on to mention that this is pretty bad news! So the question is how to deal with the inner critic. How do we stop it from preventing us doing our work? (It should be noted that I am currently writing this article and not a play or a screenplay because my own inner critic is in charge right now.)
Scott gave a very good way of tackling the inner critic, which he had heard through a friend who had successfully dealt with some destructive compulsive behavior. The advice Scott gave was to see the inner critic as a child who desperately wants some candy and they want it now; but to also know that inside you there is also an adult who knows what’s best for the child and to say ‘you can’t have the candy right now, but I promise you can have some tomorrow.’ He went on to explain that if we allow the inner critic to have it’s say at the right time it can also be incredibly useful and it is also what fuels our ambitions. Scott went on to explain that when the inner critic starts to yell at you during a creative activity you can acknowledge it is here and then quietly say to it ‘I’m sorry, I’m busy right now, but if you come back at 7pm and we can have a chat then.’
Later when you do speak to the inner critic (ideally with a drink in your hand!) it will have more valuable and rational things to say. The problem with listening to the inner critic during the artistic process is that it’s a lot less rational and wants to save you from being killed because that’s what it thinks will happen if you don’t do your art well, I’m sure everyone knows how life and death doing a piece of art feels like! But we need the inner critic because the inner critic can also help up improve our art and our lives and selves, we just have to know when to listn to them and when to ask them to come back a bit later. If we allow our inner critic to have a voice when we do our art, it’s a bit like asking a child to play when you threaten them with beats if they don’t play well enough! And if you start shouting at the inner critic that’s just the inner critic criticizing the critic for being what it is! It’s a critic, it’s job is to find where you can do better and that’s great, just make sure the critic has not taken on the role of master of the universe.
This idea of the inner critic or character can be taken further and also used in all walks of life. In Buddhism they speak of the hundreds of different states of consciousness one can be in and many can be present at the same time, which can be rather confusing and overwhelming. There is a technique in Jungian Psychoanalysis which equates this to seeing yourself as a bus full of loads of different people. On the bus is your three year old self, your five year old, your sixteen year old, your wise old eighty year old self, your Nazi self, your saintly self, your dark side or your shadow; and they all have different opinions and points of view and they are all there and can speak at any moment. When someone has a breakdown it is a bit like all these people on the bus are shouting and screaming at full volume and all have different points of view which all seem to be true and the person having the breakdown is so lost they don’t know which way is up or down and they fall apart and don’t know who they are any more.
The recovery of a breakdown is a bit like tending and listening to all those parts of yourself, even the Nazi part – listening to what they are really trying to say. So a psychically healthy person is someone who can allow everyone on the bus to be there (including the Nazi and the shadow), to have their opinions but also to be at peace with each other. The method is to listen to who is shouting loudest on the bus, or who is crying the most, or maybe even who is driving the bus? What is that person or character saying? What are they scared of? The idea is to really try and feel who you are in that moment, are you your terrified seven year old self who was… fill in any traumatic experience? Would it be helpful to shout or beat that person who is so desperately scared and lonely?
The inner critic is on our side, it’s just sometimes very scared and lost and like a child who has been beaten, doesn’t want to be beaten again and they really feel if you don’t do your art well enough you will be beaten, and ironically the child who is saying it doesn’t want to be beaten is also the child who’s doing the art! So it’s important to listen to the inner critic, not what it’s saying because it could be telling lies like ‘if you write this book everyone will think you’re an idiot and they’ll hate you and then you’ll kill yourself.’ What is the child or the critic saying underneath that sentence? The idea is to try and feel it. When we do feel what that part of ourselves is feeling we are reminded of what it’s like to be three or seven or sixteen and we are then better able to empathize with that part of ourselves and also other people.
I would suggest that people who behave childishly, are the people who have abandoned that part of themselves and therefore have allowed that part to take control of the bus – which is bad news for everyone else on the bus! It’s tempting to think we are one thing but we are a multiplicity, moving from being a five year old to a fifty year old in split seconds. We are a busload of people, which is why we can enjoy things from chess, to surfing, to reading about frogs: we are made up by different characters or states of consciousness who are all unique and have different perspectives and interests. People who are judgmental or see things as black and white are often people who have lost touch with all the different aspects of themselves and because they are scared or have had traumatic experiences find it more comfortable to make them and the world smaller (and thus safer) to know either who others are by saying ‘he is a twat’ or to know who they are by saying ‘I am a doctor, I am a banker, I am good, I am bad, I am cool’ forgetting they and everyone else are many different things all at the same time. If we want to be artists we need to have access to all the different parts of ourselves, and this is why art or any other creative activity can be so healing, because it reconnects us with those parts of ourselves we may have neglected or forgotten about. I have been amazed to reconnect with a six year old inside me as I am currently writing a children’s book, which is something I never dreamed of doing or find interesting.
We would probably all agree that it is our inner child who does our art work, who is creative and playful. A good test of how connected you are to your inner children is by your ability to play. Can you play easily? Could you write a children’s book? Could you write a book for teenagers or enjoy a three year old’s game or toy, can you play with children easily? Do you like children?! I was speaking to an actress friend Alice the other day who quite liked this idea of the bus and said:
‘Yeah, like on my bus I feel like in the back there’s this snotty little five year old who is in floods of tears and wants her Mummy and Daddy, and at the front of the bus is this fat lazy angry old woman who’s shouting abuse at her telling her that she’s lazy and stupid and that she needs to grow up. It’s like this battle goes on all day. Like if I sit down and watch an episode of Friends the woman on the bus literally starts screaming at me or at the little girl and then she feels like shit and just hides and doesn’t want to do anything but cry.’
Anyone who does any art form can probably relate to that. I suggested to Alice that the fat old lady at the front of the bus (who is also a part of Alice) is scared and also wants to be loved. So the question is how do we allow everyone on the bus to be happy, to play and not bully each other? I.e. how can we be good parents to ourselves? I think we should treat ourselves like a democracy, where everyone’s opinion is welcome but that doesn’t mean that the whole bus has to agree or go along with it. The Nazi on the bus might have some pretty dodgy views! But by having a Nazi in ourselves it allows us to see who we are and decide that we don’t want to be a Nazi just as we need to be able to see in ourselves how we could abuse others so we in turn don’t get abused or allow the abuser in ourselves to drive the bus. By being in touch with everyone on the bus we can differentiate between what we feel is right or wrong and how we feel we should live our lives. I think it comes down to compassion and wisdom; to have the compassion to feel what it’s like to be the angry woman or the snotty little girl and also the wisdom of how to speak to them or the wisdom to know who is driving the bus and safely slow the bus down or stop the bus to have a chat and hear everyone out.
Maybe we want to go to a party, but we also want to stay in and read a book but we also want to work on our novel and we also want to see our boyfriend, everyone on the bus will have a different opinion, I think the best thing is to try and listen to all points of view and negotiate a good deal for everyone without punishing anyone or telling them to get off the bus, because they can’t get off the bus and if you try and throw them off they’ll take the whole bus with them – a bit like how Luke Walker has to battle to stay from falling into the dark side, if he allows his anger and hate to take over he will go to the dark side. When people commit suicide (please forgive the generalization, I am not a psychoanalyst and of course it goes deeper and is a lot more complex but for the purpose of this article I hope you forgive me) it is because they have become just one thing, they have allowed one character, most likely their shadow to take over the bus and they have abandoned everyone else on the bus; this is also how people get lonely, they think they are one thing and not realize that there is a whole bus load of people inside them. When we are in touch with the whole busload of characters inside us it is very hard to be lonely. So I would suggest another way to deal with the inner critic is not to listen exactly to what they are saying, but try to feel where they are coming from, a bit like if a six year old boy is terrified and has lost his parents in a supermarket, you would be very gentle and soft with him and calm him down so he feels safe so you can take him back to his parents.
Doing art is incredibly difficult and takes an incredible amount of courage and if you are able to do your art there are few things which give you more joy and satisfaction, and equally there is immense suffering in not being able to do your art. If you are struggling to do your art, as I am this morning, I would suggest having a go at seeing if you can see the characters on the bus, who is driving, who is there, who’s upset, who’s shouting, who’s fighting with who? Can you have a quiet gentle word with the critic who is abusing the child who just wants to play and do the art, so the child can have fun and do the work that the critic so desperately wants the child to do?! Even if you’re not an artist, noticing who is on the bus is an amazing way to reconnect to who you are and may offer some key clues to any other problems or struggles you may have in relationships or at work or wherever. If it could be boiled down to a sentence I would use the Dali Lama’s advice which is simply to be kind.