Deal Creatively with the Inner Critic

Creative people worth their salt have an inner critic. This critical faculty is essential for the production of high quality work. External criticism can point to larger problems, but only after the work in hand has reached a certain point. The moment-to-moment decision making (keeping this, discarding that) of the creative process must be based on an internal critical assessment. Furthermore, while most creators value feedback from others, they recognize that ultimately the work as a whole must meet their own standards and satisfy their own inner critic.

Friedrich Nietzsche

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche suspended his inner critic, decided his writings were spectacular, and suffered a massive ego inflation. (Photo: public domain)

This all well and good, but sometimes the inner critic can seem like an inner tyrant. When that happens, there comes a temptation to overthrow the inner tyrant critic and liberate the creative process from its endless carping. Inner warfare breaks out with creativity caught in the crossfire. The inward battle shuts down the creative process altogether. In extreme cases, the situation can become so serious that mental illness ensues. The creator has stumbled into a desperate self-destructive struggle with inner “demons.”

In reality, the internal critic is simply the rational critical faculty turned upon the creator’s work, a process that can feel hostile and negative. Logic is famously cold, after all. However, as I have said, the process is essential to the production of quality creative works. Therefore, you should never wage war against your own inner critic. When inner criticism seems counter-productive, you need to stop and rethink the troubled situation. You must cultivate the ability to differentiate between paltry nagging nit-picking and constructive criticism. You must reaffirm the work-enhancing value of appropriate critical analysis.

As with so many things in our psychological lives, the human propensity for egotism and vanity makes the problem worse. The ego often cringes or complains bitterly at the mere thought of criticism. Experiencing the inner critic as a tyrant is symptomatic of a vain and egotistical perspective. The inflated ego fears criticism the way a self-aware inflated balloon might fear pins. It is important to know that the authentic self is strong and is neither terrified nor dismayed by criticism. One way out of a battle with the inner critic is to acquire a more realistic sense of who you really are and the actual extent of your creative capabilities. A smaller ego is less prone to insult and injury.

Creators who succumb to the temptation to keep their ego intact while repressing their inner critic undergo severe ego inflation. The best example of this is Nietzsche at the end of his productive period. (See his book Ecce Homo). The great philosopher went on to have a complete mental breakdown and spent the rest of his life in the care of his doting sister. Creators who retain both a large ego and an inner critic can end up as self-birching monks, or self-starving mystics. A sobering example of the latter is Simon Weil, the French philosopher, Christian mystic, and social activist who starved herself to death in a guilt-ridden display of solidarity with her compatriots who she falsely believed were suffering a similar fate in Nazi-occupied France. Interestingly, we might also number politically correct do-gooders among those who unwholesomely combine egotism with a nagging inner critic. They want to appear outstandingly good while self-censoring their every utterance.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

3 thoughts on “Deal Creatively with the Inner Critic”

  1. Excellent well informed article as ever, Thomas!

    Some part of my mind keeps making me write stuff that is much more complex than I originally intended. I wanted this latest horror thing to be only a good yarn and it’s not turning out that way. Not sure if that’s the inner critic, but it’s a pain!

  2. I ran into the same problem years ago. It’s not a case of self-criticism, but the natural consequence of reading literary works rather than sticking to commercial fiction. Like it or not, everything we read is an influence. I suppose you might call it literary osmosis. From the more sophisticated books, we pick up the desire to say something about people and life. We also absorb complex ways of telling stories. These may require some practice to master when we (unconsciously at first) use the techniques ourselves. I was not able to stick with straightforward commercial writing. It just wasn’t interesting enough. Now I write novels of ideas. The way I see it, Lucinda, you will have to make a choice. Deliberately simplify your work or master the complexities of literary writing. From what I have seen of your prose, you could go either way. When you choose, pay attention to how you feel about what you have written.

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