#89: Countering a Cruel Inner Critic

Dear Story Nurse,

My internal critic is particularly nasty: I usually can’t even get started with writing a draft before I’ve convinced myself that the entire premise is bad and I give up on it altogether.

My inner critic’s attacks on my work rarely take the form of “this is awful/nobody would ever want to read this,” instead they take the form of “this is hurtful/exploitative and you’re a bad person for even coming up with this idea in the first place.”

Another intrusive thought I get a lot is “by writing anything at all you’re taking space away from people whose stories deserve to be told more than yours, because they’re more marginalized than you are.”

This prevents me even from writing stories that are mostly autobiographical, because I know that there are people who’ve had it harder than me that I’m hurting by writing this.

I guess my question is, how do I push past this particular type of internal criticism and actually get a draft written?

—Anxious (xie/xer)

Dear Anxious,

I’m really glad you found a way around your inner critic to write to me. That tells me how important writing is to you, and also tells me that you are able to do things for your own benefit and for the benefit of your writing. That’s essential; when all else fails, come back to that core knowledge that you value yourself more than you value the critic’s opinions.

A necessary preface: you describe your inner critic’s criticisms as intrusive thoughts. I have OCD with occasional intrusive thoughts, and I can’t stop them, but over the years, with the help of an excellent therapist, I’ve found ways to install volume controls on them, and my brain is a lot quieter than it used to be. If your intrusive thoughts are or might be related to a mental health problem, and if professional mental health support is available to you, I encourage you to pursue it. (And if it’s not, for whatever reason, you have all my sympathies.)

I’m not usually a fan of being confrontational with one’s inner critic, because it’s often an expression of inner pain, and pain doesn’t get better when you jab at it. In your case, it sounds like you’re trying to express your feelings, and your inner critic won’t let you. Maybe it doesn’t feel safe. Is your inner critic trying to protect you from external criticism? Is it saying cruel things to you because you fear hearing them from other people, and hearing them from yourself seems somehow not quite as bad? How can you help yourself, and your inner critic, feel safe writing? Maybe you can write only for yourself for a while, just to practice allowing yourself to write. Even taking at face value your critic’s claims that your work would be harmful to others, which I doubt is the case, it can’t harm anyone if it’s just sitting on your hard drive. You aren’t taking anyone’s space; you aren’t exploiting anyone.

Have there been times when you’ve tried to talk about things you feel or things you want or things you’re writing and someone else shut you down? Someone installed that inner critic in your head; someone first said those hurtful things to you. How do you deal with that person? If you have gotten away from them (which I hope you have), it may help to remind yourself that the critic-voice is that person’s voice, and that person is no longer in your life, and so the critic also no longer has a place in your life. You can speak directly to it: “Hey, I ditched you and you’re not welcome here anymore.” If the person is still around, you probably have ways to manage them to minimize the harm they can do to you; some of those techniques could be applicable to the critic as well.

Are there other voices you can replace the critic with? This is akin to habit-building, in that it’s not enough to stop doing the harmful thing: there has to be a beneficial thing to replace it that fills the same need. Do you have a writing mentor you trust, whose voice you can invoke instead? If you don’t, you’re welcome to invoke me. “I know you think that, critic, but Story Nurse knows more about writing than you do, and they say it’s absolutely fine for me to write this story idea if I want to.” “Okay, critic, but Story Nurse has been in publishing a long time and says there’s plenty of room for stories of all kinds.”

I could try to come up with counterarguments to the notion that simply having a particular idea makes you a bad person, but I think that whole paradigm is flawed. It sounds to me like you feel like you’re a bad person already, and this is just one manifestation of feeling like that. You could just as easily be judging yourself for wearing a particular style of clothing or wanting to eat a particular food or having a particular hobby. The kangaroo court of the inner critic judged you and found you guilty, with no attention paid to the actual content of your ideas or your character. So I encourage you to remember that that court has no real power over you. It can’t throw you in jail or fine you. You aren’t subject to its judgments; you aren’t even in its jurisdiction. When it judges you to be a bad person, here are some ways you can respond:

  • “Okay, I’m a bad person who’s going to write this bad idea.”
  • “That’s your opinion. I have a different opinion, and I’m the one in charge of my life, so I’m going to do it my way.”
  • “I’ll consider that. Okay, I’ve considered it and I’m rejecting it.”
  • “You don’t have any power over me, so I’m going to ignore what you say.”
  • “Mm.”

Acknowledge that that’s a thing the inner critic has said, and then go ahead and write whatever you want to write. It will be hard, hard, hard, and very scary—at first. But over time, when no punishment falls, you will start to really believe that the inner critic can’t stop you and can’t hold you back. You will install a volume control on Critic Radio; you may not be able to turn it off, but you can turn it down to a murmur that doesn’t distract you too much from the important thing, which is your writing.

It’s true that written works can be harmful. That’s why we have editors and beta readers and sensitivity readers to help us eliminate content that’s likely to cause harm without benefiting the work or the reader, and content notes to help readers brace for challenging material that does serve a purpose and have value. But you’re allowed to have all your ideas, and to write what you want to write for the people who want to read it.

The first time I wrote a creepy fanfic story, I was astonished by the comments along the lines of “That was really unnerving, I loved it!”, even though I’m a big fan of horror and have been known to say that I love books that beat me up and take my lunch money. I treasured the reminder that no matter what I wanted to write, there would be an audience for it. And that goes for outlandish works, pornographic works, taboo-breaking works, just plain weird works—as long as you take sensible steps to label your work accurately and help it reach the people who will enjoy it while protecting potential readers who might be harmed by it, you really can write and publish whatever you want. No work will be universally loved, but every work has an audience.

As for the claim that writing takes space away from other marginalized writers who deserve to have their stories told more than you do, again, your inner critic is basing its judgment on a paradigm that doesn’t exist. Every story creates a market for more stories like it. The shelves of online bookstores stretch to the horizon; there’s room on them for your book and every other book.

There are readers like you who would love your autobiographical stories—have you considered how much good you could do by sharing them? Have you thought of the young marginalized writers who would be encouraged by seeing you write and publish your work? And don’t forget the joy you can bring yourself by writing; that matters a great deal. When you hear your inner critic judging your writing before it exists, and seeing it only in terms of harm and never in terms of help, you know its judgment must be false. Don’t buy into the critic’s claims or try to challenge it on the facts. You have better things to do with your time than fight with it. Reject it. It serves no purpose and has no value.

Every writer needs a conscience, but a critic is not a conscience. It sounds like your critic is drowning out your conscience by shouting terrified nonsense. What is it so afraid of? That you will have material success? That you will be happy? That you will assert your right to exist and to make art? That the critic might be wrong, might have been wrong all this time, and that other people’s acclaim for and enjoyment of your work might definitively prove how wrong it was? You can’t be responsible for the inner critic’s fears. You need to be responsible to yourself—your urge to write, your urge to tell your stories and explore your ideas—and to your readers.

Some inner critics need love and some need reassurance. Yours needs to be gently but firmly set aside. It exists only to harm you, and has no place in your life. When it says its cruel, critical things, acknowledge them briefly and then keep going. Someone out there is waiting to read your work and love it, be delighted or spooked or deeply moved by it, be inspired by it. Write for yourself if you can, and if you can’t, write for that reader whose world will be made better by your work.

It will be hard; those critic-voices are so authoritative. But you’re the foremost authority on your life and your work. And if you need another external authority to counteract the one that wants to hold you back, let me urge you forward. You can do this. I believe in you.

You know the critic is wrong because you wrote to me to tell me so. Hold onto that knowledge, and keep going, one word at a time.

Best wishes,

Story Nurse

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One thought on “#89: Countering a Cruel Inner Critic

  1. Ohhh wow does all that sound familiar. If OP is reading the comments, please know that you totally have company in having a really judgy and mean mind-voice.

    I don’t know if it’s helpful for you, but for me, what Story Nurse said about internalizing the idea that the critic is an echo of someone from the past has really been helpful. In my case it’s someone I’ve moved away from and who no longer has power over my life, and someone whose opinions I do not consider valid.

    Now, that said, for a tangible physical action suggestion, I have found that drowning out that voice by listening to very loud, intense, complex music while I create helps a great deal. It might be that there’s something similar you can do to either drown out or preoccupy that voice and let you get on with your creative impulses while you literally can’t hear/focus on it yammering at you.

    I’ll also suggest a really old book (its often at the library) called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain that has an intro that is applicable to lots of creative expression forms. Basically it talks about the idea (sortof outdated but helpful as a concept) that your Right brain is creative and your Left brain is a critic, and that EVERYONE that does creative things accomplishes them by tuning out or tamping down that interior critic for long enough to get their thing solidly manifested into the world, because otherwise the critic just squelches the creative thought process at the start by being unremittingly judgy.

    I always feel better when I feel less personally individually dysfunctional? So maybe knowing that at least some level of ‘silence the mean head voice’ is common to all creative endeavors could be encouraging or reassuring for you too.

    You’re allowed to exist, and you’re allowed to create, and neither of those statements are dependent on you being ‘good enough’ – you just are! If you’re like me, we can work on believing that together? Or I can believe it for you, and you believe it for me! 🙂

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