The Inner Critic Is Here to Stay

The email was pretty emphatic. “You still have an inner critic?” and “What kind of a coach admits to still having an inner critic?” A good one. An honest one.

The inner critic is part of our brain, the part that handles flight and fight. Or, updated to the modern era, lack and attack. The inner critic is not a weed that can be pulled out of our hearts and minds.

Taming the inner critic is a life-long habit, not a short-term goal. When my clients tell me that they are “working on” getting rid of their bad habits, I encourage them to stop. Bad habits are not stones to be picked out of lentils. Not ticks to be picked off our hide.

Bad habits are useful tools in a large, subtle spectrum of our emotions. Anger can be useful if it points out injustice, rails against inequality, points to wrongs. Anger can be destructive if it scars a soul, damages a heart, or crushes a spirit.

Bad habits are related to good habits. They are the opposite end of the same line. A person who focuses on details is an asset to a job. A person who over-focuses on details is a micro-manager who is not productive.

A multi-tasker is someone who can switch quickly between several tasks. Taken too far, the multi-tasker can’t focus on any one thing and winds up spinning around, not advancing any one project.

It’s easier to think of bad habits as a sound spectrum. Our good habits sound pleasant and comfortable. When they get too loud and jangly, they are bad habits. Pulling out the bad habits gets rid of the qualities you want. So don’t pull them out, tone them down.

Still, it is the work of a lifetime, trying to find that right sound level. And before you despair, have a seat. Take a deep breath. What else have you got to do, really, than work on yourself, a bit at a time, to keep in balance.

The top photo of the old grammar workbook shows something interesting. On the left side is a page marked “A” and on the right side is a page marked “C-” That’s a big difference. But it’s also very real. We do not travel at the same speed every day, we do not have the same impact.  One day we are skilled and sharp, the next day slow and dragging. There are “A” days and “C-” days, but they are still our days. And with the inner critic, we keep up the dance between believing and overcoming, between accepting who we are, and working to move that C- to an A, and watch it tremble and slip and we push it up again. It’s not despair we feel, it’s determination to keep in balance.

Quinn McDonald is writing a book on the inner critic. She spends a lot of time with him.


25 thoughts on “The Inner Critic Is Here to Stay

  1. Two quick comments. First, a lot of bad(? errant?) habits can be reframed and reshaped, e.g. stubbornness as perseverance. Second, saying aloud “this is good enough today, in fact it’s great,” is the best and only way I can shut my perfectionist streak of an IC up. I guess my Inner Hero is me – although I can sometimes hear a 7 year-old “Wow!” I need a wider audience for my arty escapades perhaps – but I’m not giving myself a hard time about it.

    • I always tell my coaching clients that their “bad habits” are not “bad” simply amped up too much, or “too loud.” So Stubbornness turned down a bit become perseverance. It can be a blessing, indeed! Our worst habit are our best characteristics.

  2. Thank you for this! We need the IC to understand that we are human beings, fragile yet strong, with all the genius and imperfections that entails, and not superheroes or gods who have somehow failed a test. It has to be a balancing act with all the other inner voices that guide our choices, actions and life. Self-doubt is just part of who we are, and we can either give in, and we all have moments of weakness when that happens, or we can learn to overcome it as often as possible, and use it as a tool to enhance our creative selves, with the help of our inbuilt optimism or hope. Without hope, optimism and inspiration, we would not have great art, music, literature, and all the other wonderful inventions that make up our lives today! If we shut the lid on the IC for ever, we also close off a major part of our humanity, so learning to cope and keeping the IC in its place has to be part of a healthy, creative lifestyle! We need the IC,but not the unwelcome baggage it loves to bring with it!

  3. Some days that inner critic is out of control and I feel like crawling under the covers to get away from it. Then, I realize that the best thing is to look at what it’s saying, pull out any bits that I recognize as being accurate and kick the rest of the baggage to the curb. It’s not a perfect solution and some days it’s more difficult than others. But, I do learn from these critiques and sometimes I manage to pull a positive idea to work on from all the inner dialogue. My way of dealing also includes many cups of tea and the occasional bite of chocolate. I’m a work in progress, that’s for sure!

  4. This post speaks today to exactly where I am in my own ongoing process with the inner critic. Yes it is indeed a journey with twists and turns, flowing along sometimes easily and sometimes running into the stones in the river of my life. Thank you Quinn for a writing that gave my journey the fuel it needs for today and so often to be remembered when things are flowing along in seemingly smooth waters. Those times for me are the ones that most need to be reminded that having a bump into a rock is healthy and helpful.
    Thank you Quinn for inspiration and the reminder that the journey is never a static affair.

  5. Ok, I’m having a difficult time getting past someone writing you an email that says, “What kind of a coach admits to still having an inner critic?” I would much rather have a coach who’s honest and one who lets me know they are human. If I compare myself (which I avoid like the plague most times) to someone who appears to be perfect, then I will never measure up and it will only reassure me that I’m “not enough”. We’re all just human beings, trying different things, making mistakes, eventually learning from our mistakes, moving on and moving forward. That’s the kind of coach and/or friend I want in my life.

    • That’s what Raw Art Journaling was about–that anyone who wants to can do creative work, can accomplish what’s in the book. When you have a public blog and spend time teaching, and have to change your blog to allow anonymous comments, you get weird stuff. Lots of weird stuff. I’ve never gotten used to it, but I have come to accept that I’m learning more about them then they know about me. Oh, and I agree–I want my friends and teachers imperfect.

  6. As I understand it, when you talk about problems with an inner critic, it’s often an inner critic on steroids. But without any inner critic at all, you’d have to be pretty lucky to create something good, wouldn’t you? And if you did, how would you know whether, for example, piece A or piece B was preferable?

    • You will always have an inner critic, it’s part of your brain. So it’s not going to go away. What we need is to use our Inner Heroes to balance critique and to weigh ideas at the constant chipping away of the Inner Critic.

  7. “Bad habits are not stones to be picked out of lentils. Not ticks to be picked off our hide.” Thank you for these words! It is about balance and being gentle with ourselves, isn’t it? It saddens me to see how the inner critic fuels the violence we do to ourselves when we try so frantically to eradicate bad habits. I want to share this with those I walk alongside in spiritual direction – and of course, that means I need to learn it – literally, take it to heart – myself first!

  8. I like the idea of ‘A’ and ‘C-‘ days. It works so well as an analogy! And the emotion spectrum is also true. Just now, literally, I find myself working hard to make sure the anger I am experiencing will not turn into a destructive force. So your works came just when I needed them most. (Isn’t the universe a weird place?)

  9. Interesting. Here’s my observation yesterday morning:

    Old voices, inner critic – same thing really. But I’ve been noticing new inner voices occasionally. Ones that say ” you did a good job, girl” and ” rest now, baby” and “its ok, don’t worry sweetheart”. What do I call these new voices? The Inner Parent? The Inner Cheerleader? Trying to listen to these new voices too

    • Those voices are your Inner Heroes–the voices who stand up for you with meaning and strength. They are the ones who, exactly like you note, will confront your inner critic. It’s wonderful to see you recognizing them.

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