The Hidden Enemy: Your Inner Critic’s Attack on Progress

Last week I started writing a theme and variation piece.  I completed the theme and haven’t hit the variations as of yet.  It has been awhile since I’ve written something that wasn’t some form of arrangement of someone else’s piece and I haven’t decided if I’m going to run with it, although I should, because regardless of how it turns out, it’s a way to prime the creative pump.  My main issue with it at this point is that it sounds like something written a couple of hundred years ago, and while I love music from that time frame and earlier, it’s time has come and gone.  However, it’s really in the draft stages, so what comes next might change things quite a bit, or not.  I have found that when confronting something like this, what I’m really facing is my inner critic, that voice which tends to stop forward momentum by immediately calling to task whatever accomplishment has been made toward producing something.  In the early stages of any creative endeavor, it is a must to shut off our internal critic in order to give ourselves the opportunity to move forward, whether it is writing an essay, story, piece of music, or even starting to learn a new piece of music.

            We all follow a progression from novice to mastery on everything we choose to learn, if we stick with the process and don’t permit ourselves to be derailed while underway.  Often life interjects and interrupts the process, whether it’s simply the task of making a living, fulfilling familial duties, or taking care of the million daily necessities in living our lives.  This is reality, not an excuse, and it’s something we all deal with.  Given that we already have responsibilities that interfere, we really don’t need to give time to our inner critics during the early stages of our process on anything new that we’re attempting.  It’s counterproductive, yet all too often it’s precisely this which stops us dead in our tracks.  For many of us, our inner critic is what we most frequently hear from, and we latch onto it in order to maintain some sort of standards.

            However, the inner critic is not really the enforcer of standards.  For one thing it is biased, and frequently is not biased toward us.  It brings in comparisons to other people we view as our competitors, or folks we look up to as examples of where we might want to be with a piece, or even our entire career, and these comparisons all too frequently occur before we’ve even managed to get the piece off the ground or even out of the conception box.  This is where the damage occurs because we are most susceptible to derailing in the early stages where we lack confidence in the creation of the piece, or in our ability to perform it.  If we give our inner critic free reign, particular in the early stages of a project, we are often dooming the project to extinction before it’s even off the ground because before we know it, we’ve convinced ourselves that we are going to produce an inadequate product.

            Does this mean that we exorcise our inner critic entirely from ourselves?  Like many of our other mental processes the inner critic does have its place, but we must train ourselves to use it wisely and recognize when we’re jumping off the deep end into the dark never-after before we make that leap.  We do need our inner critic, but we need to be careful about when we employ it.  If we’ve got a piece down physically, or think we do, now it’s time to use our inner critic.  Bring it out and let it work with the piece to see how we can make it better.  This is the key, though.  We must train our critical selves to truly seek to improve what we are doing, not tear it apart.  Look at where work still needs to be put in and figure out how to best accomplish that work in a manner that will not tear us apart in the process.  The best teachers bring out the best in their students through being constructively demanding, and building on experiences.  Ultimately we become our own instructors as we move along on a daily basis so we need to decide what type of teacher we work best with, and become that teacher ourselves.  This is what our inner critic should be, our internal version of our best teacher.

Sometimes we will come across a piece that simply isn’t going to work, or we’re not ready to tackle either because we’re not proficient enough to make satisfactory progress on it, or because we’re simply not willing or don’t have the time to invest in pursuing it.  We should be able to recognize this without turning it into an opportunity to dump on ourselves, and if we’re doing so it’s usually due to an inadequately trained inner critic speaking out of turn.  Remember, the whole purpose of good criticism is to provide advise in how to improve something beyond its current state of existence.  So now, let’s train that inner critic to work for us instead of against us.


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