There are many obstacles that stop us from creating. For most of us the biggest barrier is our inner critic. Our loud, harsh, unrelenting, persuasive inner critic. Our inner critic gives us plenty of reasons not to write, paint, take pictures, play an instrument, make, dance, try, start or finish.
“Maybe you should exercise. Maybe you should eat something. Maybe you should take a nap… What’s the use, you kinda suck. Who are you kidding, no one really cares what you have to say, do they?”
That’s what Peter Himmelman’s inner critic sounds like. Himmelman, an author and award-winning musician, told me that the voice in his head is without question the biggest distraction to his writing. He calls his critic Marv. “Marv is my metaphor for: Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability.”
Maybe your inner critic says similar things. Maybe your inner critic has a litany of reasons why creating right now isn’t convenient. Why you should just wash the dishes and fold laundry. Why you should quit before you even start. After all, that’s not an original idea, is it? You aren’t a professional, are you? You don’t even know what you’re doing, do you?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Either way, it’s so easy to let our inner critic take over. To let it dictate our actions. To let it squelch our creativity, our excitement, our desire to make, our desire to express and share our voice. Because we assume that our inner critic is speaking the truth. The ultimate truth.
But the reality is that the words aren’t real. And even if they are, even if the words contain kernels and whispers of truth, we don’t have to listen. We don’t have to stop writing, creating or doing. We don’t have to take our inner critic seriously. We can take a playful approach (which, of course, is a wonderful way to navigate our creative process, too).
Himmelman has found it helpful to tell his inner critic: “Marv, thank you for your advice. But right now, I’m gonna sit and write for an hour or two, and then, please, by all means, come back and annoy me.” (Don’t you love that? I find this response so powerful and liberating. It’s simple and yet it’s not.)
Himmelman also has realized that Marv isn’t enemy #1. In fact, your Marv and my Marv actually have good intentions. He said:
I’ve come to understand that rather than working to hinder our efforts, Marv is actually a protective force, living somewhere in our limbic brains. If a rabid dog were running after us, it would be Marv who reached for the adrenal gland so that we would fight or flee. Similarly, when we’re embarking on something that could ‘harm’ us in a psychological way—such as when someone criticizes our efforts—Marv endeavors to protect us as well.
It’s up to us to be able to use metacognition, that is, to see ourselves thinking, to determine if the threats against us are real or purely psychological; rabid dog = actual threat, vague fears of being humiliated = harmless anxiety. It’s that calculus that allows us to ignore the distractions and get down to work.
What is your inner critic trying to protect you from when it unleashes its litany of reasons? Is it scared of being criticized? Of being a failure? Of not getting published? Of being seen as mediocre, unoriginal, a copycat? Of being exposed as a phony, fake, an impostor?
When your inner critic starts roaring, acknowledge it. Acknowledge its intentions. Like Himmelman, maybe even thank your Marv. Like Himmelman, consider taking a playful approach. Whatever works for you. And then get back to work. Because your inner critic may not realize the depth, vitality, urgency and power of your purpose for creating. Because maybe you are writing words that you need to read. Maybe you’re creating a product that helps people feel less alone. Maybe you’re creating something to better understand yourself or your world. Maybe you are creating because you’ve realized that you love the process. It brings you joy. Pure joy. Which is a great reason.
In other words, whatever your bigger why, keep going. Keep going.
P.S., Stay tuned next month for my piece featuring powerful suggestions from Himmelman’s forthcoming book Let Me Out: Unlock Your Mind and Bring Your Ideas to Life. It comes out on October 11th.