Thursday, November 30, 2017

Cultivating the Inner Critic

Dealing with critics. It's unavoidable, especially as the most pressing and persistent are usually within us. These phantom-like entities have often arisen in my recent sessions with a therapist. I was somewhat surprised to discover that in addition to my internalized stern elementary school teacher who likes to discipline with the sharp side of a 12 inch ruler, I also am dogged by a shadow of excessive weight, an ogre who catches all that Miss Reidegar misses, and more.

My therapist and I have developed a very good therapeutic relationship. (And I think I speak with some authority, having had much more therapy over the years than the average bear.) She has a somewhat different approach than the usual -- CBT, ten sessions or less -- that our health care system prefers. Instead of heading for direct integration of my psyche, she has instead teased out different aspects, or guardians, of my somewhat conflicted self. What I have learned may be useful for others.

If we think of inner critics as trying to protect us from something, what would that something be? Failure? Embarrassment? Shame? Ridicule? Financial or creative ruin? Is it possible to thank the critic for their concern, to appreciate how hard they have worked to keep us safe? To let them know they have been heard, and to suggest their energy might be better appreciated if they waited until a later phase in the process to voice their concerns.

I was in a writing workshop once where we were encouraged to just write in an intense flurry, and tell the critic to wait until we were ready to edit, when what they had to say would be more useful. This is helpful when the nagging negative voice prevents us from actually getting started. If we can just get something down on paper or cloth, then there is something tangible to respond to - and, interestingly, that other internalized force, the creative one, is so chuffed after making something that it can meet the critic as an equal, rather than subordinate to the overpoweringly protective role the critic needlessly takes on.

Design is closely based on a photo from Tiggy Rawling's blog, "I'd Rather Be in India".

Prolonged, careful contemplation is an essential stage in the creative process. I have been working on this hooked rug for the longest time. I just did a couple of hours a week usually, and didn't feel especially invested in it. Now that it's getting near the end I am keen to see it finished, yet I find myself ripping out more than I put in. Even though I have been following a photograph of the Indian embroidery that inspired this piece, the translation to hooking means I have had to make many choices in the interpretation. I finish a section, I throw it down on the floor and assess how it works within the context of the rest of the rug. This means I can't be attached to a section just because I've done it and I want to get to the next bit.

Here is where the critic shines. In fact, this can be the part I enjoy the most - gazing upon the work, asking "What does it need?" For me, this feels productive, engaged and open ended. The rigidity of the critic relaxes and makes interesting suggestions. The sharp ruler is put away and sometimes the gold stars even come out. Because critics can also see good, if they are given a chance.

In art school, critiques would happen regularly, where the whole class would comment (constructively, hopefully) on each person's work. This was probably the best aspect of school for me, and the one I miss most. Criticism need not be discouraging or despairing, it can be thoughtful, helpful and kind - as well as pointing out bullshit when need be.


  1. building trust & friendship with the gallery up the road over the last 7 years has really helped me raise the bar on my art, the owner gently pushes both me and my work & I almost always bristle initially then take the crit on board and work with it or not as the case may be but she always helps me understand why an element is important or not...

  2. I love your rug so far. It’s nearly finished!

    Interesting about your inner critic. I know I have one but she’s usually pretty cooperative because the only viewer that matters is me! My mantra is “good enough”. My art school experiences with critiques weren’t nearly as pleasant or helpful as yours. I learned pretty quickly that a lot of it was subjective and some was just plain mean-spirited. Sigh. Now I don’t really care what anyone else thinks unless I’m making something specifically for them. Which I don’t often do!

  3. Anonymous5:35 AM

    I haven't been involved with visual art for quite a while, but I do remember that when I felt the need to pull back and "criticize" something I was working on, I needed help to see it anew. To do this, I would simply turn the piece upside down, or better yet, look at the piece in a mirror. Then my inner-critic could get a good go at it. These days I do more writing and I have learned to trust an editor, usually somebody who's writing I respect. I think that's a key issue, finding a critic you can respect. Given that you are talking about the critic within, not another person, I guess that means we also need to learn to trust our own judgement. Jean-Pierre

    1. Maybe your inner critic isn't as mean as mine, J.-P.. Interesting.

  4. Your rug is going to be a masterpiece! I remember when you started that, I was fascinated by it.

  5. Kristin10:22 AM

    The rug is definitely showing the results of your inner critic taking time to speak to the artist and edit when necessary for the good of the whole piece. Finding a good critique community is so beneficial whether writing or making art. I treasure their thoughts and it is not always just the pat on the back, but the words that help me to move to a better piece created by me.

  6. Anonymous10:13 PM

    By the way, totally cool rug. It's going to be the centre of attention in any room when it is finished. Jean-Pierre

  7. thank you, I like the idea of acknowledging the inner critic and asking it to wait


Please forgive me for using word verification. The spam robots got to me.