The Writer’s Inner Critic Part I: Know Your Enemy

In this article from psychologist Carolyn Kaufman, which originally appeared on her Archetype Writing site, Dr. Kaufman explains the psychological underpinnings of the Inner Critic. In part two, she provides some practical advice for dealing with the Inner Critic in a positive way. 

All of us have an inner Critic; unfortunately, its voice tends to be particularly strident when we sit down to write. “You’re no good at this,” it says. “Your ideas are stupid. Why would anyone want to read what you wrote anyhow?” Or maybe it waits until you’re actually pounding away at the keys. “That’s not the right word,” it announces. "You’re doing a terrible job of getting what’s in your head on the page. How can you call yourself a writer?”

The inner Critic doesn’t just torture writers; it’s also responsible for clinical depression and anxiety. (It’s no coincidence that mood disorders are more common in writers than the general population.) But psychotherapists know just how to deal with the inner Critic; in fact, even the most vicious Critic will fall before cognitive-behavioral techniques when they’re wielded by someone truly determined to be the victor.

We’re going to look at the psychology of the critic in this article; in part 2, we’ll get out the heavy-duty CBT (cognitive behavioral techniques). Warn your Critic now, it hasn’t got much time left!

Where That Voice Comes From: A Psychodynamic Perspective

Sigmund Freud proposed that the personality or psyche has three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego. While the id is often compared to the devil that sits on one shoulder and the superego to the angel on the other, the superego is really the one responsible for the Critic’s hurtful and demeaning remarks. In other words, your Critic masquerades as a helpful little angel that just wants the best for you.

So how did we all get tricked into believing that halo is real?

When you were born, you didn’t have a superego yet. You hadn’t learned any rules and you didn’t worry that you were going to do something wrong. You were all id–when you wanted something, you wanted it immediately without regard to societal rules or pleasantries. That didn’t make you wicked, it just meant you were focused on your own needs.

In older children and adults, the residual id is the part that secretly hopes the other person will choose the smaller piece of pie, the part that urges you to skip work (or school) and sleep in, the part that would rather pursue a hobby than pay the bills or visit the in-laws. Because the id has no sense of morality, our id-like behavior is never meant to harm others; in fact, the id is important because it reminds us to take care of our own needs and desires.

How We Develop Guilt

As we form the strongest, most crucial bond with our caregivers, called attachment, we begin to introject, or incorporate, those caregivers’ values.

Our desire to please the people we love and who love us causes us to develop the conscience, which is responsible for holding information on what’s “bad” and what has been punished, and the ego ideal, which holds information on what’s “good” and what you “should” be doing. Together, the conscience and ego ideal form the superego. (From a psychodynamic perspective, people who fail to develop a conscience haven’t attached normally to caregivers because they were mistreated or neglected. When we don’t love and feel loved, there’s no reason to try to please the adults around us.)

Because the superego’s entire job is to keep us in line with society’s expectations, it’s voice is punitive, contemptuous, and loud. Some of its favorite words and phrases are “should,” “have to,” “must,” “ought to,” “can’t,” “shouldn’t,” and “mustn’t.” Every single time you think or say these words, your superego is running the show.

The Mediator’s Failings

The ego’s job is to mediate between the id and the superego, but its tools–defense mechanisms–often come up short when it comes to creative endeavors. The ego needs evidence that we’re getting it right (whatever “it” is)–and there are no “right” answers in the creative world.

Beyond Understanding

[With psychodynamic approaches] people got insights into what was bothering them, but they hardly did a damn thing to change. – Albert Ellis

As you’ve probably discovered, knowing that the critic is there, and even how much it affects your work, doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to make it shut up, already.

There are two hurdles everyone who wants to make changes must face. They’re big hurdles, but there are really only two.

Read the rest of the part one, and part two, on Archetype Writing.