Hollywood on the Couch

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Dealing with Your "Inner Critic"

Self-criticism is a two-edged sword.

Among the majority of my creative patients — TV and film writers, directors, actors, etc., a primary concern is the struggle against their “inner critic.” By that I mean the persistent, sometimes harsh and almost always shaming “voice” that belittles or invalidates their work. Indeed, the term “inner critic” is such a well-known concept in our culture that millions of dollars are spent on books, DVD’s, online classes and seminars promising to silence, or even banish altogether, his punishing element of most people’s inner world. There are two problems with this approach: first, the goal of killing off the self-critical, judgmental part of your psyche confirms the idea that there’s something wrong with you that needs to be fixed. It suggests that there’s a perfectable “you” in the future who’s unencumbered by such conflicts.

Not to mention my second objection, which is that it isn’t even possible. Unquestionably, there’s nothing more painful about the creative process than struggling against feelings of self-doubt, even self-loathing. I’ve worked with patients who literally hate everything they create — it’s not good enough, funny enough, smart enough, commercial enough. Even those with a more balanced view of their output acknowledge the stress of continually having to keep deeply critical inner voices at bay just to get through the damn thing.

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“Killing off” your inner critic won’t work; it isn’t even desirable. It’s part of who you are. A necessary part. As much as your enthusiasm, your work habits, your loves and hates, your joys and regrets. Because, like these other aspects of your emotional life, an inner critic is a two-edged sword.

Think of it this way: the same inner critic that judges our work so severely provides us with the ability to discern our likes and dislikes, to form opinions, to make decisions. It reinforces the faith in our subjective experience that allows us to choose this rather than that.

We need a sense of judgment to navigate in the world. The amount and intensity of that judgment, as with most things, lies along a continuum. Hopefully, we possess neither too much, nor too little.

Imagine waiting to cross the street at a busy intersection: With too little judgment, you might ignore the “Don’t Walk” sign and get run over; with too much judgment, you stand frozen even when the sign reads “Walk,” and therefore never get anywhere.

What I’m trying to suggest here is that we don’t judge our having an inner judge too harshly. Doing creative work in the face of a persistent inner critic is draining enough. To compound the problem by blaming yourself for being engaged in the struggle is ridiculous.

Remember, too, what I said about your inner critic being a two-edged sword. Because if we can accept with self-compassion this troubling aspect of ourselves, we might even learn something.

I’m thinking of an example from my own experience as a patient in therapy. This was many years ago, when I was struggling with some very painful issues, specifically a rather profound fear of failure that seemed unaffected by my outward success. The sessions were so gut-wrenching, I thought about quitting therapy.

Yet I kept coming, week after week, much to my own surprise. When I mentioned this to my therapist, he suggested that while the issues underlying my fear of failure were indeed painful and difficult, it was this same fear of failure that kept me coming back to therapy every week. In other words, the same thing that was causing the problem was providing the determination to keep slugging away at it. I just wouldn’t quit.

That’s when I realized what a two-edged sword my particular problem was. Like the ancient concept of yin and yang, almost every aspect of our emotional life has both an affirming and an invalidating component. Our job, then, is to examine an issue that troubles us---a harsh inner critic, for example---and learn what is both positive and negative about it, in terms of our work and our life.

If we approach our inner critic from this perspective, that of a life-long process of examination, we can co-exist with it. That along with feeling the pain of its intense scrutiny, we also develop the courage to challenge the self-defeating meanings we give to that pain. This has always been the artist’s struggle. What Rollo May calls “the courage to create.”

Or, to put it bluntly: You’re an artist. Which means, you’re your own worst critic. Join the club.

 

 

 

Dennis Palumbo is a former Hollywood screenwriter (My Favorite Year; Welcome Back, Kotter) turned licensed psychotherapist and mystery author.

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