Devil In the Jump Seat!

Living With Your Inner Critic

      We all have our version of the inner critic. Call it imp, demon, or devil; downer, buzzkill, nitpicker, detractor, harpy. We’re all host to this destructive ogre who seems to delight in tearing down whatever we do, finding fault with any decision or creative impulse we may have, no matter how small.

      Artists are just as prone as anyone else to its depredations…perhaps more so, since their work is that of creating something out of whole cloth that has never been done before in quite the same way. That’s scary. The jump-seat devil delights in tearing down just such vulnerable acts of courage.

      We’re going to do some work to find, unmask, and neutralize that persistent inner demon before it has a chance to ruin yet another day of your splendid creativity.

      First, put yourself in the body of your devil. Pretend you’re the voice that keeps trying to tear down everything you work so hard to build up. Get out your notebook and write all the words and phrases you hear it throw at you. Your list might look like this:

• Nothing you do will ever amount to a hill of beans!
• When was the last time you did something truly original?
• This work isn’t good enough.
• Who do you think you are, pretending to be a [fill in the blank]?
• You’re fooling yourself. You have absolutely no talent for this.
• People will soon figure out what a phony you are.

      And on and on, till you have all the assaults down on paper. Don’t leave anything out.

      Now, think of someone close to you, a good friend, mate, or close family member—someone you trust and feel completely comfortable with. Imagine them sitting in front of you, attentive to what you want to tell them. Your closest ally.

      Here comes the hard part. (And I do NOT suggest doing this with the real person!)

      I want you to read off your list to this beloved person, picturing yourself saying these things and truly meaning them. Tell them their best work is crap. Tell them they’ll soon be found out as a fraud. Tell them nothing they ever do will be worth doing. Spew unto the beloved countenance sitting so innocently there before you, every foul thing that you just heard your devil say to you.

      How does that feel? If you care for this person, I’ll bet it was pretty horrible. You would never do this to them—after all, you love them.

      Yet this is precisely what you are doing to yourself.

      Alright, now let’s see what this bad boy (or girl) looks like. Let’s unmask the Father of All Masqueraders. Sketch, draw, or paint your devil. If you’re not an artist, no matter…just make an image that brings your personal tormentor into view. It doesn’t have to be a good drawing. In fact, the worse it is, the more accurately it’ll portray the hideous beast’s hideous form.

      Now you have a representation you like (or hate, I suppose). Ready for the next step?

      These constant slams to your self-worth didn’t arise out of nothing. You were not born with them. They were not part of your genes. Taking your notebook in hand again, see if you can locate their source. Write down all the people, teachings, or influences in your life that you think of when you hear these voices. What art teacher told you that your drawing was bad? What English teacher taught you that you would be forever incapable of writing? What character in your family always had a way to make you feel bad about yourself?

      It may be difficult to identify the insidious culprit: one of the devil’s best tricks is to make his attacks appear benign. “This is for your own good.” “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” “I’m only trying to help.” “This is just the way things are.” You may recognize these typical means of obfuscation. Often those responsible are themselves unaware of the harm they do, truly believing they are doing right—making their assaults all the more difficult to recognize for what they are.

      Once you’ve discovered the source of these devilish fires, now’s the time to invite them in. Really, they’re already in the car with you. Turn to them. Let them know you see them there in the passenger seat. You know now who they are. Introduce yourself so they know who they’re talking to.

      They’re not going away. They will be with you always. So establish the boundaries you need. Let them know that from now on there will be rules. Tell them the behavior you expect.

      Here’s what one writer came up with: “Alright, you can be in the car if you must. But get in the back seat. Sit down and shut up. You don’t get to talk. Don’t move, don’t gesture, don’t even blink. And don’t you dare touch the steering wheel!!”

      As time goes on, you’ll get better at enforcing your rules. The outwitted creatures will thrash and boil and try all manner of tricks to get you to believe their lies again. It’s a constant task to keep on top of them.

      Keep unmasking them. It’s amazing how easily they shape-shift. The one thing that, for me, identifies the devil is that whatever they do, in whatever form they present themselves. they inevitably make me feel Wrong and Bad. I may think to myself, “Well, there’s no reason to continue this project, it’s not going anywhere.” Or, “This poem isn’t really appropriate for the crowd I want to share it with.” Or “This is a silly piece, I should probably be doing something more socially relevant.” Zing! It’s Beelzebub! He’s in disguise but I’ve unmasked him.

      Your inner critic is showing your reflection in a foggy cracked mirror, a black magic distortion of who you are. It is simply an image, not the reality. Nothing is ever going to be good enough for him.

      But the creature can also become an ally. There is great strength in what Carl Jung describes as the shadow: the hidden monster we all carry inside which holds our worst impulses, our deepest unconscious desires and fears.

      You can draw the power out from the other side of the mirror, separate what has been distorted by the critic from the wisdom that lives in the dark side, and use it to deepen your understanding of yourself. You may find your goals and aspirations clearly delineated in the visions from within that portal. You might hear it report that “This piece of work really sucks,” but you can learn to translate that into, “The piece has great strength…but now I can see ways to better convey what I want to express.”

      There is wisdom to be found once you learn to interpret the true meaning of the inner critic. Become practiced at separating the golden wheat from the negative chaff that can so easily whirl and gyre in the wind and cloud your vision.

      Reframe the narrative from a deeper self that is eager to emerge and portray for you the person you truly are. Coming from deep within the subterranean realm of dreams, it holds great power that can be unleashed in the service of your limitless creativity.

      If you dream of your monster—and this is a wonderful way to encounter it—know that it cannot harm you. Face it squarely. Stand within the field of your fear. The ogre will retreat, dissolve, or do any number of unexpected things. It might lead you on a merry chase ~ keep up. It might try to physically attack you ~ let it. It might don a white hat, lead you up a castle’s turret by dusty winding cobwebbed stairs, then at the top point to the limitless expanse of the open sky. It might shape-shift into a businessman in a dark suit, then shuffle off dejectedly because you’ve found him out. (This is from the David Bayard Greatest Dream Hits album. I chased him down the stairs, out the door, and then flew away.)

      Keep your eyes open. It may turn into a benevolent form, the image of your authentic self. Pay attention and try to remember the details. Better yet, write down what you recall. Looking at it later you will unearth some gold nuggets of truth that weren’t evident on your first recollection.

      Paying close attention to your dreaming self will give you valuable information about your relationship with your inner detractor, how you feel about each other, and most importantly, how you can work together. Make it your ally. It will defend you in all you do with the fierce unyielding stance of a lion, standing proudly, magnificently, at the summit of your highest and most deeply personal possibilities.

      So what does your inner critic look like? I’d love to hear what form your monsters take!

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