How to put your inner critic in its place

And do your creative work in 2023

As writers, creators, artists, and musicians, we all have the same ugly little inner voices that try to sabotage us from doing our work. They come in different flavors: You’re not good enough. You have nothing important to say. This is boring. Ssssleep is sooooo much better than thissss (hear that in translated Parseltongue, please).

It’s what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance.

Julia Cameron calls it the Censor.

I call it: The Little Arsehole.

Here is the tricky thing though—there is another little voice in there, the Inner Guide, that is getting caught up in the machinations of the Little Arsehole. It’s a helpful voice. A voice that wants you to succeed, to get better, to discover the jewels of your craft. But it’s not obnoxious like the Little Arsehole so it doesn’t speak so loudly.

The first work that we need to do is to be able to differentiate between these two voices. And really, it’s easy when you know how to tell the difference.

And here it is.

The Little Arsehole has one goal: to make you stop.

So its messages always end the same way:

“You’re not good enough—you should just stop now before you embarrass yourself.”

“There is nothing in here that has not already been said better than you could ever say it—stop now and do something else. Go buy stuff for your kids on Amazon.”

Stop. Stop. Stop.

The Inner Guide has a totally different goal: to make you try harder, and do better.

It sounds more like this:

“That line is a little cliched—what else have you got?”

“There’s not enough contrast between these sections—what can you do to make it pop more?”

“This feels meandering. You haven’t found the hook yet. Keep looking.”

Keep looking. Keep going. Try harder. Don’t settle for mediocrity. Keep going.

Can you see the difference? One says stop. The other says keep going.

So what to do about that pesky Little Arsehole, because the truth is, it’s not really ever going to disappear. It’s part of you. And like silly putty, the harder you push it, the more rigid and strong it becomes.

So here is the revelation. You put that Little Arsehole in its place by treating it gently, sweetly, kindly. Why? Because it’s actually there to help you. It’s a vestigial feature of our evolutionary biology, designed to prevent us from standing out from the crowd—lions will eat you if you are the lone little deer wearing a pink tutu on the savannah. 

The Arsehole is really fear, whose tactic is protection. But there’s no lions, not in the sense that they can really hurt you. So we don’t really need that voice to be so loud and obnoxious when all we are trying to do is make art, do something creative and beautiful and weird. 

Here is the 3-step method for putting the Little Arsehole in its place:

Step 1: Identify.

Pay attention to those voices, and practice identifying the Arsehole (“stop”) versus the Guide (“try harder”). Once you’ve recognised it for what it is, you can stop identifying with it. 

Step 2: Treat it kindly.

Remember, if you get angry or frustrated with ‘fear’, it will perceive threat and double down. Here are some things I say to it:

“Oh hi! There you are again. Thanks for trying to protect me, that’s sweet of you to care so much. But in this moment, your services are not required. See? No lions! But please stick around for some other moment where I will almost certainly need you.”

Shorthand: “Thank you – but not right now.”

Side note:

I know this sounds a bit cute, but honestly, if you recognise it as a protective function that is truly trying to serve you, just in a misguided way—and, you treat it (which is to say, yourself) with respect and gratitude—it will stop popping up in unnecessary moments. And! You get the added benefit of training it to be more attuned to situations where it might actually come in handy.

Step 3: Put it in its place.

Which is to say, in the corner with a lollipop and an iPad. We are not trying to belittle it, just to remind it that now is not the time. 

Once the Little Arsehole is quiet and distracted, the Inner Guide gets more of a fighting chance of being heard, which is notoriously difficult. So many of my students ask how they can tell when a song is done, or even how to know what they need to change when they’ve created a first draft. The answer lies in your ability to hear the Inner Guide, to pay attention to it, and to dial it up. Its advice and guidance get better and clearer the more work you do. Its quality is a function of quantity. 

So get the lollipop jar ready, and go do your work. 


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