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Friday, January 31, 2020

Inner Critics and Other Voices [Part 3 of 3]

We're jumping right in here from Part 2, or you can go all the way back to Part 1

Some techniques for dealing with nasty little voices.


One of my favorite writers has a very involved visualization technique that involves imagining each of these voices as tiny mice. Then, one by one, they put those voices into glass jars, visualizing the mice under the jars trying to get out, but now silenced.

I could never make mice and jars work. What works for me is picturing some sparkly vampire, who I really don't like, saying these things. (Let's call this one "Robert" for no particular reason.) I picture Robert talking shit about how I am not good enough and how I'll never be a real writer. Suddenly, my naysaying voices are practically motivational. "Fuck you, Robert. I'm goddamned, AWESOME! And you were the one who thought you were terribly clever for sticking your head in a toilet to fix your hair."

Uh....or...um...maybe that's too specific. Whatever works for you.

I also sometimes picture a work scenario when it comes to my inner editor or certain other voices. "Oh, I'm sorry. You're totally early for your shift. We're still putting together the first draft. We're going to need you when we are doing revision. Six hours at least. Come back then." Then I imagine the editor happily going to go catch a movie and grab some lunch.

One of my particular tricks (got this one from a first season episode of Red Dwarf) is to actually imagine Overconfident and Self-Effacing as two actual characters. So whenever I'm feeling a little too "I am the best writer ever!" or "I suck and everything I write sucks!", I just imagine the precise voice is actually in the room with me. And then I call the other one in to have a little chat.


The voices can be big and overwhelming and kind of take out your Jenga tower of belief in yourself like a Muay Thai kick to the lowest level. Sometimes the voices are all broad brushstrokes and no specifics. It can be useful to confront such a broad and overarching voice with logistics.

"Exactly what is the problem? Go ahead, big doomy doom-song voice. I give you permission to tell me all about it. Be very specific. Don't just tell me no one is going to love it. Get right down into the reasons. Character development? Purple prose? Too much discussion of defecation making it the wrong sort of "gritty"? Chapter four?  It's chapter four, isn't it? What is it? Let's work on this together?"

You may find that your voice has something worth saying, or that when you ask it for specifics, it becomes more of a five centimeter fear demon repeating one "scary" phrase over and over again with nothing new to add, and no specifics to bring up.

"Listen, I'm not going to let you talk to you like that."
The Friend Trick-

The friend trick is a tried and true favorite when your voices are just fucking mean. Instead of seeing ourselves as Shit By The Foot Roll-Ups who NEED to be reminded that a sentence isn't perfect or that we're not the next Toni Morrison, and responding to our inner voices with slumped shoulders and despondent resignation, what if we gave ourselves the same basic respect we would demand from any of our loved ones? We tend to be our own worst critics and our own harshest task masters, but we also ALLOW these voices to talk to us that way. How long would you put up with that shit from someone if they were talking to a friend instead of you? Or if you had some constructive criticism for a friend, would you ever in a million years deliver it in the way that you let your inner voices talk to you?

Think about would you would tell your friend? How you would treat them. What kindness about their writing would you give your friend that you're not giving yourself. If your friend were dealing with internal critics, maybe you'd be far more kind and encouraging to them. Perhaps you'd tell them they better shut their fuckpickle word holes with that negative claptrap and admit that they are thirty-one flavors of awesome? If you felt they DID have some salient criticism, you'd probably say something like, "Well, that might be true, but you're getting better and you're really good at the other parts." It's very unlikely you would look deadass into the eyes of a friend and say, "Yep, it's all true. Quit now."

("Hey, if you've got something to say, say it, but no one treats my friend this way.")

Why not give yourself at LEAST as much kindness as you would a friend?

Agreement! And nuance ("Yes and..." instead of "No but...")-

Go ahead and agree with your little voice. ("You're right. This is a terrible chapter." "This may actually be the single worst first sentence I've ever written in my entire writing career including first grade.") But then add the nuance of what that means or where you might go from there. ("I will be taking an extra good look at this during revision." "I may cut all this out, but I really want to just get the first draft down.") Or that you agree, but you have to sit here and work for two hours no matter what. ("You might be right, but I'm stuck here for two hours.")

By basically opening a dialogue with your little voice that says "You're absolutely right and here is what I'm going to do about that problem," suddenly your little voice has nothing more to say. ("That sentence sucks!" "Yeah, I know. I'll come back and fix it."  "Oh....well...um....okay then...I guess.  Carry on.")

Even if it thinks you're no good at X skill, you can just agree that you need more skill training and/or practice in X.

That little voice isn't all knowing. It's just you dressed up as an asshole. It's just standing right on top of your anxiety and screaming it at the top of its little inner voicey lungs and poking a pointed stick in your self-confidence. By talking to it, you can find a lot of nuance that it may have a point and you will be particularly careful about that.


Have you tried arguing with that voice?

Not like getting mad or saying "Shut up," or shit like "I am TOO a writer! I am! I am! I am!" I mean like straight up disputing what it's trying to sell you like you might if it were some shitty mediocre white guy mansplaining to you why the writing industry is harder than you can imagine and you probably can't make it even with a lot of hard work (despite being a computer engineer that hasn't written fiction since a writing assignment for high school English). I mean giving this voice what for!

("Listen, asshole, would anyone who sucked at writing have won the Slater Ultimate Mystery Writing Award three years running? I don't think so. I think maybe you're just a little stormcloud that's full of shit and just trying to damage my calm.")

Basically try yelling back. See what happens. It won't always work, but like a bully, your internal critic sort of counts on you to run in fear, cower, fall to pieces, give up and go home, and never really stand up to it.

What would happen if you did?


Turns out some versions of those internal critics and mean voices aren't.....well....super clever. They are aspects of you, of course, but also they're kind of like one-trick ponies manifesting a single facet of your anxiety, yelling the same thing over and over again. They don't have a lot of ability to adapt to trickery.

You might get a lot of mileage out of just kind of TREATING them like a screaming two-year-old who is demanding something unreasonable. ("Okay, let's talk about this after I finish this chapter." [But then don't.]) ("Well, Mommy needs to get this part done, so why don't we put this on the list of things to do for next week, okay?" [Haha. Like you're going to remember this conversation next week.]) ("If you are still feeling this way at the end of my session, we can talk.")

Having trouble getting started because that voice won't let you just WRITE the first sentence/paragraph/chapter? Start on the SECOND one. It's okay. You were probably going to edit most of it anyway.

You can also use some wicked reverse psychology on it. A lot of writers think they suck...until someone says they suck. Then they get a little bit defensive. And this trick can sometimes work on one's self.

Admit to not even knowing how to write a sentence. ("Yep. I am far worse than the other writers who can write sentences." Watch as that voice does a sudden reversal, "Wait. No. You can totally write sentences! I just meant that.....now SEE HERE!"

If your voice is nitpicking, you can just agree that you should give up writing forever* and go learn to play canasta. Sudden reversal! "Hang on there, buddy. Let's not be HASTY!"

(*This one might backfire if your voice is saying you should give up writing forever. You most likely want to try it if your voice won't shut the FUCK UP about the little problems. Learn to read the room.)

Ego separation-

This is a pretty "harsh" take on you and your little voices, so you might want to skip this one if you need a more compassionate and loving approach to dealing with self-doubt, but for some, a more taskmaster/drill sergeant approach might be effective. Some days you need to be cherished and loved just the way you are, and some days you need someone with a boot that has been outfitted with a tapered butt plug, so that it is specially designed to fit up your ass.

And here's the thing: the only reason you have that mean little voice talking shit to you when you sit down to the page is because you have an ego. Egos don't want to get hurt. Egos want everyone to love you. Egos want to be further along in the progression of your learning curve than you are. Egos have an idea in their head of how effortless it should be.  Egos don't want you to have to face that you have some hard work ahead. Egos would rather you give up and not try than fail and have to face that you're not the best at something.

One way to deal with the voice that says you're not good enough is to recognize that it's coming from a place of ego. (Only an ego would have a sense of where you OUGHT to be.) We all selfishly want to be better than we are, never be criticized, and never be seen as anything but a total genius, but without working for it.

Ignore it-

This is subtly different than the "Pretending not to hear it" that you've been doing. Imagine it more like you're the really shitty customer service in a Rom-Com...played by Beth Grant. ("Oh okay, thank you SO much for your feedback. I'll be sure and bounce that right along to top men. TOP MEN.") Or the woman who totally pretends she's listening to a dude mansplain that privilege doesn't really exist over the phone. ("Uh huh. Uh huh. Yep. You're absolutely right. Can you repeat that? No, I was listening, I just didn't quite grasp it. Maybe you can simplify it a bit?  Uh huh. Oh yes. Yep." *meanwhile solving a crossword puzzle or balancing the budget of a billion dollar non-profit on Excel* "Oh yeah...you're so right.")

It's not just burying your head under a pillow. This kind of ignoring is more like art. Smile and nod at your voice like it's your heteronormative aunt you can't stand giving you dating advice.

Then do your thing anyway.


Your little voices are you. Some of them go pretty far down your personal rabbit holes, but they're still you. Have you had lunch? Did you get enough sleep? Are you taking it easy once in a while? What would it feel like to meet those pernicious little fuckweasel voices by holding space and pouring overwhelming (self) kindness upon them?

Give yourself a fighting chance.....by being incredibly gentle with yourself. Not about whether you SHOULD be writing or not, but about how it's going. Every writer you have ever read sucked until they didn't.

Utter distraction-

Your little voices are immediate and urgent manifestations of some kind of emotion (usually anxiety or self-doubt of some kind). If you simply interrupt that thought flow, you may be able to "short-circuit" the emotion that it's riding.

Try doing some difficult division problems* every single time your voice reaches the point where it's distracting. When you can't hear it any more, get back to work.

*Or recite poetry you've memorized. Whatever....

Therapy/Medication/Professional Interventions-

As I mentioned above, there are issues with intrusive thoughts and "internal critics" that go past the scope and ability of one creative trying to coach another though pedestrian self-doubt. If you are finding that your voices wish you harm, go on even when you're not doing trying to write, or doubt your entire existence has value (and not just your ability to write), you might be dealing with authentic intrusive thoughts. (Like clinical, I mean. Not that your other thoughts aren't authentic.) And while some of these techniques might be the same ones you use, you should probably do so under the guidance of a mental health care professional who can help you figure out what's working, what's not, and if your brain might not be making the right chemicals which will mean you need the store-bought kind (WHICH IS FINE).

This list is by no means exhaustive. Particularly I find wide variations on a theme. But it has many of the main approaches. Think of this list as more like the basics. Not all wrenches are an adjustable crescent wrench, so you may need a bit of a personal touch. And if you'll let me not so much MIX my metaphors as whip them into a smoothie, don't be afraid to combine two or more techniques and season to taste.


  1. Thank you for these 3 posts. These inner-voice-monster fighting techniques are not only valuable, you have packaged them in a remarkably encouraging, warmhearted and loving container that gives me as much pleasure in the reading as I will experience in the wielding. You rock, Chris!