Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to Crush Your Creativity: Be Self-Critical

To get clear on this, we need to distinguish between "criticize" and "critique" and throw in the word "evaluate."

We need to evaluate the work we're doing. If I'm writing something (as I am now), I want to stop and see if the words make sense and if they will communicate what I mean.

However, even with the supposedly neutral process of evaluation, timing is everything. If I stop to check every word, my creative motion gets stalled. In the beginning stages of a creative process, it's often more effective to let it have its way and evaluate it once the burst of energy has slowed down or stopped.

Evaluation that says, "I think this word/idea would be better than the original" and goes on to make the replacement can enhance the creative process. Criticism is a different species.

Criticism says, "That's the stupidest idea I ever heard. I really have no talent. I should give up before it's too late." Too late, to use an architectural analogy, can mean that if you continue building your idea/project, it's going to crumble. It also means "Quit before someone else finds out how stupid you are and laughs at you or punishes you."

In psychological terms, criticism is the voice of a parent speaking to a child, a voice you've internalized. You learned to summon and hear its voice because you didn't want to get punished, whether that punishment was physical or humiliation. The critical voice punishes you in advance in order to save you from worse.


Self-criticism is deadly. Sometimes people stumble into the practice of criticizing themselves for being self-critical. Don't.

Here's another solution that won't work: Give up creative expression so that you won't hear the critical voice. That voice is on constant combat mode. If it can't criticize you for stupid thinking, it will criticize you for forgetting something or for how you tie your shoelaces. You need to face it.

Antidotes to the poison of self-criticism can include the following.

Tell yourself that it's okay if the first round (or the second or third) aren't perfect.

Even better, give up on the idea of perfection. Replace that notion with one of doing the absolute best you can.

Don't criticize. Evaluate. Instead of focusing on how bad something is, focus on what would improve it.

Don't pound away at it. Sometimes it's best to walk away and come back later.

If you feel really stuck, ask your inner wisdom, first trusting that you have it. You do; it's part of the software in the package that accompanied you into this world. Say, "I ask for an answer" or whatever wording works best for you.

Finally, as much as you may want to hate this voice, bear in mind that it originated in an attempt to save you pain. Sometimes the most useful act is to thank it for its efforts and tell it you don't need it any more.


  1. I agree - self-criticism can be such a prohibitor to creation. Of course, looking again at a piece can help to improve it, but a constant feeling of inadequacy must be detrimental. It's a strange conundrum really, because as creatives we seek the approval/respect of others, thus meaning we must be satisfied ourselves before exposing our work to the outside world. I think the ideas you mention to avoid self-doubt are great :)

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. Your comment that we must be satisfied first ourselves before letting the world see our work is so true. As long as we are hearing the inner voice of self-criticism, the outside world will probably mirror that criticism.


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