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How Purpose Beats The Inner Critic

Have you ever had one of those times when you’re ready to start something creative - writing, painting, photography - and your inner critic kicks in, ruining the moment? He (for mine is a he) starts to mutter about how hopeless you are, how your work will never be adequate to the task, how it’s probably not worth you starting.

I had an attack of that a few weeks ago. It wasn’t about writing, but I think the lessons apply equally well to the writing task.

Time To Get Creative

I was heading off for a long anticipated walk in the west highlands. It was a beautiful sunny day. I had my camera with me - I always enjoy taking photos in the highlands, the light is so wonderful and the landscape inspirational.

What was different this time though: it was just a day after I’d signed up to join Amy Palko’s Photography Less Ordinary group on Flickr. I was hoping to get a picture that would be good enough to share with that group.

But as I started the walk I could feel my feet starting to drag. My camera felt like a dead weight in my pocket. I didn’t want to take it out and start taking pictures. I didn’t even want to get to the start of the loch and the open vista of the hills - because I didn’t want to have to take a picture of them.

What on earth was going on?

The Inner Critic

My inner critic was running rampant. The inner narrative was going something like this:

  • You need to take a picture that’s good enough, interesting enough, out of the ordinary
  • You need to take something that’s good enough for such a creative group
  • You need to take something that’s good enough for Amy
  • You’ll never manage it
  • You don’t know anything about photography
  • You’re not creative
  • You’re not like those other people on the group
  • You’re trying to mix with other people who are not like you
  • You don’t how what you’re looking for
  • You don’t know how to frame things in an interesting way

Yikes! No wonder I didn’t want to take any photographs.

My inner critic was focusing on the reactions of other people: the desire to please them, the hope of meeting their (imagined) expectations, the fear of anticipated criticism

I took a deep breath, and shifted focus.

Focus On Your Purpose

I thought about writing with purpose, and what I’d say to someone who was trying to write something creative and found themselves in the same tangled knot. I’d say find the positive purpose. A purpose that might be for other people - a gift, a lesson, a thanks - but didn’t require or depend on their approval. And then focus on that positive intention. That purpose.

So I looked for mine:

  • To be mindful as I walked
  • To share my love for the landscape
  • To notice some of the wild flowers
  • To express gratitude for my environment
  • To experiment and see what happened

All of these were entirely within my gift. No one could judge them ‘good enough’ (or not). The last one was particularly liberating, freeing me up to experiment, and see what happened.

And that’s what I did - on the walk, and on Flickr for the last four weeks. Taking pictures, playing with editing, experimenting, learning, sharing. It’s a been a bundle of fun, learning, friendship and creativity.

Loch Eck Mosaic

Loch Eck Mosaic

I’m actually very proud of my photographs - and ready to share some of them now - but that’s not really the point. The point for me is that I don’t really mind if you like them or not because I like them, and I’m enjoying myself. I’m creating, and learning, and feeling mindful as I go.

And guess what: I can’t see that inner critic for dust.

~~~

The photo mosaic is based on some of the photos I took on that walk:

1. Leaning tree, 2. Loch Eck, 3. Frame, 4. Blue and Green, 5. Picnic Spot, 6. Reeds, 7. A Walk In Late May, 8. Lochside Reflections, 9. Grassy view, 10. End Of The Walk, 11. Gorse Bush, 12. Golden Wonder, 13. Morning glory, 14. Wild Flowers, 15. Rhododendron in bud, 16. Rhododendron: In Bud

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Comments

  1. Lillie Ammann says:

    Joanna,
    I think we all have that inner critic at least for some activities. Thanks for sharing great advice on how to shut him up. And the photos are gorgeous.

  2. Scott McIntyre says:

    The “wee voice” in our heads that whispers negative doubts can, indeed, be a pain. If only we could shut it up once and for all!

    The next best thing, as you suggest, is to focus away from the noise and concentrate on why we want to achieve the goal. That way, nothing and no one else’s voice can put us off.

    It’s great to see the lovely photos of Scotland- most of where I’ve never been… yet!

  3. Debbie Yost says:

    It’s hard to get past the inner critic. I think when we write (or photograph) something we really love, it no longer matters what others think. However, often we are writing to try to get other’s opinions and that’s when we run into problems. Blogging can be hard since it is so community based. If we were only writing for ourselves we’d just start a diary, but in the blog world, we want comments. It’s hard when we don’t get them and then you start to question your abilities. That little pat on the back keeps us going. Yours is a good lesson to keep in mind. Thanks for the reminder.

    Oh, and btw, I think the pictures are really good -not that my opinion matters. :)

  4. Alina Popescu
    Twitter: alina_popescu
    says:

    Hi Joanna,

    When the critic kicks in and I don’t think I can write something meaningful or when I simply have no inspiration to tackle a subject that’s been on my mind, I try a few things.

    If I don’t have much time, I try to get myself something to eat that I enjoy. Sweet most of the time :D Alternatively, I spend an hour reading. Or I take a walk, take a few photos, meet some friends.

    When all fails, i just remind myself why I need to write, what I need to point out and just start writing. It takes a bit longer, but in the end, after editing a bit, the piece is ready :)

    Looking forward to the next two-months theme!
    Hugs,
    Alina

  5. Rick Mahn says:

    Joanna, glad that you’ve found a way to silence that inner critic. As I was reading this post, it was hitting very close to home. Mine is always on the blogging front, and seems like just when I get a bit past my inner critic, I fall back into the same perspective.

    Your work in this post is an inspiration to “just write” and see where the words & thoughts fall on the page. Thank you for another great post that leads the way on inspiration and clear thinking. Great photos too!

    Rick

  6. Bo says:

    I loved how you focused on a switch - from outer expectations to inner purpose. Wonderful life lesson. And I’m so glad you share your wonderful photography with all of us. I love getting to know people through their words plus the added bonus of how they see their world with their eyes and a lens.

  7. Cath Lawson says:

    Hi Joanna - what beautiful pictures. They make me want to go there right now.

    That inner critic can be a pain in the butt. Mine appears constantly. Thanks for reminding us of a great way to deal with him.

  8. --Deb says:

    My inner critic does speak up while I’m taking pictures and writing and knitting-anything creative, really-but I also have an inner cheerleader who exults in everything I do. Granted, she’s not always right, because not everything I do really is fabulous, but she’s convinced that it is … the trick is listening to her more than to the critic. Good thing she’s got pom-poms!

  9. Rosa Say says:

    This is a very well-written post Joanna, and as others have said here, a subject far too easy for us to all relate to. I can’t help think it funny that your inner critic is a he… perhaps because of the theme we have had on JoyfulJubilantLearning.com in the past month (learning from men for those who may not know :)

    I think we can learn to befriend our inner critic, letting them take the rap for voicing those things we can be thankful we didn’t say out loud yet! As a coach, I also think of my inner critic as empathy speaking for others who need me to relate to them better and not be so “above it all.”

    The trick to living with our inner critic is having what you have taught us here to have as well; that purpose that serves as a kind of brain wall padding for our inner critic’s voice to bounce off of softly as we entertain the mental gymnastics!

    And Joanna, your purpose has helped you be a stellar photographer! I love seeing Scotland through your camera lens. Because I see her as you do, she is only beautiful, kind, and nurturing in my eyes too, and she is also real to me without my feet needing to touch her soil - yet! (I echo you Scott!)

  10. Ulla
    Twitter: ullahe
    says:

    Joanna,
    your post is a big help for me. When I began to participate in Twitter, my inner critic told me “you are trying to mix with other people who know much more than you do, how can you dare to approach them”. After argueing with him/her I decided to become active and not to listen to my inner critic any more. Now he/she is sitting in the corner of my room, having her mouth shut. She’s still here, but she’s silent…

  11. SpaceAgeSage says:

    The inner critic used to an unbeatable monster for me. NLP helped a lot. Watching my mom’s whole life revolve around her inner critic made want to tackle my mine before it owned me completely. Watching my husband overcome his keeps me motivated, too. I guess I finally realized I created the monster, and I would have to de-construct it as well.

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom and your eye for nature!

    SpaceAgeSage

  12. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Lillie, I’m sure we do, and sometimes he’s useful… the trick I guess is working out when to let him have his say and when to keep him quiet. I’m sure you see this a lot in the writing/editing work you do

    Scott, hello again :-) I’ve certainly found focusing on a positive purpose easier and more effective than trying to silence the negative voice. Glad you liked the photos

    Debbie, this one is tricky isn’t it because I am loving all the nice comments about my photos, here and on flickr where I’ve been sharing them - that feedback, like blog comments is very powerful and motivating. I guess the trick is to focus back on your positive reasons and, as you say, *love* of what you’re doing when your creativity, motivation or inspiration is flagging a bit

    Alina, thanks for sharing those practical and effective solutions for getting past your critic. I share some of them too, though I try not to indulge the need for chocolate too much!

    Joanna

  13. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Rick, ‘just writing’ can definitely help to set our words free - especially when it’s coupled with a powerful, positive purpose. There’s always writing you can do privately - for fun, for learning, for expression - if you need to get past a block too.

    Bo, thanks for summarising this so neatly! “The switch from outer expectations to inner purpose”. That’s it, in a nutshell. I also share your views on the joy of getting to know people - including how they see their world. It’s why I’m enchanted by flickr - and great photo-blogs :-)

    Cath, I spend more time with mine than he deserves too. I’ve been enjoying experimenting with ways to get round him with my photos - and how that boost to my creativity has helped me with my writing too

    Joanna

  14. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    -Deb, I like the sound of your inner cheer-leader! You’re right, you can’t entirely rely on her judgement any more than you can discount everything the inner critic tells you - but I think most of us could do more with more pom-poms!

    Rosa, I agree that the critic has some positive intention - the trick is in learning to listen and learn, and give due space to the cheer-leader too. Thank you for the feedback on my pictures. It’s a wonderful iterative loop isn’t it? I feel more interested and intrigued by the place that I live as a result of taking the photos.

    Ulla: I’m glad you decided to turn the noise down on your critic. I’m wondering if there was a positive purpose that went alongside your decision to make some waves - to learn, to share, to contribute - perhaps that helped to tip the balance?

    Hi Space Age Sage: thanks for the feedback and sharing those personal reflections. I too have found NLP very helpful, including helping me to find my own creativity switch. I went for many years believing I wasn’t creative till I learned how to flick the switch to “on”… now I don’t ever want to switch it off :-)

    Joanna

  15. Karen Putz / DeafMom says:

    I enjoyed this post. My inner critic is a “she,” a beautiful gal with one of those perfect bodies and a Mensa mind, everything I’m not. I’ve found that duct taping her mouth shut does the trick for me.

    Beautiful photos, Joanna. You never cease to amaze me. :)

  16. Hope Wilbanks says:

    This post is so timely for me because I’ve been doing quite a bit of thinking and studying about purpose lately. You really can stifle that nasty inner voice when you feel like you KNOW why you’re doing what you doing. I lost my purpose AND vision for a time, but I feel like I’m finally regaining it. Awesome post!

  17. emily carmichael says:

    i’m all too familiar with that little voice! mine is a ‘she,’ and sounds *exactly* like me. while she has plenty to say about my lack of brilliance in various areas, many of her criticisms have nothing to do with my abilities but with the ultimate purpose or usefulness of what i want to do: telling me that i needn’t bother with this project or that one because, ultimately, there is no point. i haven’t learned to shut her up or to ignore her yet, but sometimes — even just now and then — i am learning to work around her.

  18. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Karen, your inner critic sounds like a nightmare! Bet she doesn’t have your beautiful smile though :-) I’m glad you’ve found a way to get her licked anyway

    Hope, I’m glad the post resonated with you. And you know even if we’re not sure about the ‘big’ purpose (because the critic is known to be snarky about that too) there’s always some positive purpose that we can find - to express, to create, to share… I think anyway :-)

    Joanna

  19. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Karen, your inner critic sounds like a nightmare! Bet she doesn’t have your beautiful smile though :-) I’m glad you’ve found a way to get her licked anyway

    Hope, I’m glad the post resonated with you. And you know even if we’re not sure about the ‘big’ purpose (because the critic is known to be snarky about that too) there’s always some positive purpose that we can find - to express, to create, to share… I think anyway :-)

    Joanna

  20. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Emily, that voice can be a hard one to deal with. Working round might be a good tactic. Or reducing your sense of purpose to something smaller but still powerful - something she can’t disagree with. I don’t know if that makes sense… I’ll e-mail you and try and explain.

    Joanna

  21. Andrew says:

    Joanna,

    By the looks of your photo’s it appears that your inner critic provided a misleading and inaccurate assessment of your abilities.

    I too, have an inner critic. The assessment from my inner critic is as follows:

    (1) I have no chance of ever getting married;

    (2) I am not an effective teacher;

    (3) I failed a few times in my previous profession, so I am doomed to be a failure for the rest of my life;

    (4) I am not an interesting person;

    (5) My blog is not, and will never be, interesting.

    (6) I have many other faults.

    Dr. David Schwartz, in his book, The Magic of Thinking Big, describes such a critic as “Mr. Defeat.” Dr. Schwatz recommends that the best course of action is to fire Mr. Defeat, and move on with life.

    Cheers

    Andrew

  22. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Andrew, we have been meeting some horrible old critics in this comment box! Yours sounds very mean too. I’m glad you’ve learned how to fire him :-)

    Joanna

  23. Practicing Writer says:

    Wonderful! It is all about the perspective you choose to view it all from.

  24. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Hi, indeed, if you can change perspective or the frame you view things through… everything changes.

    Joanna

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  26. Mother Earth says:

    These photographs are just beautiful Joanna.

  27. Joanna Young
    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    Hi Karen! Thanks :-)

    Joanna

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  34. David Atkinson says:

    From looking at your pictures, I can smell the aroma of your purpose.

    Awesome post Joanna

    David Atkinson

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    Twitter: joannapaterson
    says:

    David, thanks for reminding me of this post - it’s one of my all time favourites. Glad you found it useful.

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