9 Effective Ways For Artists To Silence Their Inner Critic

Everyone has it – that annoying voice of The Little Man inside your head that wants to take you away from what you are doing, comment (usually negatively), judge, doubt your actions, keep you in a state of fear and paralyze you from getting things done that you know you should…..the things that you love, the things that move you forward and the things that inspire confidence in your work and the world around you. It’s a battle but I’ve found some tools and strategies to get him gone when I need to.

Who is The Little Man?

The Little Man…has been with me since I was about five or six. He becomes strongest and invades most people then and begins to take over, crushing things like creativity…adventure…wonder…curiosity…and many other creative qualities that could improve the state of man and woman.

 The Little Man has a number of other aliases including The Inner Critic, the Left Brain, The Accountant, The Timekeeper & The Analyst. 

Usually, the onset of school is his inglorious birth. When we learn to “sit on the square”, “talk only when we have our hand up”, “nap at nap time”, and use the glue for pasting instead of tasting. The age when you start to develop language is the time that he’s born. He is the destruction of innocence itself and he grows and learns clever ways to keep you from exploring and expressing yourself completely. Concepts such as rules enter in mostly through language and we learn to “colour inside the lines” rather than to express ourselves with abandon and joy. It’s a sad time, when I think about it. Watch a child the year before he or she enters school…and then a year afterwards. I do everything in my power to ensure that my own kids remember what it’s like without “The MAN” inside your head. Sir Ken Robinson has a great TED talk on “How Schools Kill Creativity”. Fight back. Appeal to your school board for more creative opportunities for children and teens.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original”
– Sir Ken Robinson

Through the ages of 6-12, the MAN gets stronger and stronger. In some kids, he takes over completely. You know you’ve heard of him – he’s called The Bully at this age. Every now and then, the MAN really takes over some kid and totally whacks him (or her) out. That child becomes a beast, torturing others, cajoling other kids to take their side and trying to silence every voice that rises against them. (Oh…wait….that’s Steven Harper’s government, isn’t it?)

The facts on bullying are plain and clear, yet it still persists as a cornerstone in all cultures and societies. Perhaps the worst thing about it is that it’s a learned behaviour.

The Little Man is clever. He has ways to sustain himself through your lifetime and clearly cause havoc in more serious forms than quashing the artist in you. Honestly, if you haven’t heard that your child … (and I am speaking metaphorically about both …YOU and in the “real” here where your children are concerned)… has been bullied in some way or another, you might want to check and see if YOUR child has been taken over by The Little Man and is the bully. Oftentimes, The Little Man is invisible to adults. Get some crayons….draw a picture of what their day was like at school (or for you in the studio or at work), what happened at recess and lunch and have a good look at their/your drawings. Ask them to tell you what’s happening. As yourself what’s happening. Those drawings will tell you much more about what’s going on. I’ve seen many adults re-learn how to do this very effectively in The Community Fusion Project.

 “Bullying is the assertion of power through aggression. Its forms change with age: school playground bullying, sexual harassment, gang attacks, date violence, assault, marital violence, child abuse, workplace harassment and elder abuse.” (Pepler and Craig, 1997)

I digress…but I DO want you to think of The Little Man as a Bully when it comes to your Creative Self. The first step in silencing him is to recognize his nature and his source.

The Seven Grandfather Teachings - painting by Janice Tanton
"The Seven Grandfathers" ©2008 Janice Tanton. Oil on Canvas 8"x24"

Rules To Govern The Little Man

You can’t totally “kill” The Little Man. That would be wrong. It might end up totally disconnecting you from yourself and from humanity.

The Little Man has a use – he keeps you from jumping off a cliff, hurting yourself (physically, socially and mentally) and there have to be some rules that guide us and connect us with each other. I use The Seven Grandfather Teachings to guide me and let me know if The Little Man is doing something he’s not supposed to.

“The Little Man LIKES rules.”

 

He understands reason when these are applied to him and usually backs right off. The thing about The Little Man is that if he’s rule-bound, he ALLOWS creativity…because he has something to play with and keep him busy. Here are the 7 Grandfather Teachings – the rules to keep The Little Man occupied while you do the work of a Full Time Human Being:

  • Nibwaakaawin—Wisdom: To cherish knowledge is to know Wisdom. Wisdom is given by the Creator to be used for the good of the people.
  • Zaagi’idiwin—Love: To know Love is to know peace. Love must be unconditional. When people are weak they need love the most.
  • Minaadendamowin—Respect: To honor all creation is to have Respect. All of creation should be treated with respect. You must give respect if you wish to be respected.
  • Aakode’ewin—Bravery: Bravery is to face the foe with integrity. In the Anishinaabe language, this word literally means “state of having a fearless heart.” To do what is right even when the consequences are unpleasant.
  • Gwayakwaadiziwin—Honesty: Honesty in facing a situation is to be brave. Always be honest in word and action. Be honest first with yourself, and you will more easily be able to be honest with others.
  • Dabaadendiziwin—Humility: Humility is to know yourself as a sacred part of Creation. In the Anishinaabe language, this word can also mean “compassion.” You are equal to others, but you are not better.
  • Debwewin—Truth: Truth is to know all of these things. Speak the truth. Do not deceive yourself or others.

 

OUT The Little Man

Usually, The Little Man hits some pretty sensitive personal nerves but I’ve been working on facing the things that he says while I’m trying to create. He can be cruel and cunning. Remember – he lives in your head. He knows your sensitive parts better than you do. Never apologize to him.

The Little Man’s arch-enemy is Honesty. He doesn’t like being reasoned back with when it’s something he can’t “un-reason” through a logical process. Telling the truth to him and giving him the honest truth is VERY effective. I’m “outting” The Little Man right now. Here’s what he says to me, the evil-doer!

  • You shouldn’t be painting. You should go make dinner for the day.
  • This painting isn’t going anywhere. You should go online and meet up with Twitter friends or write a blogpost.
  • That’s a crappy colour – not at all what you were looking for. Why don’t you give up. You’ll never get it right.
  • How long is this going to take? I’ve got other things you need to do.
  • You spend too much time painting. You should go be with your family. What a terrible mother you are. <<<(WTF?? OUCH!!)
  • You’re not an artist. You’re no good at this. <<(This is The Little Man at his most brutal.)

Timing Is Everything to The Little Man

Studio Clock
Studio Clock - Creativity Waits for No One!

Creativity is a timeless action. The Little Man hates anything that doesn’t have a clear beginning, middle and end and that takes more time than he can comprehend. He’s impatient. He likes things done when HE says so. Give him a timer. Tell him that he will just have to wait, and that you have set an egg timer that, when it goes off…you’ll listen to him again and get that other “junk” done. This is kind of like a rule. He’ll like that….and in this…you can TRICK him. When the timer goes off, take a break, let him in just for a minute and then tell him AGAIN that you’ll set a timer and let him back in awhile. He forgets that you just did this to him. (It’s hilarious, actually).

Sing The Little Man To Sleep

Everyone loves rest, including The Little Man. He just doesn’t know it until you lull him into it and get him to nod off. One of the best ways to do this is by playing him some music that has no words. Jazz….classical…..The Little Man doesn’t speak “music”. He’s a verbal creature so if you sing melody to him long enough, he gets bored of trying to understand a language he’ll never learn. I like to listen to movies too. His only way of coping is to go to sleep.

Paint The Little Man Into A Corner

Sometimes just the ACT of creating, if sustained long enough, puts The Little Man off pouting into the corner. He doesn’t like to be ignored. Ignore him entirely and do what you do best….create! He doesn’t really have enough fight in him to keep going, so YOU have to be the bossy one and persistently get into whatever act of creation you love. Stay with it. He’ll get tired and go off to pout in the corner. He’ll forget you’re there and you want that. Write….sing….dance….paint. All of those, when sustained for any length of time will toddle him off to his corner. Even taking a drive or going for a long walk will do it.
The Little Man can only manage the logical.
As a Creator, YOU are a master of the illogical. Use it.
You go get some work done while he’s got his big lower lip pushed out and his arms crossed.
The Little Man's favourite toys
The Little Man's favourite toys in his favourite place.

Take Away The Little Man’s Toys

Do you have your computer, your office work and the like in YOUR creative space? Those are the toys The Little Man ALWAYS wants to play with, and he’ll keep nagging you as long as he can see them. It’s a good idea if you can, to remove all the logical, business-like, accountant-like “stuff” like your computer(s), printers, files, etc. to another space entirely. Separating your space from The Little Man’s space makes him happy. He knows when he goes into HIS room, he gets to do the stuff that makes him happiest – bookkeeping, inventory, social media, correspondence with clients, etc. In YOUR room, you only have tools to make things creatively. That bores him. Ignore him again, tell him that he’ll have time SOON to spend on his stuff. He’ll go to sleep…or off to pout again. If you don’t have enough room to separate them physically, then turn them off…or hide everything that will distract The Little Man….or go away and participate in a residency with other artists. Don’t let ANYONE kid you. Everyone is battling The Little Man. Tricky….tricky….tricky!

 

Pay Attention To The Little Man 

Give him what he wants. He’s very self-centred and ultimately self-preserving. If he’s SO very persistent and the task he’s asking you to complete sounds reasonable – it probably is. In other words, DO spend time with your family. DO take time out from the studio and write that blogpost. DO your bookkeeping. DO go skiing. DO take a rest from creating – you’re likely tired and The Little Man is trying to preserve both of you for another day.

Remember – The Little Man does prevent you from hurting yourself (and himself – he’s mostly selfish!).

9 Ways to Silence The Little Man (Your Inner Critic)

  1. Remember, the keyword describing  The Little Man is LITTLE. Know your Little Man. Know your Creativity is The Big Man.
  2. Know the nature of The Little Man. His nature is to BULLY.
  3. Give The Little Man some RULES to keep him occupied.
  4. OUT The Little Man by saying out loud or writing down what he says to you. Exposure is a terrible thing for The Little Man.
  5. Give him a TIMER. Send him off to count and wait while you’re working.
  6. Put The Little Man to SLEEP. Give him a lullaby.
  7. PAINT, DANCE, WRITE, SING or PLAY The Little Man into a corner.
  8. TAKE AWAY The Little Man’s favourite TOYS & give him a room of his own.
  9. PAY ATTENTION to The Little Man. He wants to live another day…and so do you!
Now that I’ve erased him for the day…I’m off to the easel.
______________________________
More Left Brain/Right Brain reading and resources:

 

 

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. This is a wonderful post, and it works for writers too, no? Thank you, thank you.

    1. Absolutely! It works for anyone who is doubting their actions, creativity and human-ness. Thanks for commenting and engaging. Glad that it has some resonance for you.

    1. Thank you Janet, and thanks for dropping by to comment. So many distractions that The Little Man can use. 😉

  2. this is truly one of the best articles i’ve ever read on silencing the inner critic. well, well-done, janice! 🙂

    1. Thanks for your comments, Vicki. I’m pleased that you enjoyed it.

  3. best line? (Oh…wait….that’s Steven Harper’s gov­ern­ment, isn’t it?) lol!!! but actually there were many great lines… 🙂

  4. Hi Janice,

    that’s a great post!
    The little man tells me things like: “oh that was way too easy, that’s no art, anyone can do this”… Painting comes to me naturally and I don’t consider my art as masterpieces or good work. It’s just something I do. It doesn’t even feel like work that’s why it can’t be work and shouldn’t be paid for. So, no I am not an artist. Silly, right?
    But luckily, I paint anyways even though I am not an artist (hahaha!), because I love what I do! Why should I stop doing what I love?

    The little man and I have a weird coexistent relationship. We can’t break up but we’re not really together either.
    Very thoughtful post, thanks 🙂

    Franziska San Pedro
    Flavor Designs

    1. Thanks for your comment, Franziska. I can relate to those Little Man comments and I know many other artists also have the same thoughts and sentiments when it comes to being confident in themselves and their work. Once you start valuing your work, not based on “ease of execution”, it’s easy to put that Little Man in the corner where he’s never going to pipe up on that topic again!

  5. Love this post-a different take on a very old subject. Thanks for the fresh perspective.

    1. Deborah – Thank you so much. I think that it’s one of the most difficult things that human beings face in the practice of creativity.

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