For a few days I’ve been considering what Freud identified as the super-ego, what has become popularly known as the inner critic, or if you’re abundantly blessed, your personal busload or committee or parliament of inner critics.
Generally speaking, the role of the inner critic seems primarily protective, as wrongheaded as its tactics are for that purpose. If you’re a writer, your inner critic might advise you to clean the house instead of writing, or may suggest there’s no point in writing, because everything you write is horrible, bad, and no-good, and that one 7th grade English teacher was just being nice or had bad taste or that the one story you wrote that got published or that your writing group liked was an anomaly. No attempt means no risk means safety from rejection and criticism. Probably there are inner critics for every occupation.
There are as many strategies of dealing with inner critics as there are types of inner critics: we can embrace them, treat them with compassion, or murder them. I’d like to offer a new one: conduct a performance review to evaluate their effectiveness on the job.
Frankly, if my inner critics were my employees, I’d have fired them by now. I always sort of knew they were making a mess of it–how did they even make it past the interview?– but I’d never taken the time to consider the nature of their incompetence. I made one of the biggest mistakes employers make with performance reviews, according to Forbes: I haven’t been conducting them.
To prepare for the review, I must specify the responsibilities of the inner critic: what is the job description?
A critic approaches a work with curiosity, is open to experiencing a work and responding to the work, observes those responses, and investigates the work in order to consider the artist’s purpose and message, and how the artist achieves that purpose and conveys that message. A critic pays close attention to the work. A critic is dedicated to a particular art (and should be an expert of that art or field), and in the raising up of that art, and so the critic is responsible for celebrating achievements as much as for observing attempts that may fall short.
These are questions a critic might ask in examining a work of art:
- What place does this work have in the tradition or genre?
- How has this work been influenced by earlier works?
- How does this work reflect a social, historical, or cultural context?
- How may different levels of interpretation be applied to this work?
- What are the messages of this work?
- Is there a universal message or is the message specific to a group, time, place, instance?
- How does this work convey those messages?
- Does this work have a unique voice and style that set it apart from others of its type?
- What contributes to the uniqueness of this work?
- What emotional responses does a person have to this work?
- How does this work elicit those emotional responses?
What is not in the critic’s job description:
- insulting, bullying, ridiculing, mocking, belittling, name-calling, disparaging the artist or the work, listing past mistakes, predicting future failure
What good does opinion do, really? Even nice opinions aren’t much use, as much as it feels better when a reader says that he likes one’s writing than when he says that he hates it.
And there are other reasons:
- We parents, teachers, coaches, aunts, uncles, grandparents–we all of us adults–create the voices for future generations of inner critics. I’d like my kids to go out into the world with inner critics who contribute to, rather than sabotage, their happiness and well-being.
- Many of us supervise others. In so doing, we can’t help but impose the messages of our inner critics on others. We have the choice to be constructive or destructive. We have the choice to be reasonable (or not) with ourselves and others.
- No good writing ever came from performance anxiety.