Inner child and inner critic: a battle for creativity

“It takes a very long time to become young,” Pablo Picasso once said. Adults miss the innocent curiosity of their youth; artists strive to reclaim their lost childlike creativity. The creative process often feels like a constant battle between an inner child and an inner critic. Can this creative battle turn into creative balance?

Burning Man Art - Inner Child versus Inner Critic
Inner Child structure at Burning Man (credit: Alexander Milov)

Becoming young

Being young is being curious: on average, children ask 107 questions per hour. But, as we grow older, we start accumulating factual knowledge, practical shortcuts, and mental models to make decisions faster. In a society focused on speed as a measure of performance, we look for the quickest path to achieve our goals. We prioritise so much knowing how and how fast we can get to a desired outcome, we forget to stop and ask why during the journey.

And when we do ask ourselves questions, they are often fueled by self-doubt. Is my work good enough? What will people think? Our inner critic was educated by a learning system based on finding the correct answer and outperforming others on structured tasks. Instead of resulting in better creative work, listening to our inner critic may result in conformative work.

While the inner child is traditionally used in psychology to describe an unconscious archetype pointing to unresolved childhood experiences, it can be embraced to better balance our creativity. “Has your adult self spent time with your inner child today?” asks psychologist Stephen Diamond in his book Psychotherapy for the Soul.

Re-educating the inner critic

We often talk about killing our inner critic. But connecting to the child within and unlocking your childlike creativity is not about silencing the inner critic. Instead, it’s about reprogramming the way the inner critic interacts with the inner child: unlearning the self-doubt, the meaningless competition, and the fear of failure.

As with many negative emotional experiences, it is often more useful to accept the voice within so we can better understand it. Turning self-criticism into self-reflection can fuel your creativity by giving you an opportunity to dig deeper into your own psyche, and to face your thoughts and emotions in a healthy way. Instead of killing the inner critic, we kill it with kindness.

So, how do you go about it? Positive self-talk is a simple way to turn self-criticism into self-reflection. Research suggests that positive self-talk helps athletes improve both their performance and their mental state, and a meta-analysis of 32 studies on self-talk corroborates these findings.

There are simple ways to make space for positive self-talk.

  • Build your own PaaP. Integrate playfulness as a practice in your creative work. Talk yourself into trying new things, forget about the goal, and surround yourself with playful people.
  • Embrace JOMO. It’s okay to skip on an adult gathering to spend time at home with your inner child. Do you feel like drawing, writing poems, or learning how to 3D print instead of grabbing drinks with colleagues? Go ahead. Experience the joy of missing out.
  • Ask why. Don’t let perceived knowledge deter you from asking questions. Keep on asking why like a child would. Train your inner critic to turn self-doubt into constructive questions that encourage exploration.

Over time, the inner critic becomes your inner coach. Instead of a paralysing battle impeding your creative process, it drives your personal growth. “What will people think?” becomes “Who could give me constructive feedback?”; “How can I create based on this trend?” turns into “How can I create based on my curiosity?”; instead of asking “Does it feel good enough?” based on external standards we ask “Does it feel good?” based on our sense of play and curiosity.

“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” wrote Tom Robbins. It’s never too late indeed. Kill your inner critic with kindness so it turns into your inner coach, and embrace the playfulness and curiosity of your inner child to increase your creativity. Your inner monologues will be much more enjoyable, which will reflect in your life and work.

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