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  • Erin Whitten Crysdale

Inner Critic as Creative Life Coach.

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

When you are a young artist or beginning artist, there is this conflict that rises as you start to have financial payback from your artwork. Galleries and buyers start to put a price on your work which can sometimes translate into a feeling of being priced as an artist. My early work increased in value exponentially, and instead of motivating my output it tangled me in feelings of shame. This seems entirely ridiculous when I consider it today, but I was really dedicated to giving the best work I could to a buyer, and I always thought that there was a better painting inside of me. This meant that every buyer was purchasing an inferior one, and I handed it over reluctantly as if they were being taken advantage of. Ego can be a real problem! My inflated sense of self interfered with my ability to feel satisfaction when a buyer found joy in my work. This was unsustainable and eventually I also lost sight of the joy of making my work. The stress took its toll on me and I ended up getting sick with Encephalitis as a result of a sluggish immune system. To recover, I took a break from painting and focused my energy on raising my children, knowing that when I returned to the arts, I would do so with a better handle on the inner critic that seemed to plague me and rob me of the positive experience of my early "success" as an artist.

My passage back to painting has been full of incredible lessons. I've essentially used the act of painting as a way of seeking meaning of, understanding of and finding new perspectives of my self and the world around me.

There is this idea of duality that came out of my work. That is the idea that there are good things and bad things. High contrast thinking may not seem destructive, it makes us feel in control of the world and it helps us set goals and feel "on track". But I found that it's quite the opposite. Clarity is rigid and that's not great for making art. When we start to put a question mark in front of our world, instead of an exclamation mark, we can at first feel like we're in a fog of uncertainty. But when you practice hovering in the unknown, you start to realize that in fact this is where creativity resides. But how does this relate to the Inner critic? Guess who is at the gate of the unknown, seemingly guarding it, and appearing to throw you off track by ensnaring you in big picture questions? You got it...the critic. The desire to fight the critic and engage in the battle feels like a smart path, but it wastes energy and distracts from the task at hand.

Most people who write about this flurry of fearful or negative talk re-establish it as something hostile that needs to be overcome, mastered or tamed. But who wants to tame the wild energy of creativity? I like to gently listen to the voice, interpret the information with the idea that if these thoughts (which at the best of time are just sound debris I've picked up along my life) are in fact from me, given to me, then perhaps their could have some valuable information. And as such, I might need to put into play some aspect of it's suggestions. When I began painting again, I started to question the purpose of doing art. It didn't seem to make any visible impact on the world, and I wanted to be part of something positive. The question of purpose began to dominate my internal dialogue and interfere with my painting process and output. In my experience, this is the mature version of imposters syndrome or inner critic.

Intolerant to deal with this every time I went into my studio, I decided to consider what the voice was instructing me to do. I did some research on creative process and decided to dedicate a year to reading and learning about creativity and use my painting as an experiment. Through this process came a new body of work, meditation and a new and gentler interpretation of the world around me. However, I still wasn't "contributing" anything to the world so I turned my eye towards some sort of volunteerism. I started volunteering at Covenant House. This would be a once per week commitment to do art with the young homeless residents there. I was unexpectedly reluctant to blend my art with my volunteering. Out popped my negative thoughts, "you aren't a teacher, you don't know enough, etc etc etc." These objections were true but they weren't overpowering, so I agreed despite them. Low and behold, Covenant House has become one of the best things I've ever done. The result is that I get to witness first hand the value of art not only as a form of expression and connection but also how the process is an act of meditation. These wonderful youth, whose lives in many cases had been brutalized or thrown off target find refuge in the weekly art classes. We sit and create and laugh and talk. I've witness greatness in each of them and receive a bounty of positive gifts from their work and from my interactions with them.

So this "negative self talk" was in fact a guide. If it hadn't been so loud and ruthless, I wouldn't have sought a solution to its bite. And the solution has been the missing element to my life as an artist. These youth make me want to become a better artist, teacher and listener. Better than any buyer or gallery or art consultant could inspire. My "critic" was right. I needed to find purpose. I also needed to find a middle way. It taught me that as long as we define some thoughts as good and others as bad, we force duality that only perpetuates suffering. Rather than stifling or even elevating the thoughts I now recognize that by looking at them with an opened mind they could give me a different perspective. Listening gently to that voice with the notion that behind it might lie access to a well of creativity and in it a caring being. If I neither grasp or suppress it, it seems that it offers something new and unexpected. There is a great saying that I recently heard and connected to, it is, "we become, by doing". This suggests that doing and becoming is about process and is perpetual. It's full of potential without the possibility of failure as it's just about being present in the act of whatever you're engaged in. The inner critic has become my life coach. It's sometime difficult to glean what its message is, sometime it's direct and sometimes it's subtle. Often it rises because I'm clinging to some idea or notion, and I need a reminder to allow the unexpected or "unwelcomed" as it might be exactly what I need in order to feel connected to the world around me.

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