We all have that voice inside of us – the voice of criticism and judgment, the worry about not being good enough. When this “Inner Critic” is too loud or we pay too much attention to it, our self-esteem suffers, we feel anxious about whether we are doing things well enough, or we don’t attempt a new challenge because we assume failure.
Whether you call that voice the Inner Critic or negative self-talk, if you are a therapist you are familiar with the need to help our clients tame that inner voice of judgment and fear. There are different variations in how therapists approach this – mindfulness builds acceptance and nonjudgmental awareness, cognitive behavior therapy teaches thought stopping and challenging automatic thoughts, narrative approaches emphasize externalizing and fighting back.
Art-based approaches are a great way to work on taming the Inner Critic in therapy. You can use art to help your clients recognize the messages they get from their Inner Critic, personify and externalize the Inner Critic, and practice acting with a mindset of acceptance and self-compassion.
Here are some ways to use creativity to explore and tame the Inner Critic:
Journaling – Have clients write about their beliefs, automatic thoughts, and the connected past experiences. It can be helpful for clients to put these things into words and see how it all connects together. If the focus is on how the Inner Critic comes up during creative expression, the journaling could be focused on this. However, the focus could also be on whatever area of the client’s life the Inner Critic is causing the most problems in. Sometime the Inner Critic is repeating messages that the client heard from other people, sometimes it’s based on negative past experiences, and sometimes it’s a way to protect oneself from possible failure.
I created a free downloadable worksheet for you to use with client to explore the Inner Critic, the Inner Muse, and creativity. Click here and enter your email address to get a PDF copy: Your Inner Critic & Inner Muse.
Observe self-talk during art-making – Give the client an art directive or an open-ended instruction to make whatever art they choose and ask them to mindfully observe their inner voice as they work on the art piece. If they need some help in doing this, you may want to periodically ask the client to pause and notice what they are feeling in their body, what emotion they are having, and what their thoughts have been.
Personify and externalize the Inner Critic through art – Have your client make a picture of what their Inner Critic looks like, using drawing, painting, or a collage image. This helps to externalize and separate this part of the client from their core self. When the Inner Critic is seen as separate from oneself or as just a part of the self, it’s easier to recognize when it is the one “talking,” feel a sense of control, and be able to make a choice to ignore or argue back. If the client can make this Inner Critic appear comical or powerless, this can be even better. (I’ve shared about externalizing in my previous post Drawing Your Dragons.)
Dialogue with the Inner Critic – Using the created image of the Inner Critic can make it easier to engage in a dialogue with the Inner Critic. Remembering that all parts of the self exist for a reason, it may help to dialogue with this part by asking different questions and journaling the answers. Questions to ask the Inner Critic could include “What are you wanting to say to me right now? How are you feeling? How are you trying to help me or what are you trying to protect me from? What would make you feel safer?”
Practice acceptance, non-judgment, and self-compassion in the art process – After talking with clients about these concepts, have them write down examples of these thoughts that they want to practice during art. For example, “I can enjoy art without it being perfect. Everyone can be creative. Whatever I put on the page is good enough. Have fun and don’t worry about the final product.” They can then practice this mindset while doing art in therapy. Some people refer to the inner voice of creativity and free expression as the Inner Muse.
Create a reminder of the positive intention – Clients can create something that reminds them of the intention or phrase that they want to remember when the Inner Critic starts to bother them. This could be an inspiration stone, a small sculpted object, a personal alter, or a card to carry with them. (See my previous post about creating inspiration stones.)
The Inner Critic is always going to be with us, but we don’t have to let it control our lives. Through talk, journaling, and art, clients can learn to recognize the voice of their Inner Critic, listen to and learn from all parts of the self, and then approach their life with more acceptance, non-judgment, and self-compassion.
For more thoughts on building confidence in art-making, be sure to check out: Building Creative Confidence in Art Therapy
Carolyn Mehlomakulu, LMFT-S, ATR-BC is an art therapist in Austin, Texas who works with children, teens, and families. For more information about individual therapy, child and teen counseling, family therapy, teen group therapy, and art therapy services, please visit: www.therapywithcarolyn.com.
This blog is not intended to diagnose or treat any mental health conditions. All directives, interventions, and ideas should be used by qualified individuals within the appropriate bounds of their education, training, and scope of practice. Information presented in this blog does not replace professional training in child and family therapy, art therapy, or play therapy. Art therapy requires a trained art therapist.
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