Writing for PhD students 1: taming the inner critic

Writing is hard.

Writing is hard. It just is. I know one person who finds writing easy, and they are very much the exception to the rule. Most people find it really difficult, and for most people, that never changes.

What gets easier is that, as you get more experience, you learn to trust your own processes more, and that makes everything less stressful. You think ‘oh yes, this is the bit where I feel like it’s never going to make sense’ rather than ‘it’snevergoingtomakesenseohmygodwhatamIevendoingwhodoIthinkIamI’msostupid’ . It all gets a bit less visceral and existential after a few iterations.

Meeting the inner critic.

Part of the reason that writing is hard is that it inevitably brings us into dialogue with our inner critic. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- internal critics are useful, and I don’t think we’d get a lot done without them (I, for one, would still be in bed right now if my inner critic hadn’t shouted at me continually until I got up).

However, inner critics are also a bit like dogs, and they need a lot of boundary reinforcement. Someone once told me that, if you have a dog, you have to let it see you standing in its bed every so often, so that it knows that, while you don’t let the dog go everywhere in the house, you can go anywhere in the house, because you’re the pack leader. Otherwise it’ll get too big for its boots and start trying to be the boss of you (1). It’s kind of the same with inner critics- ok, I’d never get out of the house in the morning if mine didn’t kick my butt every step of the way, but I need to go and stand in her bed every so often, just so she doesn’t get above herself.

At the same time, though, you don’t want to over-discipline a dog and make it fearful and insecure, so that it goes and hides under a table whenever it sees you. Similarly, you don’t want to completely repress your inner critic, because they’ll just end up sneaking off into your subconscious where they can wreak even more havoc. You want your inner critic well-trained and friendly, and sitting nicely on the rug where you can see what it’s getting up to.

In case you haven’t noticed by now, I think it can be quite useful to personify your inner critic. It’s a way of externalising it, so that you can start to recognise its voice for what it is.

So, here’s an exercise to try. It’s a bit playful and silly, but surprisingly powerful. Give it a go- try and take at least ten minutes over it.

  • Draw a picture of your inner critic. What do they look like? What do they sound like?
  • Add some speech bubbles. What sorts of things does your inner critic say to you?
  • Now give your inner critic a name.


Making friends with your inner critic (2) (3)

OK, so, here’s my inner critic, in her current incarnation. She’s called Marge.

A very bad felt-tip pen drawing of a white woman with pale orange messy hair, a pastel green shirt and an unflattering calf-length pastel blue skirt. She is wringing her hands nervously. To the left, a caption reads ‘MARGE SAYS- You’re lazy! You’re patronising! You should STFU! You’re a quitter! You’re wasting everyone’s time! You’re unproductive! You’re an underachiever! It’s ALL YOUR FAULT!’

Marge is basically the middle-aged woman I don’t want to be. She’s scared of sticking out and so she wears beige and pastels. She doesn’t speak up in meetings. She’s hopelessly passive-aggressive and rather bitter. She thinks I’ve got rather above myself and should know my place and not be too ambitious. She also has strong views on how tidy my house should be, how much exercise I should do, and how I should raise my kid. She is, to be frank, A Pain In The Arse.

Marge is actually Version 2.0 of my inner critic. Version 1 looked like this:

An image titled ‘DARTH MARGE’. Against a grey background stands a black robed figure wearing some kind of rectangular helmet with a single, huge, flaming eye where the face should be. The figure holds a flaming staff and orange flames shoot out of its head.

As you can see, Darth Marge was a LOT scarier. Where Marge will stand at my elbow flapping around and pointing out housework that needs doing, interrupting me every time I get going on something, Darth Marge was more of a STANDING IN FRONT OF YOUR DESK WITH A FLAMING SWORD kind of person. Darth was much more powerful, and I’d cower under the duvet, completely unable to face her.

I got (slowly!) from Darth Marge to Marge by taking a deep breath, giving Darth an ‘I can see through your bullshit’ look, and offering her a cup of tea and a chat. Over a number of imaginary chats, I asked Darth why she was so invested in keeping me from writing, and what she was afraid would happen if I did.

Eventually, gradually, Darth took off the silly mask and robes and stopped waving the sword around, and it became apparent, underneath all that bluster, there was a just a scared, flappy middle-aged woman called Marge. She was scared I’d make a fool of myself/her, scared I’d realise I was a big fake, scared I’d forget how lucky I was, scared I wouldn’t be able to pay the bills, scared people wouldn’t like me…scared of loads of things. Ultimately she just has a lot invested in me being A Proper Woman, and she has some funny ideas about what that means.

At first I tried telling Marge to calm down and read some feminism. She started shrieking. I told her that she was being irrational, and that there was nothing to be afraid of. She shrieked even louder, and I retreated under the duvet. She stood outside the bedroom door telling me all the cautionary tales she could muster. She was easier to handle than Darth had been, but she was still pretty unpleasant.

Things got better when I stopped telling Marge what not to feel, and started listening to how she did feel. I learned that saying ‘Yes, this is scary, but I think it’s worth trying’ and ‘Ok, let’s give it half an hour and see how we feel then’, and ‘It’s ok to be nervous about this’ got me a lot further than just telling her to get a grip and leave me alone. She got less scared, and a bit less flappy.

And it helped when I finished my thesis, because now, when she has a bad day, I point at it on the shelf to remind her that we can do this.

I wouldn’t say that Marge and I are friends, but we do okay. And something I’ve noticed lately is that I see rather less of Marge these days, and rather more of a happy retired greyhound called Midge, who rests her muzzle on my knee while I’m writing- keeping an eye on me and constantly soliciting petting, but (mostly) not whining too much. Writing’s still hard, and even Midge has a bad day and gets sent to her basket with a stern word occasionally. But as long as I remember to stand in that bed of hers every so often, I think we’ll rub along together just fine.



(1) No idea if that’s actually true, as I’ve never owned a (non-imaginary) dog. But you see what I mean.

(2) Or at least, frenemies..

(3) The concept of the ‘inner critic’ is well-established in psychology, and the internet is full of ‘guides to taming your inner critic’, which you should check out. I make no claims to originality here, but I don’t think I owe too much to any one source, either. Marge and Darth and Midge are certainly my own 🙂 But do let me know if you feel I should credit you/others for anything I’ve written here, and I’ll amend promptly.