Karen C.L. Anderson is a master-certified life coach and international bestselling author of several books, including Overcoming Creative Anxiety: Journal Prompts & Practices for Disarming Your Inner Critic & Allowing Creativity to Flow. Anderson corresponded with Girls That Create via email about her book, our Inner Critic and Inner Advocate, and how it all relates to creativity.
Let’s start with the Inner Critic. What is your definition of the Inner Critic, and what impact does it have on creatives?
Your Inner Critic is a voice-inside-your-brain that parrots back all the things you’ve ever heard that your brain interpreted as harshly critical or demeaning. If your experience of your Inner Critic is painful enough (i.e., traumatic), your nervous system might perceive it as a threat and send you into one (or more) of the human threat/trauma responses: fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. You don’t consciously do this. It is an automatic, natural, and instinctual protection.
The reason you might see this as a problem isn’t the nervous system response. It’s the stories you tell yourself, about yourself, as a result: myriad versions of “There’s something wrong with me” and “I’m not good enough.” Left unacknowledged and unquestioned, your Inner Critic will shut you down. You will continue to see it as something happening TO you rather than something happening FOR you by your human nervous system.
It’s worth mentioning that the word “trauma” is really misunderstood. We tend to think of it as something physically horrible that happens to someone: being a soldier experiencing combat in a war, being in a bad car accident, etc. But the truth is that trauma is defined as anything that is – physically or emotionally – too much, too soon, or too fast for your nervous system to handle. YOUR nervous system. Not someone else’s.
Or, as Dr. Gabor Maté says, “The essence of trauma is disconnection from ourselves. Trauma is not terrible things that happen – those are traumatic. But the trauma is that very separation from the body and emotions. So, the real question is, ‘How did we get separated, and how do we reconnect?’ Because that’s our true nature – our true nature is to be connected. If that weren’t our true nature, there would be no human beings. The human species – or any species – could not evolve without being grounded in their bodies.”
I love Dr. Maté’s definition because it includes what I think of as the essential nature of creativity: connection to body and emotion. And most of us, for one reason or another, are disconnected. I say more about this below.
The idea that the critical part of our brain fears the unknown and that creativity is all about the unknown speaks to many artists’ inner turmoil while producing work. How does journaling fit into working through these opposing forces?
Journaling (specifically the prompts I include in the book) reveals to you the stories you tell yourself about yourself. Once exposed, your stories can be examined with curiosity and compassion. In general, journaling helps you acknowledge and resolve that with which you struggle. It’s both the medicine and the sugar. It clarifies, reduces stress, enables you to solve problems, and integrates what you’re learning.
In the book, you have an exercise where the reader gives their Inner Critic a name. Why is that important?
Your Inner Critic is an inextricable part of you, which means you can’t get rid of (nor would it be wise to get rid of it). Giving it a name and befriending it (and even giving it a job to do) gives you some agency around it and disarms it. Naming it also helps create safety, which in turn returns your nervous system to a more regulated state.
You also mention the Inner Advocate. What is your definition of the Inner Advocate, and what role do they play for creatives?
Your Inner Advocate is a voice-inside-your-brain that you cultivate intentionally. It goes beyond “thinking positive.” Work with your Inner Advocate enough, and you will find that it’s a repertoire of thoughts and beliefs that coincide with feelings (sensations in your body that you label with “emotion” words like sad, mad, and glad). This work sets the stage for your creativity. The conditions in which you thrive creatively. Your mind and your body are not merely “connected.” They are one. Thoughts and feelings happen in the same system. Whether out of ignorance or willfully, humans have been trying to separate the two, believing that bodily sensation and emotion are “less than” intellect, reasoning, and logic. The result is trauma—mental, emotional, and physical disease.
Why is it easier for us to hear our Inner Critic than our Inner Advocate?
Evolutionarily speaking, Inner Critics have been around longer than Inner Advocates. Humans have been paying attention to the “critical” parts of their brains for a much longer time. In some ways you could say that it’s a long-standing human habit. And for a good reason! It’s normal and natural. So it feels harder – it’s more awkward – to cultivate and pay attention to your Inner Advocate, which you do in a newer part of the brain.
What is the Creative Self? Why must we nourish this crucial part of ourselves?
Speaking for myself, my Creative Self is the way I embody God/Source/Universe/whatever you want to call it. This is my belief, not a fact, and in the context of my work, I LIKE how this belief feels in my body, and I like how this feeling informs the way I show up in the world. This belief/feeling combination is the source of my creativity. I am not a religious scholar, nor do I consider myself Christian or any other religion. Still, I see Jesus Christ as a damn near-perfect example of creativity. Not an exception.
You get to define your Creative Self. Your experience of your Creative Self is yours. I can’t tell you what it is for you.
Elizabeth Gilbert said, “Unexpressed creativity is not benign.” If you’ve been paying attention to your body, you know this. And by the way, the expression doesn’t necessarily mean broadcasting it to the world, it’s simply the process of having something come through you and not blocking it.
How do the Inner Critic, Inner Advocate, and Creative Self flow together?
While it’s helpful to know how each part operates, it’s also beneficial to know that they aren’t separate from each other or you. One isn’t “better” or “worse” than another. You may notice that your creative experience is sometimes unpleasant or uncomfortable, but that’s simply a sensation in your body. It’s not an indication that you’re doing it wrong or that you shouldn’t do it. Therein lies the flow.
In your work as a life coach, you explore boundaries. Why are they important in our day-to-day lives?
There are so many ways to look at boundaries. The most common is to see them as a way to protect yourself from the “bad” behavior of others. While that is a valid reason to have boundaries, I see them more to be clear about who you are and what you value. In other words, boundaries are a way to respect yourself (and others). If you’re unsure where to start, ask your Inner Advocate: where am I not being clear, either with myself or with others?
What do you hope readers will take away from the practices in your book?
- Creativity is your birthright. It’s not something that some people have, and others don’t.
- You are creating in every given moment.
- Intentional creativity happens when you wield your thoughts and feelings on purpose.
- Working with your nervous system increases your ability to hold uncomfortable feelings while mitigating creative anxiety.
What advice do you have for parents and caregivers who are raising girls pursuing artistic dreams?
Be a model of creativity as described here. Normalize what it means to have an Inner Critic and an Inner Advocate. Normalize the idea that humans have nervous systems that perceive a threat (whether there is an actual threat or not doesn’t matter). Normalize trauma (because we can’t prevent it) and especially normalize tending to and repairing trauma. Normalize being human.
Karen C.L. Anderson
Written by Erin Prather Stafford
Images provided by Karen C.L. Anderson
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