Most people have voices in their head whether they are conscious of the voices or not. Obviously, hearing voices can become extreme for some to the point of neurosis or worse, schizophrenia, but I am referring to a normal inner dialogue as it flows through our thoughts. Sometimes we are not aware of the multiplicity within ourselves and we can be unknowingly influenced by thoughts (inner messages to ourself from ourself) such as judgements, biases, fears, obsessions. This is putting it quite simple and the matter is truly more complex, but I mean to address the inner voice of the critic.
For myself, the inner critic showed up very early in my life (perhaps around the age of 6?), and represented a compass for finding acceptance from the world outside myself. I believe this is a common condition with children and young people wherein, we find that we can get through this world much easier if we can just find out what other people like, accept, enjoy, approve, and generally believe successful. These external influences collect into what Freud called the SuperEgo - the moral regulator! - and it's up to us to find out how those internalized impressions and expectations either work for us or against us. Each of us also has an unique internal orientation that works with or against the external orientation - altogether, our inner leanings and our outer parameters are the basis for our decisive powers. External orientation may work well within our family, school, and workplace but can fail us as we expand our connections and communities and begin to feel pulled in different directions without knowing which is right or best for us. Further, despite lack of practice with inner orientation, the inner knowing (call it "gut feelings," intuition, and at best, essential Self) is nevertheless there. Without our consciousness for it or choosing to engage this inner orientation into the authorship of our own life, we can feel tension as the external orientation of our Superego can conflict with our unique inner knowing.
I am thinking of the ways in which, as an artist, I have resisted inclinations to make some kind of art because the inner critic (made up of external codes and voices from throughout my early life) hinted at some absurdity in my inclination. I think of all the times I have attempted to reach something deeper in my creative work and the difficulty and the unfamiliarity of the creative terrain raised red flags with the SuperEgo. I am halted in my exploration of my prima materia as the part of me that has to "fit into the world" demands that I "use my time wisely" and focus on more practical skills. How does anyone actually engage in creative work, the response to exploring one's prima materia, if the conscious mind, oriented by conventional rules, does not permit opening the door to one's unconscious dwelling?
I've been reading a selection of Carl Jung's essays regarding creativity, imagination and, of course, the work of psychoanalysis, and he speaks of the inner critic as a "cramp" in consciousness. Yes, I find that the inner critic (voicing, "Why am I doing this?" or "How is this weird work valuable in the 'real' world?" as I try to make my art) is most definitely a cramp! As with a cramp during exercise, we must learn to take care of the cramp in order to continue with our work. A cramp should not stop us from ever exercising again! Likewise, a mental cramp can not keep us from engaging with our irrational mind and thereby engaging our creative work. In discussing this matter with a musician the other day, he talked of practicing scales for as long as he needed in order to pass beyond the physical and practical work of it and begin to hear the potential for creating music. Artists may have to engage with the base material of their work for totally irrational amounts of time in order to achieve the alchemical potential that exists between themselves and their media. Meanwhile the Superego objects, "Spending 3 hours practicing music scales to then be able to compose?! Do we really have 5 hours to spend on music today?" The answer, for an artist of any kind is, irrationally, YES!
Though seemingly an obvious idea, often a forgotten imperative of the artist is that doing creative work is of utmost importance to the artist. We forget how imperative the work is as the rational (industrial, capitalist, media driven) world opposes the irregular, irrational and costly work of art-making. How many conversations have I had with artists where they actually say, "I have to make my work. Otherwise, how would I live? I would die." It's not a matter of fitting into a schematic of practical use and monetization. It's a matter of realizing one's need to work with unconscious material (that which comes from within and does not follow the codes of the rational world) because otherwise, it would eventually mount up within us and consume us with it's energy. Better to engage with it regularly and make it workable and useful within the context of our creative work. The creative work then becomes the actualization of the whole person, the irrational material of the unconscious balanced by the systems and skill sets of the conscious ego.
Some may believe that creative work is not about the actualization of the whole person and can exist in the realm of practical work. This is plausible, but I am not that artist. There are enough aesthetically designed objects in this world without my making my artwork so practical and prolific and commonly available in the lives of many (this practicality is the kind of resistance my Superego puts upon me). I find resonance in Jung's words, "Everything good is costly, and the development of personality [unique selfhood] is one of the most costly of all things. It is a matter of saying yea to oneself, of taking oneself as the most serious of tasks, of being conscious of everything one does, and keeping it constantly before one's eyes in all its dubious aspects - truly a task that taxes us to the utmost."
The inner critic says, "The task is too much; we need not dive so deeply. There is plenty of creative work to do without going so far." But I willfully say, the work of the artist is to dive into the unconscious depths and trust that the inner critic can become instead the tether that keeps us connected with our conscious realm.
All references to Jung's writing in this post are specific to an excerpt from Alchemical Studies (1929) (CW 13) pars. 17 - 45