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The Outer Critic

It’s hard to vocalize the stealthy inner-critic that lurks in your anxieties and bizarre responses to opportunities. The outer critics, however, can usually be made visible with no small effort. All too often the outside critics pounce on opportunities to tell us, or at least offer a snide, derisive laughter at, exactly what they think of our art. Or podcasts. Or blogs. Or every life choice we’ve ever made. And while the inner critic is like the shadow of a mist that makes you unsure of what way to go or where or who you even are, the outer critic is like a giant ogre standing in front of you, laughing that you would dare try, and how could you not see as she sees, you silly, little person.

The wisdom of our age is to eliminate the negative and focus on the positive, cut out the toxic people and experiences and only surround yourself with people that help you grow, and to hold on tightly to the fact that if you know that something is true about yourself, then it is the truest thing about you. Cancel the nay-sayers: you will find freedom and happiness.

I’m not sure that this is true. I had a friend(ish type person) tell me that he doesn’t like his friend groups to know each other, because he needs to be able to cut them off forever if they no longer serve his purposes for the friendship. This is extreme, but isn’t this the root of the advice that you just need to cut out the toxic people in your life? In this mindset, friendships are contractual, and people are meant to serve you.

And yes, in one sense friendships are contractual. But in another, are they? Should they be? If your friendships are only meant to serve you, aren’t you the egocentric, toxic person yourself?

I understand this is pretty counter-cultural, and I by no means intend to say that you should stay in a position that allows someone to abuse you. Or to allow a selfish person to dictate elements of your life. But, I do intend to say that connection and community are deep and threaded with many different parts of our humanity, and maybe the solution to these monstrosities is not necessarily to cancel them. Maybe it’s to understand them, reason with them, give them the opportunity to grow, and send them on their way. It’s good for them, but it’s also good for you to confront your ogres in a mature way instead of just hiding them from your sight.

In my ongoing journey as an artist, one thing that has been key to unlocking my creativity is confronting these outer critics and trying to mend some relational wounds and set healthy boundaries. A good creative space seems to germinate in rich, not bitter or fearful, soil.

If you have listened to our podcast at all, you know that I am terrible at this and probably shouldn’t even be presumptuous enough to write about it. However, I was reading Jen Wilkin this week, and she wrote “believe it or not, a teacher is most faithful to her students when she teaches them according to her own lack of understanding...the teacher is not the one with greater knowledge but with greater natural curiosity to pursue the questions we all encounter” (Women of the Word, p. 131-132). I am confident enough of my lack of understanding on this issue to present to you some of my ponderings.

Ogre Confrontation Guide

First, I think it’s important to listen to them and try to understand why they are saying the things they are. Are they ignorant? Are they mean-spirited? Are they jealous? Or are they (the most soul-crushingly difficult one) right about something? Stupid people can have elements of truth in their criticism, and developing awareness of flaws is key for your growth.

Second, tell the truth about what’s actually going on: share your experience, expose misperceptions, and highlight how their behavior is damaging in its content or mode. It’s easy to default to doing this in a cruel way in the name of truth. It’s also easy to avoid it all together in the name of love. The hard thing is to give the truth in love. Tim Keller articulates this well in his book The Meaning of Marriage: “Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it.”

Third, set good boundaries, but leave room in these boundaries for them to grow. Change happens in truth realizations, identity shifts, and covenantal love. Not everyone will change, but don’t assume no hope of change. Draw firm, loving boundaries e.g. “Don’t share your opinion on my work in front of our family” or “don’t send me job applications for jobs outside of my field”. But leave a charity gate for them to build that relationship again.

So for the well-meaning doubter? Give truth and your story. For the one who wants to find a problem with everything? Point out the idolization of her inner voice and the skewed perception it gives her.

And sometimes, in these conversations you may find that the outer critic wasn’t ever criticizing you at all. You misinterpreted and projected your own fears, and that leering inner critic was hiding in that relationship all along.


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