Therapy for Writers: The Origin of Your Inner Editor

I have an inner editor. She keeps up an inner monologue in my head when I’m writing – usually the whole time. When I’m thinking about writing. She even has an opinion if I’m wondering about how my sales are going. At best, all that unhelpful advice has you feeling a twinge of self-doubt, it might prompt some procrastination (hello fridge raiding behaviour). At worst, you listen to it – and stop writing. I’ve been there, quite recently in fact. It’s not fun and it’s not conducive to quality, productive writing.

And as a psychologist, I know that we all do. How? Because the Inner Editor is a direct descendant of the Inner Critic. The same disgusted tone that points out your too long nose or too wide waist is the one that highlights every cliché phrase that’s snuck onto a page. The same opinions on how many friends you have is the same opinion on how many books you’ve sold. The same conclusions made about your work quality/parenting ability/apparent intellectual capacity makes the same conclusions about your completed manuscript.

I wouldn’t mind kicking that Inner Critic and all its progeny to the kerb.

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So I’ve been doing some research, some recently, some for many years…

Lots of professionals will tell you the Inner Critic begins in childhood. Parents not giving enough positive reinforcement, traumatic events or an absentee father. All these factors will certainly have a significant influence on your Inner Critic – on how much she has to say and what she has to say. But I’ve done enough reading to believe the birth of the Inner Critic started long before that.

So let me tell you a story. One that I tell my clients quite often. The story of Positive Thinking Caveman and Negative Thinking Caveman. They are both healthy young males in their prime. They recently married and are looking forward to starting a family. Each have a cave in neighbouring mountains.

Its dawn, and the sun arrives, casting orange over the horizon, heralding another day. Everything is still, not even a breeze ruffles the grassy meadow before the mouth of a cave. Mother Nature is waiting with bated breath for another day to begin. Fingers of light try to reach into a cave’s dark interior, letting our Cavemen know it’s time to wake.

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Positive Thinking Caveman stumbles from his rock bed and out to the cave entrance. He stretches, scratches his hairy chest, and is struck by the sight before him. He takes the time to soak in the deep violet stretching into orange hues blending into soft blues. He takes the time to appreciate Mother Nature’s early morning gift, to be grateful for everything before him, for everything he has.

He vaguely registers a rustle in the bushes beside the cave mouth…

He doesn’t turn from the palette of striking colours, soft pastels –

BAM! Sabre tooth tiger just caught, diced and devoured breakfast.

Meanwhile, in a cave not far away, Negative Thinking Caveman wakes, stumbles from his rock bed, and out to the cave entrance. He stretches, scratches his hairy chest, and scans the horizon. For anything different, for rival tribes, for sabre tooth tigers…

He hears a rustle in the bushes beside the cave mouth…

And he is instantly ready to fight or flight. His heart rate accelerates, his muscles tense in preparation. He plots exits, looks for weapons, thinks of Mrs Cave Man inside the cave.

The sabre tooth tiger is now faced with an alert, agitated prey. She realises she won’t be getting this meal quickly or easily. She decides to stalk something less threatening, and with amber eyes glowing, white teeth flashing, disappears into the tall grass.

The moral of the story? Positive Thinking Caveman never survived to have children.

Negative Thinking Caveman did. He’s our great-great-great-great-great-great (you get the idea) grandfather.

And thus was born the Inner Critic.

Two things were happening in that ancestral brain of ours. The first, is the hypersensitivity to ANYTHING that may be a problem. Our great-grandparents couldn’t afford to miss anything that could be a threat. Missing something could mean death. So you were better off over-reacting than under-reacting i.e. assume every rustle is a sabre tooth tiger. Psychologists call this the ‘negativity bias’.

Second, is the need to problem-solve. Problem solving involves scanning for a problem, making a judgement call, then fixing it. So not only do we have a radar that pings at the slightest thing, we also evaluate every ping. As in EVALUATE – appraise, assess, compare, contrast…judge. And our ancestors were better off evaluating things as negative, just in case. Or until proven otherwise.

Which is just fine and dandy for anything outside of our bodies. Sabre tooth tiger? That’s not good. Get the heck out of there. Can’t reach the other side of the river to reach that stand of luscious berries? That’s not good. Build a bridge. Bridge is flooded? That’s annoying. Invent a plane…

An External Critic was highly effective in ensuring the survival of our species…and allowing us to flourish to around 7 billion individuals. But you evolve a little further (develop things like higher consciousness and abstract thinking), you use this system internally, and you start having problems.

She looked at me funny. That’s not good. I should….

I could make an idiot of myself writing a book. It could end really badly. I should…

I got a negative review. I don’t like feeling this way. I should…

These problems you can’t fix so easily. Sometimes you can’t fix them at all. You can’t make them go away. You often don’t have any control over them. And most solutions involve never taking a risk. Ever. Again (it is the safest, most logical answer y’know).

Unfortunately, the Inner Critic is less helpful in these situations.

Unfortunately, the Inner Critic is encrypted in our DNA.

Unfortunately, the Inner Critic (and therefore the Inner Editor) are inescapable.

That’s kinda depressing…

On the flip side, we all have one. Everyone.

On the flip side, knowledge is power.

On the flip side, there is something that can be done.

Which we will explore in next week’s blog entry (talk about a cliff hanger!).

This week, what I want to know is – what do you do with your Inner Critic? If we all have one, then each one of us has a set of strategies to deal with him or her. Some will be unique, and some will be verging on universal. I would love to hear what you do, say, think that is helpful. What works, and what sometimes doesn’t. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,


psych-1Questions about anything psychology or writing related? PsychWriter now has a Facebook group! Come and join the PsychWriter VIP’s so that we can connect much more personally. It’ll be the place to ask psychology related questions, discuss posts and connect with fellow lovers of the written word. I’ll also be posting specials on upcoming services and the PsychWriter books coming soon. Join HERE!


  1. This is also probably the fourth time the “inner voice” has come up today in my readings. It’s been reminding me that sometimes a newer, kinder inner voice can be the greatest gift we can give ourselves. Thanks for the read.


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