Taming the Inner Critic: How to Make Your Internal Editor Your Dissertation BFF

June 10, 2024

BY KATHRYN PETERSON, PHD

We all have that voice in our heads. The one that chimes in during presentations, whispers doubts before hitting “send,” and ruthlessly dissects our dissertation chapters. This, my friend, is your internal editor.

Often, this voice gets a bad rap. We picture a frowning tyrant, solely focused on tearing down our work. But what if we reframed this relationship? What if, instead of a critic, we saw our internal editor as a coach?

From Foe to Friend: Reframing the Internal Editor

Let’s face it, the internal editor often plays the role of a harsh critic, mercilessly highlighting every perceived flaw in our work. It can be tempting to silence this voice entirely. However, the internal editor isn’t inherently bad. It serves a purpose: to ensure clarity, accuracy, and ultimately, a strong dissertation.

The key is to reframe the internal editor. Instead of a villain, see it as a coach – a dedicated (albeit demanding) mentor pushing you to deliver your best work.

Strategies for a Productive Partnership

Here are some strategies to turn that critical voice into a supportive collaborator:

  • Acknowledge Its Value: Recognize that the internal editor’s critiques, while sometimes harsh, often stem from a desire for excellence. Thank it for its vigilance. It also comes from a place deep within you and wants to protect you from censure and embarrassment.
  • Set Boundaries: Don’t let the internal editor dictate every move. Schedule specific times for editing, and stick to them. Otherwise, your editor can lead you into endless revisions and crippling procrastination. You may need to tell it “I see you. I hear you. But right now, I’m doing something else. I promise I’ll let you know when I need you.”
  • Focus on Growth: When the internal editor points out flaws, don’t despair. See it as an opportunity to improve. Take a deep breath, analyze the feedback, and use it to refine your work. You may also want to ask yourself if you need to address that feedback right at that moment, or if it’s okay to wait until another draft to deal with it. You may have more clarity later.
  • Be discerning: Whose voice is it in your head, really?? Are you sure it’s your voice, or have you internalized the voices of others, some of whom might not have your best interests at heart? I remember once I wrote down some of the things my inner critic was saying and I realized that a couple of them weren’t my own. One was a particularly harsh teacher I had had in high school, and another was my mother. Both were well meaning, but hard on me in a way that did more harm than good. Once I realized that, I was able to release those voices and tune in to the ones that really were helpful.
  • Celebrate Milestones: Don’t wait for the “perfect draft” to feel good about your progress. Acknowledge and celebrate each chapter completed, each argument strengthened. Ask your internal editor to tell you what you are doing well and make a list. I promise you that no matter how rough your draft is, there will be at least some gems. Train your internal editor to recognize them.
  • Give It a Nickname: This might sound silly, but sometimes humor can help. Give your internal editor a funny nickname, like “Dr. Details” or “Captain Collaboration.” It can make the critiques feel less personal and more manageable. I remember when I realized I had multiple inner critics and I personified them as a flock of bahhhhing sheep or a herd of mooing cows. Somehow picturing that (and hearing it!) made me laugh and took some of the pressure off.

Bonus Tip: Schedule “Freewriting” Sessions

Sometimes, the internal editor needs a vacation! Set aside time for freewriting, where you allow your ideas to flow freely without the pressure of editing. This can be a great way to overcome writer’s block and tap into your creative side. You can tell your editor to go hang out on a beach, or take a long walk in the woods.

By implementing these strategies, you can cultivate a more productive partnership with your internal editor. Remember, you will write several drafts of your dissertation chapters before you end up filing them with the graduate office, so try not to put too much pressure on any one particular draft. If you think of it that way, with patience and a little reframing, you can turn your internal critic into a valuable asset on your dissertation journey.