Silencing the Inner Critic: The Power of Self-Compassion

hands over ears with a pained expression“You yourself, as much as anybody else in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” —Buddha

As I write this, I can feel anxiety in my entire body; my legs are restless, my toes are tapping, and there are butterflies in my stomach twirling and diving, with some going on bombing missions. Thoughts are flying across the screen of my mind at the speed of light. My inner dialogue/landscape is one of charred wood and dead grass as I search to find the “right” words that will enlighten readers. In this barren wasteland of blank thoughts, I see a little pink flower that seems to be calling from afar, but, alas, it’s not to be! It’s only a figment of my imagination.

In my mind, I see no other recourse than to surrender and shout out, “I give up! This is too hard!” while another voice suggests, “Don’t you think this would be a great time to rearrange the furniture?” All the while, the wise part of me looks on with patience and compassion, nodding her head as she says, “Now, my dear, you know what you need to do.”

I do know what I need to do, but I still wonder why, after all these years of writing, a deadline can bring up feelings of dread similar to those you get when the dentist informs you that you’re in need of a root canal. Unfortunately, I know the answer to this; and no, I am not as wise as Yoda! I happen to be very well acquainted with the inner critic, and I know that as soon as there’s a deadline looming on the horizon, the inner critic perks up, rubs her hands together with glee, laughs maniacally, and shouts with jubilation, “I knew sooner or later you’d need my help!” Hearing this, I turn to her, send her an imaginary bow of acknowledgment, and say, “It’s OK. I appreciate the offer, but I can do this on my own.” I lovingly guide her back to the meditation cushion and ask her to help by sending thoughts of loving kindness and compassion.

Unveiling the Inner Critic

“While others may fool us with stories, lies, and misinformation, the biggest deceptions happen within our very own heads!” —Dana Nourie

We all have an inner critic that gets activated when there is a sign of trouble or danger on the horizon. It shows up when we’re most vulnerable, fearful, or sad. It’s the scolding, critical, manipulative, and intimidating inner voice that is trying to help us stay safe. It can also sound like background noise; the voice is there, but we’ve gotten so used to it that we don’t hear it. When we don’t notice this inner dialogue, we may end up believing these thoughts, which creates even deeper suffering. So it’s important to recognize when the inner critic is present.

Below are just a few examples of how the inner critic shows up:

  • The controller: This is the voice that constantly demands action. It can say things like, “You’re a lazy slob! Get up and do those dishes right now!” or, “Hurry up and finish that project or you’ll be fired!”
  • The judge: This is the voice that sits on the high bench, evaluating and finding fault with your performance before you even begin the task. For example, you’re going to a new part of town and don’t have a good sense of direction. The judge immediately perks up, telling you, “You’re so hopeless with directions! You couldn’t find your way out of a paper bag!”
  • The voice of doom and gloom: This is the fearful voice that’s always sending messages filled with shame and doubt. So you might have brought a beautiful dress that you’ve been longing to wear, and as you look in the mirror, this part starts sending warnings of upcoming failure. “Are you sure you really want to wear THAT? You’re going to be the laughingstock of the party!”

See the Vulnerability Beneath the Defense

Sometimes it helps to visualize the inner critic as a scared child. Most of us would respond with compassion if we saw a child suffering. Sometimes when I notice the critical self-talk in action, I’ll envision the fear as a child. I see the inner critic as a little girl who’s wearing an oversized lab coat and a hard hat. She stands anxiously watching over a grid with many blinking, colorful lights. While the grid contains a kaleidoscope of beautiful flashing colors, the inner critic ignores the beauty and instead is waiting for the moment when the grid flashes red.

Why red? Because it represents danger. (Think of stop signs, traffic lights, hazard lights, and ambulances.) When the illusion of trouble enters the mind, the grid flashes red, an alarm goes off, and a loud voice starts the countdown toward self-destruction. The inner critic immediately goes to work trying to avert danger in any way she can, and the negative self-talk begins. So the inner critic will say things such as, “You’re such a loser! No wonder creative thoughts don’t stick around! I’d leave too, if I could!” If I believe these thoughts, I might get paralyzed and stop myself from doing something that helps others and brings me joy. If instead I learn to look beyond the critical self-talk, I can begin to connect with the vulnerability beneath the defenses.

If I look beyond the inner critic and defensive stance, I see the feelings of vulnerability and fear. There’s fear of failure—that I won’t accomplish the task correctly or that I’ll lose my connection to what matters most. When I pause to connect through the practice of mindfulness and recognize that fear is present, I can begin to respond in ways that are healing and compassionate. This clear seeing of what is really happening beyond views of good/bad is essential in order for us to soothe the inner critic.

Before we get there, let’s take a deeper look at why and how fear triggers the inner critic.

Fear: False Evidence Appearing Real

We all face fear at one time or another. Sometimes many times a day! Fear shows up for the major events of our lives. It also shows up for the small, everyday activities, such as not getting to an appointment on time, getting into an argument with a close friend, etc. What transforms the fear into suffering isn’t the feeling itself; it’s how we react to it.

It’s also important to note that when fear arises it triggers our fight, flight, and freeze or submit response, which was essential for the survival of our species. After all, if our ancestors weren’t alert to the dangers they faced when they were out hunting for food, we wouldn’t be here today.

The problem is that most of the threats we face are intense reactions that go off when our self-concept is threatened. This makes sense, as we are social animals and our connection to each other and life is important to our well-being. However, when we react as if our very life is threatened, we end up adding suffering to what is often a moment of pain. As Dr. Kristin Neff writes in her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself:

We confuse our thoughts and representations of ourselves for our actual selves, meaning that when our self-image is under siege, we react as if our very existence is threatened. When this happens, our threat defense system uses the same strategies to stay safe as follows:

  • Fight: We turn on ourselves, we criticize, blame, shame, and belittle ourselves.
  • Flight: Feeling anxious and agitated, we seek to numb the pain by using distractions such as food, alcohol, gambling, or other distractions.
  • Freeze: We get caught up in a holding pattern of thoughts. We ruminate on what we see as our inadequacies and weaknesses.
  • Submit: We resign ourselves and accept our harsh and critical self-judgment, which leaves us feeling unworthy and ashamed.

This overreaction can leave us feeling highly anxious, depressed, and angry with ourselves, others, and the world, and this can lead us to limit our experiences in life and relationships.

How the Inner Critic Limits Our Lived Experience

“We get identified with patterns of thought and this leads to repetitive behaviors, these repetitive behaviors become who we are. We stop growing because we limit out experiences.” —Steve Armstrong, dharma talk on Greeting Visitors to the Mind

The truth is that we hurt ourselves when we lock ourselves in a mental cage, and the sad part is that the fear we are trying to avoid is in the cage with us.

I remember listening to a talk by meditation teacher Tara Brach on how fear affects us. She shared a moving story about a white tiger called Mohini, who lived in a 12-by-12-foot rectangular cage at the zoo in Washington, D.C. The tiger spent her days restlessly pacing within the small enclosure, and eventually the staff and biologists worked to create a natural habitat for her. This was a beautiful space with hills, trees, and a pond to swim in.

When Mohini was transferred to her new surroundings, everyone expected she would feel free to explore this wide-open space. The moment she was released, she “immediately sought refuge in a corner of the compound, where she lived for the remainder of her life. Mohini paced and paced in that corner until an area 12 by 12 feet was worn bare of grass.”

We similarly confine ourselves to certain patterns that limit our ability to fully experience life. The inner critic becomes the gatekeeper—in charge of keeping us contained within these limits, where there is an illusion of safety. The truth is that we hurt ourselves when we lock ourselves in a mental cage, and the sad part is that the fear we are trying to avoid is in the cage with us. Recognizing how we’re reacting to the inner critic, to our thoughts and feelings, is an important step toward helping ourselves reconnect to this moment. Just as important is our ability to practice self-compassion in the face of pain.

Self-Compassion Helps Soothe the Inner Critic

“With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.” —Dr. Kristin Neff

Dr. Neff describes self-compassion as “quieting of one’s inner critic and replacing it with a voice of support, understanding, and care for one’s self.” So we treat ourselves with the same compassion and kindness we show others who are suffering. This can be challenging, as our defenses were developed over many years and show up as patterns of behavior that often stop us from being vulnerable. What helps us to shift out of these patterns is meeting our experience with mindfulness, acceptance, and compassion. As Neff points out in her book, there are three elements to the practice, as follows:

Practicing self-kindness, we:

  • Let go of pursuing perfection
  • Accept that, in life, things don’t always go according to plan
  • Learn to recognize and accept that pain is a part of life
  • Meet pain with kindness and compassion instead of self-condemnation and harsh judgment

Common humanity means that we:

  • Are all vulnerable, earthly, and imperfect beings
  • Suffering and feelings of inadequacy are felt by everyone, and this is part of our shared human experience.
  • We all walk the path of life together; sometimes the path is smooth and pleasant, and sometimes it’s unpleasant; strewn with obstacles and challenges.

We meet our moment-to-moment experience by:

  • Observing our moment-to-moment experience (thoughts, feelings, and behaviors) in a nonjudgmental manner
  • Noticing how these thoughts affect our body, mind, and heart
  • If we’re overwhelmed, we help ourselves by practicing mindfulness of breathing (shift your attention from thoughts to the sensation of the breath coming in and the breath flowing out).
  • As we feel more centered, we can begin to notice how emotions are affecting our body (emotions are felt as physical sensations in the body). We allow the thoughts to be there without feeding them.
  • Noticing tension, emotional or physical pain, we bring a feeling of kindness and compassion to our experience and begin to soften around the tension.
  • Sending love to the inner critic or the part of us that is caught up in thoughts, stories, or limiting beliefs

Mindfulness and Compassion Foster Healing and Growth

Mindfulness and self-compassion help us to see how we are limiting ourselves. We see and feel the barriers we’re constructing around our hearts, and in seeing them we can begin to explore what is happening within the mind that’s causing us to build the wall. We free our hearts as we explore with a real desire to understand, to open to the pain and meet it with compassion and loving kindness. This leads us to have moments of mindfulness, where the mind is free of ruminating, judging, planning, and obsessing, and a mind that is free of torment is loving, clear, understanding, equanimous, and easeful.

As I write this last line, I pause to check in with the inner critic. I see that she’s still sitting on the meditation cushion, sending thoughts of loving kindness, and on her face is a look of profound peace.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cindy Ricardo, LMHC, CIRT, therapist in Coral Springs, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 12 comments
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  • Levi

    June 8th, 2015 at 8:05 AM

    I don’t know why but most of the time it is far easier for me to have compassion for others than it is to have a little compassion and understanding of myself.

  • Nancy

    June 10th, 2015 at 10:16 PM

    Levi,
    I can so relate to your comment. I do it myself all the time. I guess like giving advice is much easier than taking that same advice and putting it to use on ourselves. I’ve been beating myself up for years now over Faisal horrible failed marriage that I felt so guilty for. It took me years to realize I was not really the guilty one. I was told by many, including my own family that I’ve been a failure in life and marriage, when in fact, no one knew the real story. I’ve always carried the burdens on my back and broken hearts and finally had to distance myself from my mother and my now ex husband was/is a narcissistic spouse. He has nearly every trait. But nobody sees that but me. And I finally had to make peace with the fact that they never will. Recovery is long and draining. I was a people pleaser all my life, and now at 54 I’m trying to start pleasing myself. And it’s still HARD! Good luck to you.

  • Kel

    June 8th, 2015 at 3:15 PM

    I hate the controlling sort and yet when I stop a little bit and listen to the conversations in my own head I understand that that voice that I hate so much very closely mimics the voice that I hear in my head all the time. I don’t like to think that I am not good enough but there is always this part of me struggling with that fear.

  • Jeremy

    June 9th, 2015 at 10:23 AM

    Pretty sure that the inner critic within is a big part of why I don’t have a stable job. It always makes me second guess myself.

  • Cindy Ricardo

    Cindy Ricardo

    June 9th, 2015 at 5:50 PM

    Dear Levi, Kel and Jeremy thanks for your comments. It is at times much easier to have compassion for others than ourselves. Sometimes this has to do with how we were raised or what we learn from society. What matter is to notice when you are caught up in the negative talk or judgment/criticism and to practice self compassion as described in the article. It is a practice so it takes making the time to practice. There are free resources, guided meditations to help you both on Kristin Neff’s site and Dr. Christopher Germer. Again the intention to be with what is coming up instead of reacting to it is really important and just as important is helping yourself with guidance to transform your reaction to a healing response. May you be well:-)

  • STELLASEL

    June 10th, 2015 at 2:43 PM

    It can literally be like having freedom from the demons that have been holding you back when you ultimately determine that those voices on the inside just need to shut it up!

  • Hannah

    June 11th, 2015 at 1:22 PM

    You rock Nancy! You can do this girl!

  • Cindy Ricardo

    Cindy Ricardo

    June 11th, 2015 at 1:49 PM

    Hi Nancy you make a great point about it being hard…giving advice and putting that advice to use on ourselves is hard. I commend you for trusting your own experience with your husband over believing others opinions or thoughts about your situation. Yes, with a Narcissist they will appear charming with the outside world and others and the opposite with the people closest to them. Good for you that you are now focusing on self care and valuing yourself! Self compassion is something we all need…it is at times extremely challenging especially if we never saw it modeled by those who raised us. It is something we are all capable of cultivating. The first step is to learn more about it, to practice with guided meditations and to begin to make this a daily practice…even if its’ for 10 minutes a day. It keeps our heart in a receptive and open space rather then a defended and closed off heart. I wrote this article not just as a way of offering resources and tips but because I’ve experienced being my own worst critic and self compassion and mindfulness practice has really helped transform my life. Thanks for reading and sharing everyone :-)

  • Cal

    June 12th, 2015 at 1:32 PM

    Yep that’s me. All the time I should be taping my mouth totally shut

  • Cindy Ricardo

    Cindy Ricardo

    June 12th, 2015 at 1:37 PM

    Hi Cal…Yes it can be challenging to change the way we react to the inner critic/talk but not impossible. I hope you read the entire article and take the first step by having compassion for yourself. We face many challenges in life so it’s about facing those challenges in a way where we don’t add more suffering to what is already often a painful experience. May you be well

  • Neva

    June 12th, 2015 at 6:02 PM

    What a thoughtful and thought provoking article. Thank you for coming from this topic from a personal perspective and joining your experience with the practice of mindfulness. It is often hard to describe the power and peace that comes with mindfulness practice, and using examples such as yours makes the reader aware and has helped me, the psychologist, to reconnect with so many of the basic principles of mindfulness practice. The underlying foundation of non-judgment and total self acceptance is reinforced throughout. Thank you again for such a refreshing reminder.

  • Dolly

    August 4th, 2015 at 2:47 PM

    This is the very stage I am at now and feel quite liberated now I have finally found and made sense of what has and is happening to me. I am very very far from being anywhere near well in my being but having read this it just makes so much sense I now know I can do this I can and will beat this and once again conquer MY world. Thank you for making so much sense. This is exactly what I needed right now now to put this all into everyday living.

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