“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.
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.
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