Sure-Fire Practices to Free Yourself from Your Inner Critic
In teaching people resources and practices for recovering resilience, I often teach that there is no more powerful a derailer of that resilience than the shaming of our inner critic, and that there is no more powerful protocol for healing the pain and suffering inflicted by the inner critic than practices of mindfulness and self-compassion.
Now there is no book I could recommend more highly for rewiring our relationship to our inner critic than Mark Coleman’s new book Make Peace with Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free you from Your Inner Critic.
Excellent. Powerful and practical. Effective.
May the wisdom and tools offered there set you on a new course of resilience and well-being in 2017.
From Tara Brach’s foreword to the book: “The inner voice of judgment and criticism [is] a culturally pervasive and toxic habit we have of demeaning ourselves. Mark deeply understands…how the belief that something is wrong with us can prevent us from realizing the intimacy, creativity, and aliveness we seek. In Make Peace with Your Mind you have a companion to guide and support you in stepping beyond the prison of feeling deficient and unworthy.”
Mark shares his own personal struggles with the self-flagellation of his own personal inner critic, how “cruel and savagely unforgiving I was about my own foibles and insecurities…. Instead of appreciating the mess-ups and wrong turns which are essential to learning, I would instead harshly chastise myself.”
Then, in 31 short chapters, each with a concept, a story, a practice, he guides the reader through a deepening understanding of how our powerful inner critics take root in our psyche in the first place, and how we can skillfully use mindfulness and kindness/compassion practices to change our relationship to this constant if unwanted companion.
Sample chapter topics:
The origin and function of the critic
Fear of losing discernment and motivation if we let go of our inner critic
The particular flavor of the “not enough” inner critic
Identifying the “itty-bitty-shitty-committee” with many flavors of the inner critic
Freeing ourselves of sticky negative thoughts
Cultivating the mindset of not taking the harsh judgments of the critic so personally
The role of self-forgiveness in not being bogged down by regrets from the past
Antidoting the negativity of the inner critic by resourcing with the good in your life.
Two excerpted examples:
Chapter Four: Thief of Peace: The Critic as the Cause of Low Self-Esteem
“How many times have you been enjoying a quiet Sunday afternoon, resting in your backyard in the late summer sun, perfectly at ease in the world, when suddenly a nagging voice pipes up and says something like, ‘Why are you wasting this perfectly good afternoon? You could be doing something more productive, like cutting the grass, clearing out all that clutter in the garage, or tending to those chores around the house that you said you would get to this weekend?’ In a flash, that moment of tranquility is gutted by a sense of guilt and anxiety….
“Likewise think about all the times you have gone to a dinner in your colleague’s beautiful house, or visited your friend’s idyllic children’s birthday party, or taken a drive in your brother’s new car, and instead of being able to enjoy the moment, you were sidetracked by the critic comparing your life to theirs, listing all the ways you don’t measure up. Your inner judge implies you are a lesser person because your cooking is not up to snuff, your house is too scruffy to host a party, your children’s birthday parties are disorganized and your car is an embarrassment.
“That voice of judgment seems ready, at a moment’s notice, to kill the joy of the moment and remind us that we don’t deserve to have fun or relax, aren’t worthy of taking care of ourselves, aren’t good enough in comparison to others, and that if we only listened and obeyed the critic’s commands, we would be a getter, happier, and more successful person. What may start as an innocuous voice builds up over time until it becomes the loudest thing in your head and an incessant rumination, like a yapping dog constantly snapping at the heels of your goodness.
“If we listen to all those disparaging remarks, what happens? We shift from enjoying the present moment to feeling unworthy, unhappy, and deficient….
“The more we listen to the negative, distorted inner voices of self-judgment that directly attack our self-worth, the more likely we will be to have an imbalanced sense of ourselves. We will be prone to disconnecting from a sense of our innate value and therefore have a tendency to feel despondent a out ourselves. Failing to feel that sense of innate goodness as the heart of who we are means we lack a strong foundation on which to build a happy, flourishing life.”
Practice: Correcting the Inner Balance Sheet
“The inner critic is like a bad accountant who only looks at the column in red, or the liabilities, without taking the assets into consideration. To practice getting a clearer view of your internal balance sheet, try take a whole day where you notice the positive aspects of yourself:
* Pay attention to your unique gifts, skills and qualities.
* Notice when you act in positive, kind, caring ways.
* Observe the moments of quiet joy and ease.
* Take in any moments of appreciating what you are wearing or how you look.
* Acknowledge when you talk to people with politeness, respect, or interest.
* Look for any positive impact you are bringing to a situations person, or environment.
* Take in those times when you are spontaneously generous to others.
* Notice your sense of human and your capacity to enjoy life.
“Sometimes when we do this, it can turn up the volume of our critic. The critic may ridicule any attempt to look on the bright side of things. See if you can begin to correct the balance sheet by shifting your perspective in the following ways:
* When people compliment you, take a moment to take it in rather than dismissing it or
questioning their motives.
* When someone sends you an email thanking you for something you did or said, take it in and notice how it feels.
* When you feel you did a good job at some task at work, at home, or taking care of your family, also let that in.
“The more you can acknowledge the goodness of an action, the more you will realize it comes from your innate goodness – your authentic nature.”
Chapter 23: Befriending Yourself – You Are Not Your Enemy
“The shift from living with attachment to the judgmental mind to live with kindness is perhaps the most important part of our work with the critic. It requires us to embrace all of who we are – the good, the bad, and the ugly. This can require a radical shift in our inner world, to allow ourselves to welcome into our heart the parts of ourselves we have denied, repressed, or rejected.
“Carl Jung wrote, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of lights, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” We can try running to the light for a while, as happens in a spiritual search, in the hope of bypassing all of the difficult, painful stuff of life. But that ultimately does not work. Genuine spiritual growth has to include all of who we are.
“Fortunately, life as a way of encouraging us to deal with our disowned parts and hidden selves. In all of life there is a yearning for integration. At some point it is not a choice. Life will eventually grab us by the tail or slap us in the face to wake us up. It does that by finding ways to help us see the pain of splitting off vital parts of ourselves that we have denied.
“Ted is a brilliant neurosurgeon from Vermont. He has everything in his life that you could imagine. He has a beautiful family, three healthy girls, a highly successful private medical practice, and is a leader in his field. Yet when alone, he feels lonely and sad. In our work we explore the intense feelings he still has that linger from when he was young and tragically lost both parents in a car accident. He felt incredibly abandoned, lost, and alone.
“After flunking in school for a time and being on the receiving end of a lot of pity and assumptions that his life was not fatally flawed, he decided to prove the naysayers wrong. He resolved to show then he was tough and could make it on his own. He hardened up, buckled down at school, and outshined his peers academically. When any sliver of the sadness crept in, he would shove it down by working harder, and shame himself for being weak.
“Yet as he began to wake up to the chasm inside that had been held in by fear and the critic, he slowly began to integrate the pain from those losses. He realized he didn’t need to turn away or resort to self-judgment.
“He understood that he no longer needed to run from himself, and instead turned kindly toward those younger parts of himself that felt alone and abandoned. He saw how he continued the sense of abandonment by neglecting and ignoring his own needs. He began to release the incessant search for external rewards and began to take on fewer projects and find some inner peace with who and where he was.
“Life encourages us to live with integrity, wholeness, and honesty. To live out of alignment with those things is inherently painful. …if we want to be free of pain, we must begin the important journey of integration, where we start to befriend ourselves. Where we turn toward our fears, pain, and insecurities with kindness rather than persecution and punishment from the judge. We can learn to distance ourselves from our critic so we can listen with sensitivity to these difficult parts of ourselves and hold them with tenderness.
Practice: Healing Your Inner Wounds
“The poet Rumi, in his well-known poem referring to the human heart as a guest house, writes;
This being human is a guest-house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness come
As an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you
out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
“What would it be like to welcome any and all of your painful emotions, as Rumi suggests? What would it take to make that shift from turning away to embracing whatever lies there inside your body and heart? The following meditation will help you explore that.
1. Find a place where you can be undisturbed for at least ten minutes. Sitting in a chair where you can be upright yet relaxed, assume a comfortable posture.
2. Gently close your eyes and turn your attention to the sensations of your body and breath.
3. Once you feel settled and present, take some time to inquire into a hurt or difficult emotion you may be carrying from the past. Call to mind any childhood, adolescent, or recent painful burden within you. Stay attuned to your heart and body. Feel into any emotion that may be present.
4. Notice whether you have a tendency to turn away from yourself when you feel the pain, vulnerability, or sadness you carry. Instead of feeling the pain, do you get lost in thoughts or distractions?
5. As you connect with a painful memory or emotion, take a moment to say, “Welcome,” and really let in the feelings. Experience them with a kind attention.
6. Notice any judgmental thoughts or reactions you have to those feelings. You can tell your critic in a firm but kind way that you are not going to listen to its comments, that you are going to create inner space to feel what lies beneath the surface.
7. If the feeling is intense, take long, slow, deep breaths and see if you can simply be with yourself in this vulnerable place. If the feelings that come up are too strong, shift your attention to something neutral like your breath, or sounds, until you feel grounded again.
8. Notice any agitation, restlessness, or desire to escape or to get lost in thinking. If that happens, bring your kind, soft attention back to whatever feeling is present, again and again. The more you settle into the tender feelings, the more you allow some resolution through your loving presence.
9. Keep bringing a kind, caring attention to these difficult emotions. You may even verbalize this in words that express your care or love, such as “May I hold my pain with kindness,” “Mya I love myself just as I am,” or “May I be free from pain.”
10. When you are ready to end this meditation, slowly open your eyes, and gently move and stretch.
“Notice how you feel after doing this practice. Sometimes it is not easy to sit with our suffering. Yet even the intention to do so can allow a softening or opening toward the pain that lies within, and perhaps some understanding of it.
“As you go about your day, try bringing this same kind attention to your emotions each time you feel vulnerable or in pain. Remember that you can practice this anytime you feel strong or difficult emotions staring to arise. Also remember that healing takes time, patience, and a lot of loving presence.
Mark, now a mindfulness teacher for many years, as well as a therapist and executive coach, uses mindfulness to see thought processes clearly, discern what kind of thoughts we are having – judgments or discerning assessments – and to come to the realization that the critic is “just a bunch of thoughts! A repetitive bunch of thoughts” that we can react to or choose to not react to. And I do appreciate Mark’s reinforcing the power of the brain’s neuroplasticity to support mindfulness and compassion as agents of healing. We can choose where to focus our attention, re-programing mental habits and choices, retraining the brain to create new neural pathways conducive to self-kindness rather than self-hatred and self-condemnation.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE[All quotes from Make Peace with Your Mind]
It’s not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life; it’s what you whisper to yourself that has the most power.
– Robert T. Kiyosaki
* * * * *
I work early in the morning, before my nasty critic gets up – he rises about noon. By then I’ve put in much of a day’s work.
– Virginia Woolf
* * * * *[Imposter syndrome] I have written eleven books but each time I think, “Uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.”
– Maya Angelou
* * * * *
Stay out of the court of self-judgment, for there is no presumption of innocence.
– Robert Brault
* * * * *
My mind remains a bad neighborhood that I try not to go into alone.
– Anne Lamott
* * * * *
There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
– William Shakespeare
* * * * *
The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
– John Milton
* * * * *
I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.
– Charles Schwab
* * * * *
It behooves every man to remember that the work of the critic is of altogether secondary importance, and that, in the end, progress is accomplished by the man who does things.
– Theodore Roosevelt
* * * * *
Butterflies can’t see their wings. They can’t see how truly beautiful they are, but everyone else can. People are like that as well.
– Naya Rivera
STORIES TO LEARN FROM[from Chapter 26: Transforming Pain: Moving from Self-Harm to Self-Compassion]
“James grew up in Somerset, England, in a strict Catholic family. He was sent to boarding schools at age eleven. Mostly, he enjoyed the experience, except for one shadowy aspect that still haunts him today. As an altar boy, he had special duties to perform for the mass on Sunday, including arriving early to prepare the various ritual objects for the service.
“His parents were proud he was serving in this way. It was, however, a very different experience for him. From the outset the priest had taken advantage of James and had forced him into sexual activity. He would come to dread those early morning times yet did not feel he could turn to anyone.
“In time, as often happens, he blamed himself for the abuse. He doubted his innocence and wondered where he may have been at fault. He lived with a sense of shame, compounded by his isolation and the fear that others would find out. This made it difficult for him to have normal adolescent relationships, and in adulthood those memories haunted him and scarred his sex life.
“When he came to an intensive silent retreat, removed from all his usual busyness at work and habitual online distractions, he began to feel the shame from the past. The shame loomed large, as if he were reliving some of those painful memories. His critic, ever by his side, reminded him that it was his fault and that he should feel guilty, that he only had himself to blame.
“Sadly, I often encounter this kind of situation, where victims of childhood abuse blame themselves. When a parent is the abuser, it is even harder for young children to imagine their parents would harm them. It is difficult for a young psyche to believe their caregiver would exploit them. So they lay the blame at their own feet. Having to undergo the original violation was horrific enough. To then have to relive it and believe you were at fault, and live with that shame, is a double tragedy.
“In meditation, particularly on the retreats I lead, there is an atmosphere of safety where everything is welcome. People are given permission to allow whatever wants to happen in their inner experience. The space created by slowing down, and having no distractions of technology or conversation, allows for things to rise up from deep in the psyche. Sometimes long-repressed memories can come up.
“For James it was a radical thing to not only have time to be with himself, but also, perhaps for the first time in his life, be in a safe enough space to feel the turbulent emotions in his heart. When he came in for an individual meeting, he shared a little about his painful memories from childhood as an altar boy. But very quickly he talked about how it was his fault and that hew as to blame. If only he were different, it would not have happened,
“In our session I asked him if he would be willing to put aside those harsh views (from his critic) and simply feel how it was for that young boy to be abused in that way. To put himself in that boy’s shoes and to allow the feelings that may be there. He said he would give it a try.
“When he came back the next day, he said he’d been able, for the first time, to ignore the critical voices and instead feel the emotions beneath the critic’s words. He felt his hurt, his anger, and his grief. When he ignored the judgmental voices, he was able to feel not just the pain but also a sense of care or love toward that young boy. As he spoke, there were tears in his eyes. His whole demeanor seemed softer, his body more relaxed, and the lines of tension on his face had eased. He had been able to see that young boy through the eyes of an adult, with compassion.
“This perspective changes everything. It takes us out of blame and into mercy. Compassion is the heart’s healing balm and has the power to alleviate and transform suffering. It can resolve the pain that causes the critic to arise in the first place. From the perspective of the heart, harsh self-judgment and self-critical attacks likes the ones James experienced are a form of cruelty. Compassion is a direct antidote to that and it ultimately what heals the cycle of pain and judgment.
“Compassion has been described as q quivering of the heart in response to pain. It is intimate with the pain and distress of another or ourselves. In James’s case he had to open viscerally to the sadness and hurt about being violated at such a young age in order for self-compassion to arise.
“Mindfulness enables us to feel our pain, and compassion is the heart’s response to that pain. Compassion wishes to help and to heal the suffering. Kindness and awareness, like the two wings of a bird, work together to release the force of compassion, which is essential to our work with the critic.
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE[from Chapter 29: Who Are You? – Seeing the Good in Others
“Just Like Me” Meditation
“How often do we see people as they really are? Do we simply see them through the filter of our own biases, prejudices, and conditioned viewpoints? When the critic has been interfering with the hardware in our brain for a few decades, there is a high probability that what we see is distorted by interference from our judgmental mind.
“Cutting through the bias of the negative, critical mind can help us see people in a different, fresh way. We can notice what unites us, not what divides us. We can sense our common humanity. We can also start to see the positive, right, and uplifting characteristics of people who affect our own mind and heart in a positive way.
“This exercise helps cut through the usual barriers that make us feel separate or different from others. It is a way we can actively sense our connection with other people, partly by focusing on our shared human experiences. Next time you are talking with someone, in a meeting at work, looking at others in a café or on the street, or at your children’s school with other parents, reflect on these phrases:
* Just like me, this person wants to be happy.
* Just like me, this person wishes to be free of pain and stress.
* Just like me, this person has a body subject to aches, pains, and aging.
* Just like me, this person has had many joys and successes.
* Just like me, this person has felt sadness, loss, and pain.
* Just like me, this person desires to love and be loved.
* Just like me, this person aspires to do their best in life.
* Just like me, this person wants peace and happiness.
“As you do this notice how it makes you feel. Does it allow for any sense of feeling connected? Know that you can return to this sentiment in any moment and see how it can transform your experience of someone as being other to seeing them as being just like you, with all of your shared human experiences.
“Try to practice saying these phrases wherever you go. You can also do this exercise as a meditation where you sit quietly, call to mind particular people, and say the phrases to yourself.
“Saying these phrases to yourself is particularly useful when you are having a conflict or a challenging time with someone. The more you can sense the similarities between you and them and see they are not other, the more likely you will be to feel a sense of connection and find it easier to relate to them.[from Chapter 30: Inner Peace – A Life Beyond the Critic]
Noticing the Peace between the Thoughts
“All too often what grabs our attention in life is our thoughts….sometimes all we notice is our critical, judging thoughts. However, as much as that can be true, there is also plenty of time when the critic is not predominant and our mind is quiet. From a meditation and mental health perspective, it is very helpful to notice these moments of quiet, these gaps between our thoughts. If all we focus on is our thoughts and judgments, then that is all we will see. If instead we focus on the space after one thought ends and before another begins, we may find to our surprise that there is more quiet and stillness than we believed.
“Use the following meditation to practice noticing the peaceful gaps between your thoughts.
1. Find a place where you can be undisturbed for at least ten minutes. Sitting in a chair where you can be upright yet relaxed, assume a comfortable posture.
2. Gently close your eyes and take some time to sit quietly and focus on our breath. Or if you are in a place where there is a lot of noise, focus on the sounds. If you notice the pull of thought, judgments, or criticism try shifting your focus to your breath, to the sounds around you, or to other physical stimuli, and notice how the thoughts can recede.
3. See if you can observe quiet moments between judgments and other thoughts where there is simply physical, organic life happening by itself – sitting, breathing, listening, feeling, and watching.
4. Can you sense any quality of space, ease or openness? Sense the peacefulness of these moments.
5. Feel into the simplicity and naturalness of being present.
6. Be open to the possibility that nothing else needs to happen, that everything in this moment is fine, perhaps whole and complete just as it is, including you.
7. When you feel ready to end this meditation, slowly open your eyes, and gently move and stretch.
“This meditation is a simple way to access peace here and now. The more you practice noticing the space between your thoughts, and the more you rest in the awareness of the coming and going of thoughts, the more space you will begin to perceive in your inner experience. You will see that there are many opportunities to be quiet and still, and you will begin to find more of a natural ease in the present moment
RESOURCES[from Make Peace with Your Mind]
Brach, Tara. Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with a Heart of a Buddha. New York: Bantan, 2004.
Brown, Bryon. Soul without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within. Boston: Shambhala, 1998.
Carson, Rick. Taming Your Gremlin: A Surprisingly Simple Method for Getting Out of Your Own Way. New York: Quill, 2003.
Neff, Kristin: Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. New York: HarperCollins, 2015.
Stone, Hal and Sidra Stone. Embracing Your Inner Critic: Turning Self-Criticism into a Creative Asset. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993.