You know that annoying issue in your life that you just can’t seem to get beyond? That habitual pattern you keep replaying, over and over, ad nauseam, to the point that you wonder if you are simply doomed to this particular variety of suffering for the rest of your life?
Yeah, that one.
Your demon. The monster that seems to thwart your efforts to get what you want, or keeps giving you what you don’t want.
Meet your inner critic.
Your inner critic will talk you out of anything that threatens the status quo. So guess what that means? No growth with inner critic around.
Essentially her* job is to prevent you from doing anything that involves fear. We know that fear is a necessary component of growth – because when you step outside your comfort zone, that’s when growth occurs. But the inner critic doesn’t want growth. The inner critic- the ego – wants stability, conformity, comfort, anything that is already known. The ego hates the unknown. So your inner critic will tell you anything to avoid it, and stay with what’s known and safe, even if it is making your life hell. It’s a warped version of protection, like some deranged mother keeping her teenage daughter locked in her bedroom. Protectors without wisdom become prison wardens, or inner critics.
Here is the sick thing: the inner critic leads us to exactly that place we wish to avoid – the thing we fear the most. Because we’ve learned to embrace some belief that limits us in some way, some lie someone once told us about how bad we are, we freeze up around any situation that threatens to expose this lie as truth. The result ironically is that we end up creating “proof” from the environment that our lie is indeed true. So the inner critic wins.
In order to get out from under the spell of the inner critic, we first have to identify it. Him. Her. Recently, I came across Tara Mohr’s little gem, Playing Big. (Read it now!) to which this 3 step exercise owes its inspiration.
3 steps to dealing with your inner critic:
1. Identify Your Inner Critic
Who is that entity? What does she look like, what’s her name. What does she do for fun (besides torment you)? Where does she spend her time and with whom. What sets her off. And most importantly, what are the message she sends you. All those self-sabotaging thoughts, the damaging diatribes, the criticisms and judgements you sling at yourself when you face your demons.
Exercise: settle into a meditative posture for a few minutes to get present. When you feel settled, call to mind the voice you would describe as your inner critic. Who is that being? Describe her in full detail. Maybe she reminds you of an actual or historical person, but since this voice is in your mind, there will be differences. Pay close attention to the details of who this entity is and write them down. Give your inner critic a name.
2. Develop a Relationship with Your Inner Critic
What are the horrible mean things your inner critic says to you? Engage her in dialogue. Write them all down. Spare no detail. Listen to her respectfully.
Examples of inner critic commentary:
• You are a lazy, worthless idiot
• You’ll never amount to anything
• Nobody loves you. How could they?
• You don’t deserve love anyway. You did horrible things.
• Why can’t you get it together?
• What the hell is wrong with you?
• You’re fat. And dumb too.
• You’re too skinny. Gross.
• There you go, doing that thing again, sheesh.
Exercise: Do a 15-20 minute free write, letting your inner critic rant. Write down every little thing he says; let him be as mean and nasty as he can get.
3. Accept Your Inner Critic
You don’t have to like her. And you definitely don’t have to accept her message. But you have to acknowledge her and get to know her. I know you’ve heard that what you resist persists. So if you consistently exclude, ignore or deny your inner critics messages they will continue to haunt you. Those debilitating messages will become the head-man at the helm. They will rule your life.
Don’t avoid her and her message (your fear,) dance with her. Use fear as your compass as that’s when you are about to make a difference
Recognize that this voice that criticizes, judges and torments you is a figment of your imagination—a thought. This is the work of mindfulness meditation – to see any thoughts that arise in the mind as illusory and impermanent and to awaken to the present moment by bringing the awareness back. So accepting your inner critic means simply to have the courage to look fearlessly at those messages, and then release them back into the space of the mind. What is leftover then is your own direct experience of the present. So your inner critic can lead you to that.
Exercise: Write your inner critic a love letter. Say thank you for all the suffering she has tried to spare you, and respectfully ask her to mind her own business. Tell her you’ve got it under control. Reply with the truth of who you are beyond this voice of fear and judgement. Then if you like, burn those nasty pages while acknowledging another part of you that is so far above that inner critic, the beautiful soul that is wise and loving and knows that the inner critic is simply a figment of your imagination.
Carry On With Your Inner Wisdom
One thing you’ll discover when you identify this internal voice of dissent is that you have other, more supportive voices on your team cheerleading for you. Get to know them as well and enlist their support. But the most helpful part of this cast of characters is the one who is watching the whole show – that wise self that knows what is happening right here and right now, and can guide you forward without hope and fear, but rather with infinite compassion. This is the rich and clear presence of mind underneath all the mental chatter, beyond thought, as accessed through sitting meditation. This is the one you really want to develop a relationship with. This is the voice of your inner wisdom who will lead you to far better places.
* For clarity of writing, I use the feminine pronoun to discuss the inner critic, but mine is actually male, um, I think. My inner critic has an uncanny resemblance to Pat. By all means bring humour to this process.