Taming the Beast (your inner critic)
In my last blog post I talked about how increasing creativity can help us reach our goals. Personally, I love work that is a marriage of the creative and the practical and that has the potential to improve my life and others. Starting a yoga business ticks all the boxes for me. It has been a rewarding journey finding new ways to move, breathe, be mindful, meditate, design playlists, advertise, and use different media. It has given my emotional repertoire a real workout too. I’ve gone from excitement to doubt; tranquil to hesitant, fearful, and anxious, and back to a growing sense that what I have learnt is worth sharing. There have been setbacks but the biggest obstacle I’ve encountered is my own inner critic. I am not alone. Researchers in the area of creativity and success report that the biggest obstacle to creativity and achievement of goals is the inner critic. Performance coaches are trained to help elite athletes deal with this.
Have you ever noticed the extremely harsh way you sometimes talk to yourself? The first I became aware of it was when I started meditating. It was a “So what did you just say?!” kind of split personality moment. I remember thinking “That’s so mean” and wondering where the thought came from. In time I realized it wasn’t a one-off bad hair day. There is this nasty little gremlin hiding out in my psyche. I was shocked. I had ignored these thoughts for so long, pushing them aside so often, I didn’t really know they were there. You can imagine my relief when I discovered that I am not crazy, or at least not any more crazy than anybody else. Apparently we all experience this overly critical inner voice that loves to make us feel small.
Psychologists believe everybody is part Dr Jekyll and part Mr Hyde. Our Dr Jekyll side is the mild-mannered, goal-directed, cool guy while Mr Hyde is a self-critical, self-denying, destructive bad guy who obsessively peddles a constant derogatory commentary about who we are and the world at large. Research shows this soundtrack gets laid down in painful, early life experiences in which we suffer or witness hurtful attitudes aimed at us or those close to us. Growing up we unconsciously adopt these thought patterns. It can impact our behavior, speech, and relationships preventing us from becoming our best selves and achieving our dreams. What’s worse, as we listen to it, we build stronger and stronger neural pathways to its voice. It becomes easier and easier to trigger until one harsh comment can unleash an entire barrage of mental self-lashing. Ignoring it makes it stronger too. What to do? I sallied forth on a quest to learn how to tame the beast and set my creative genius free.
1. Detect it.
The inner critic can be like muted background noise in your head. Unless you go hunting for it you may not know its there. Mindfulness meditation is like a “thought” stock-take. In a calm, detached fashion you learn to observe your thoughts allowing them to come and go without engaging with them. The inner critic really stands out. It’s the mean school bully sitting on the sidelines hurling insults. As hyper-critical thoughts emerge out of the flotsam and jetsam of my mental chatter I’ve learnt not to let them endlessly spin cycle but not to ignore them either.
2. Challenge it.
I teach the beast to talk more politely to me. I take it on when its logic is flawed and counter its mean inaccurate statements with true affirming ones. If it says “What a loser, nobody likes you” I come right back at it with “that’s just not true, I’ve overcome significant hurdles and achieved a lot. I am kind, loyal and a good listener liked by many.” Take notice of what situations and events stir the beast up so at least you know when you’re likely to tango - forewarned is forearmed. My beast has not disappeared, but he is much more mellow these days and likes to hibernate so I go for long periods without hearing from him.
3. Name it.
Think about who this internal voice really belongs to. It will start to sound familiar, like someone or something you’ve heard before. A parent, bully, coach, teacher, toxic religion, or cult. Many faith traditions have a “satan” figure. Did you know that the word “satan” in the biblical text means “the accuser.” A good description of our internal saboteur. When you piece together where your inner critic originated it becomes much easier to separate your true self from it. Giving your beast a name distances yourself and injects some humor. Every time you hear him speak you could say “Well there goes Bruce again!”
4. Discover its truth.
I have found that negative emotions, such as fear and anger have their own lessons to teach us. We develop them because they are beneficial in some way - they can prompt us to act when we need to and help us survive. Often if I take notice of what they are trying to teach me and learn the lesson their job is done and they retire. With this in mind, rather than ignoring my inner critic like I used to, I’m learning to ask myself if there is a kernel of truth to what it’s saying. Maybe there is something I could work on. Schoolyard bullies have an uncanny knack for identifying imperfections and insecurities and taunting other children with them and so does your inner critic. These days I prefer to think of my inner beast as more like some kind of grumpy, but secretly nice old man trying to protect me. Sometimes I begrudgingly admit Bruce has a point; sometimes he is just being a pest.
5. Connect it to your actions.
Reflect on how your inner critic affects your actions. Connect the dots between recurrent self-limiting beliefs and what you do and say.
6. Create new behaviors.
Mix it up. If this voice is constantly saying “you’re hopeless, you can’t do that” consider doing it anyway. Challenge yourself and prove it wrong. Sometimes you might fail but often you will not and your confidence will grow. The more actively you prove it wrong by choosing to do and say something different, the weaker it becomes.
7. Practice Self-Compassion
Self-compassion chooses kindness and acceptance over judgement. It reminds us who we really are and what we seek to be. It helps us construct a stronger, more reliable view of ourselves. Self-compassion is not poor me. People with self-compassion understand that suffering is all tied up in what it means to be human and is something that connects us. Practice speaking more gently to yourself and others. Treat yourself as you would a good friend. There are great meditations on YouTube that show you how to develop this skill. Attend a local yoga or meditation class where it is practiced. I will be exploring more on what self compassion is and how to develop it in my next blog.
8. Practice Gratitude
When we wonder what we possibly have to contribute to the world and when we question what we can say or do that hasn’t already been said or done and probably better, we limit ourselves and stop growing. Being regularly grateful for who you are, what you have achieved, and what you have is one way to counteract self-limiting beliefs. Remember that mankind is endlessly inventive. We are always finding new ways to do old things - like yoga and meditation. New ways for a new generation, community, need, belief or culture. No one can offer what you can. I believe we are each unique - related and connected as fellow human beings - but unique. No one else has walked your particular journey. You give whatever you choose to do your own unique flavor. To live a creative life we have to give up the fear of being wrong or looking foolish and take the brave step of embracing vulnerability and the possibility of failure. If there is something worth saying or doing it is probably worth saying or doing again and again and again in many different ways. And given our lifetime membership in the human race you have as much right as anyone to be part of this saying and doing.
In 2020 I challenge you to make your own positive ripple in the fabric of space and time that moves us all forward. You get the exciting opportunity to make a difference to life on this planet and you get to choose what that difference will be. Stand up tall with your shoulders back and speak your truth with humility and love. Do your thing.
If you harbor an inner critic and you know to whom that voice really belongs, choose to be different, particularly when you interact with children and young people, so that they develop a healthier inner life. This is one powerful way I believe we can all change the world.
As Marianna Williamson so beautifully puts it:
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
As we let our own light shine; we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
In yoga we often end our practice by bowing to each with our hands in prayer position. “Namaste” we say. It has come to mean “the sacred in me sees the sacred in you.” If you don’t follow a faith tradition you might like to think of “namaste” as “the potential in me recognizes the potential in you.”
Have you struggled with an inner critic? How do you deal with it? Feel free to comment below.