I recently had the pleasure of presenting on this topic through the employee enrichment program and UC Berkeley. I so enjoyed thinking and sharing about it that I wanted to explore a few key tools here as well.
When our mind is fully occupied by critical, judgmental voices, it can be impossible to find any sense of peace inside ourselves. We might be driven by those internal judgments and accomplish many things as a result, but we will not be able to reap the rewards of our hard work. Contentment, pride, joy and ease will be perpetually out of reach.
We all know what it is like to live with the critic in our heads and the terrible impact it has on our well being. How then do we work to cultivate a different state of mind? I'm going to outline some basic practices for working with critical thoughts here. In future posts, I will explore some of these practices in more depth.
There are two key qualities that are important to develop when working with our critic, awareness and compassion. Mark Coleman refers to these elements as the "wings of a bird, without which we cannot fly." Cultivating awareness helps us dig deeper into ourselves, it expands our self-knowledge. Cultivating compassion allows to respond kindly and productively to what we uncover.
Identifying your Critic
The first step of working with your critic is increase your awareness of your critical voice. It's important to clearly identify the sort of things it says to you. Think to yourself for a moment of the last 3-4 negative thoughts you had about yourself.
- What were your thoughts when you woke up this morning? Did you have opinions about the time? How many times you snoozed the alarm?
- What about when you looked in the mirror getting ready? Did you have thoughts about your body? Your clothes? Your skin? Your hair?
- When you got to work this morning, did you have opinions about your day? Or things left undone the day before?
- What about the last time something went wrong? What were the reasons you gave yourself?
- Or the last time you had a fight with a friend, partner or child? What did you tell yourself about that argument? What things did you decide were your fault?
As you answer these questions, notice if there is a particular theme to the criticism. If this critical voice had a few catchphrases, what would they be?
- You're not working hard enough?
- You're stupid?
- You can't do anything right?
- You're ugly?
Notice the themes or catchphrases of your critic. Continue to notice how they show up in your daily thoughts.
Space for Growth: Separating from your Critic
It's believed the our critical voice is almost fully formed by age 8. I don't know about you, but I don't have many fully formed, narrative memories much before that age. This means that our critical thoughts have been with us for the whole history of our memory. As such, it can feel that our critical thoughts are us. There is no separation between our whole self and out critical self.
However, space between these parts is necessary to work with the critic effectively. How to we create this space?
Call to mind one of the negative things you say to yourself regularly. Hear that voice clearly. What are the qualities of the voice?
Male? Female? Loud? Gruff? Gravely? Soft Spoken?
Now...see if you can imagine a shape that the voice lives in.
Big? Small? Male? Female? Human? Animal? Fanciful?
Does it have a name?
Make a rough mental sketch of your critic. Make it in some way different than you. This is essential. Separating from your most negative voices is essential to being able to work with them effectively. They cannot be all of you, they must be merely a part of you (if a very loud part)
Meeting your Critic with Compassion
One of the best ways to cultivate compassion for your critic is to understand more about it. We can have more empathy for that part of ourselves if we can see it more fully.
Since the critic is formed at a very young age, the influences and concerns of the critic are often those of your family system, community or culture of origin.
Close your eyes again and sit with your critical voice in your mind.
Do the judgments sound like one of your parents’ voices?
Do your critical thoughts have a religious overtone? Perhaps from growing up in a faith or community with a strong right/wrong dichotomy? Is your critic preoccupied with whether you made the right choices?
Do they sound like the teasing or bullying you might have had from siblings or classmates?
In your household growing up, were there strong opinions about what was right or proper? Is your critic overly concerned with politeness, rudeness or decorum?
Did you have a friend group as a teen that had harsh rules or judgments?
Notice how your critical mind might have developed to help you tow the line, fit in, be a good kid, stay close to the people you cared about.
What is your critical voice trying to accomplish when it judges you? What does it want for you?
At the root of most of our critical voices, lies the desire to belong. To be a part of something.
My critic wants me to be loved.
The challenge comes because the critical voice has formed many, many strong opinions and stories about what you have to do in order to belong, fit in, or be loved.
Next time your critical voice is present, I encourage you to greet it as a separate part of yourself. Say "hello, so-and-so." And see if you can attune to the emotion and the intention behind the criticism. "I know you are scared I will be rejected. I understand you want me to be accepted and loved."
Then, offer up a compassionate statement towards yourself. "I believe I am worthy of love and belonging just as I am. I do not need to change to be deserving of those things."
Your critical voice will likely jump in and call bullshit.
But the power of this awareness/compassion practice is not in believing the new story. It is in slowly separating from the old one. Beginning to experience it as one option of many. And bringing compassion as the response, rather than increased self-judgement.