Mastering the Inner Critic

In this article, Zeenat explores how we can acknowledge and work with the inner voice of  negative self-judgement using  some of the meditation tools she teaches on our Meditation for Beginners course, such as mindfulness of our thoughts and feelings, loving-kindness and simple visualisation. 

It is a rare person that never judges or criticises themselves over harshly.  At times most of us can feel like we are our own worst enemies, criticising our looks, our ability, our life choices, making even our glowing achievements seem bad or mediocre.  This negative inner voice is stronger in some people than in others. However, it  seems to be the case that most of us some time struggle to deal with negative thoughts about ourselves or struggle to believe positive things.
Our inner critical voice usually has roots somewhere in our past. As we grow up,  family, friends and teachers can knowingly or unknowingly put us down, even if they think they are doing it in our best interests. Parents often try and correct the "problems" they think they see in us, and say all kinds of things in an attempt to "fix" us. They freely offer their opinions about our looks, achievements,  behaviour, friends, and so on.  We might also suffer more covert forms of criticism as we grow up, such as teasing, bullying, abuse or strict punishment.

Gradually we internalise all these outer critical messages and can end up feeling inadequate, disliking ourselves or that we don’t quite measure up to standard. We can become our own harshest and most severe critics at times punishing and pushing ourselves too hard. Most problems with our self esteem and lack of confidence have their roots in this inner critic.
The first step in reducing the power of the inner critic is to recognize when it's talking and to separate from it. You are not your inner critic, it is a part of you, but it is not who you are. When you are able to step back, and observe the inner critic, you are separating from it and moving into a state of detachment. When we witness the inner critic in this detached way, just recognising its voice without even trying to change it, it immediately loses its power over us and we are far less affected by its harsh demands.

There are many things you can do to understand your inner critic better and to separate from it. The more you understand it and the different ways it speaks to you, the more you can recognise it and detach from it.  You might want to keep a diary for a week and write down all the critical things you think about yourself.  In doing this you will probably become more aware of how you treat yourself and the things you think. This can help you to recognise the criticising voice more clearly in future. The more quickly you notice it, the easier it becomes to detach from it. You might notice that it is worse in certain situations or at certain times, for example when you tired or stressed, when you are in the company of people you judge as ‘beautiful’ or ‘high achieving’ or when you are taking on a new or challenging task. Think of what you can do to help yourself at these times. For example, spend time around people who are positive and supportive of your projects, or take time out to relax and look after yourself.

Think about when and how your inner critic developed. What happened in your childhood that might have contributed to it? Does its voice remind you of anyone?  How did your parents and other close family members  treat themselves? When we recognise that some of our self criticising closely matches someone else voice, for example ‘I sound just like my dad when I think that’, then we can more easily detach from it. 

There’s no point arguing with the critical voice inside, and trying to ‘prove’ its wrong; even if you do win, you will find that it still comes up with other critical things to say about you. Arguing with the critical voice can fuel it and give it more energy. When you argue with it you are indirectly telling this voice that you hold its opinion, however reluctantly, as important.  See it more as a part of you that is trying to help even if unwisely, a part of you that needs compassion rather than wrath, and again it loses its power.  The exercise below, Transforming the Inner Critic, is a relaxing visualisation, in which you can learn how to work with this aspect of the critic.
Recognising and observing the inner critic and noticing its patterns are the most effective ways of mastering it so that it gradually loses its power. So when you hear this voice inside judging you, take a moment to remind yourself it's your inner critic speaking, take a step back, and observe it in action. This may be all you need to do to for the voice to fade away, leaving you feeling more compassionate and loving towards yourself.
Exercise: Transforming the Inner Critic
Allow half an hour for this exercise and find somewhere where you can sit or lie comfortably and not be disturbed. It can help to set an alarm clock so that you don’t have to worry about keeping an eye on the time.  Start off by checking out that you are as comfortable as possible, adjusting your body and posture so that you feel just right. Take a few deep breaths and bring your awareness inside your body, notice how you feel right now. Move your awareness through your body, from your toes up to your head, checking out just how your body feels. If there are any areas of tension, imagine that as you breath out, these areas are letting go and relaxing. Do this for a few minutes, and gradually bring your attention back to your breath. Allow your breath to become as deep and slow as you can, till you can feel your belly rise and fall. As you breathe out, imagine that you are becoming more and more relaxed.  Carry on with this deep, slow breathing for a few more minutes, until you begin to feel really relaxed.
Now using your imagination, see or sense yourself sitting by a stream in a beautiful wood. You can hear the sound of the flowing water and rustle of a gentle wind in the trees. You can smell the spring woodland flowers and reach out your hands to feel the cool water or the grass by the river bank. Use all your senses to really feel yourself there in this beautiful place. After a while you notice a figure sitting further down the bank, arousing your curiosity. You feel drawn to go and speak to them, and as you stand and move towards them you begin to see them more clearly. Perhaps it is a person, or an animal, or a mythological creature, or a shape. Perhaps you have met this being before and can recognise them. You may have a mental image or just sense this being. Trust whatever comes as right for you at this time. This being is your inner critic in one of its forms. Allow yourself to take in everything you can about their appearance, their clothes, their manner and what they are doing.  Watch how you feel coming into their presence. How does this being respond to you? How do they judge you and what do they think you should be doing with your life? How do they think you should be different?
When you feel ready sit down beside the being and tell it you wish to speak. In your own way, acknowledge that it has tried to do its best for you, that in some way it has tried to help.  Ask the critic in what way it is trying to help. For example, perhaps your inner critic keeps telling you are ‘lazy’ and that you should work harder because it is trying to help you survive in the world. It has learned this way of ‘helping’ from observing the attitude and voices of those around you as a child, and  knows no better way.  Our inner critic is always trying to help in some way, even though it doesn’t have the best way of going about it!  Once it has told you what it wants for you and how it is trying to help then thank it, but tell it that you need it to help you in a different way now.  For example, you might tell it that calling you ‘lazy’ actually makes you feel worse and has the opposite effect from what it intended. Tell it that you need more constructive, positive criticism, and encouragement. Think of what you need to hear, of how your ‘inner critic’ can become you ‘inner champion’, offering support and encouragement positively. For example, perhaps it could praise you for jobs well done, or acknowledge that having breaks and relaxing when you need to, refreshes your energy and helps you be more creative.
Speak in this way with the being until you feel you have come to some understanding with each other and that the being has learned something of what you need, and how it can help you positively in future.  Find a way of saying goodbye and leave the being, and find a spot on the grass where you can lie down and relax. Stay in this relaxed place for a few minutes in your imagination and then gradually let yourself become aware of your physical surroundings, and come back to the room.
Doing this visualisation regularly you will find that different issues emerge each time, and that you speak with different parts of your inner critic.  Trust what emerges for you each time and know that it will probably be different every time you do the exercise. By gradually making friends with your critic in this way, teaching it how it can ‘champion’ you, then it can become a true voice of discrimination in your life. Whenever you catch the voice being negatively critical, you can then stop for a moment and remind it of how you need to be helped.