Life With an Inner-Critic
We all have an inner-critic that if left to its own devices will constantly judge and negatively comment on the way we live our lives. If we pay attention, it's easy to notice that the voice of the inner-critic never shuts up! From the moment we wake up, the voice immediately starts spewing opinions and commentary:
"I'm so tired! Why did I go to bed so late again? Why don't I ever learn that I need to get to bed earlier?!"
"Did I get any comments on my Instagram while I was asleep? Only two likes...I guess people didn't like my post? Or maybe they just didn't care."
"Oh God, I just remembered I have to work late tonight! Ugh! I'm going to be so exhausted! I'll never make it through without coffee! I guess I won't be putting the kids to bed again tonight!"
To make matters worse, the inner voice also criticizes us for every mistake big or small:
"I can't believe I ate all those cookies! I have no self control! No wonder my pants are so tight!"
"I have no idea what to say in this meeting and people keep looking at me! They're probably wondering why I'm even in this position. I'm wondering that myself. Sometimes I'm so incompetent! "
"I'm so awkward! Why do all the other moms seem to get along great together and I never know what to say? They must think I'm so weird!"
And on and on it goes all day. We live our lives and the inner-voice (our inner-critic) criticizes, judges, and puts us down every chance it gets. If you're a highly sensitive woman, you can probably relate to the concept of the inner-critic because highly sensitive women tend to be very hard on themselves, perfectionistic, and also very sensitive to perceived judgment from others.
The Problem With the Inner-Critic
Take some time today to write down some of the thoughts you have that are mean, judgmental, critical, or hurtful toward yourself. You will probably be surprised by the sheer number of negative thoughts you have about yourself as well as what those thoughts are actually saying: things you would never say to your worst enemy, let alone someone you love.
You might argue that though the thoughts aren't nice, they're true or that you won't make any positive changes in your life if you don't think "realistically" about your shortcomings and flaws.
I beg to differ. I've yet to see a woman shame herself into making a positive change in her life. And that's what the inner-critic is: the voice of shame whose core fear is that there is something wrong and unfixable within us, and if it's found out, we will be will be rejected, unloved, or will (metaphorically) cease to exist at all.
Though the inner-critic tries to convince us that it's just reporting the truth to us and that it's helping us to get to the life we want to live, the reality is just the opposite: the inner-critic robs us of living lives that are in integrity with our most authentic, highest selves.
The inner-critic tries to convince us that it's just telling us the truth, that we should feel bad about whatever it's jabbering on about at any given moment, but that's simply not true.
We all have painful feelings in life: fear, anger, sadness, guilt, jealousy, and confusion, just to name a few. Those feelings are normal and an important part of the experience of being human. The inner-critic has the power to extend those feelings outside of the moment they occur to any time and any place in our lives. Thinking about an incident of missing a winning goal in 9th grade soccer can be just as painful in the moment as it is 20 years later as it replays in your mind.
To make matters worse, the inner-critic can cause us to feel pain even on the happiest days of our lives.
For example, the day I graduated from my master's program at NYU, I put on my cap and gown as I got ready to leave for the ceremony only to realize I had ordered the gown too long. It was dragging on the ground and I couldn't walk in it without tripping and so with time running out before I was expected to gather with the rest of the graduates at Lincoln Center, I had to hastily pin it up with safety pins. I immediately felt frumpy and conspicuous in my poorly pinned graduation gown and couldn't stop berating myself for making such a stupid mistake in ordering the wrong length.
The moment I walked on stage to collect my diploma and shake the hands of the highest faculty in my graduate program, I wasn't thinking about the enormity of my achievement, I was thinking about whether the audience could see the safety pins. As I watched other graduates collect their diplomas, I noted that many had gowns that stopped several inches above their ankles and continued to silently obsess and criticize myself for my gown mishap. It got to the point where I realized that I felt jealous of my graduating colleagues who, with correctly sized gowns, could fully enjoy the day.
Though this incident is ridiculous and even comical in retrospect, it is also sad and painful. My graduation ceremony for my master's degree was a moment that should have been filled with pride, joy, and a feeling of great accomplishment. It was the culmination of thirteen years of grade school, four years of college, and two very intense emotionally and academically challenging years of my master's program. And yet here I was obsessing about the length of my graduation gown. My inner-critic had robbed me of a precious moment in my life -- but only because I let it.
I wish I could say that this example is an extreme case but unfortunately, for most women it's the norm. No matter how good our quality of life, no matter how joyful our situation is on paper, all we need to do is listen to our inner-critic for a few second and instantly we're in pain.
Giving Peace a Chance
When we get stuck or tangled up in what our inner-critic is telling us, we wind up giving them more power and holding on more tightly. This is what happened in my graduation ceremony. The more I thought about my gown, the more power those negative thoughts had and the more they got stuck in the forefront of my mind, keeping me from being present on an important day. Here's what to do instead:
Get Present By Making Contact With the Moment
Making contact with the moment means being psychologically present: consciously engaging with whatever is happening. Our brains tend to find it very difficult to stay present. What happens most of the time instead is that we get caught up in our thoughts and lose touch with the world around us. Our inner-critic causes us to live in the past with our regrets and painful experiences or in the future with our worries and fears.
We are usually not even aware that this is happening because we are going through our days on mental autopilot, going through the motions of interacting with whatever comes into our world without actually being present with it.
Making contact with the moment means actively engaging with both the world around us and our inner-world with openness, awareness, and non-judgmental presence. When we engage with whatever the present moment is bringing to us without judgment and without trying to change it, we can find peace in any situation and we can operate from a place of trusting that whatever happens, there is nothing we can't handle.
Watch Your Thinking
Making peace with your inner-critic means learning to separate yourself from your thoughts, mental images, and memories. This means that instead of getting caught up in your thoughts or even trying to determine if they're true, we step back and watch them go by like people walking down the street in front of our house or leaves floating down a stream.
When we do this, we are able to see our negative thoughts for what they really are: just words and pictures in our minds. This puts the power back in our hands.
Allowing means opening up and making room for all thoughts, feelings, sensations, and urges. The inner-critic's power comes from our judgment of parts of ourselves or our experience as bad, wrong, or unbearable. When we stop struggling against the painful or uncomfortable parts of life, running from them, resisting them, or trying to numb them, we can just let them be with openness and even curiosity.
This doesn't mean we enjoy them or desire them. It just means we accept them so that we can also accept peace into our lives.
Become the Observer
In our everyday experience, we tend to forget that our minds are actually made up of two distinct aspects: the thinking self and the observing self. The inner-critic is part of the thinking self: the part of us that is constantly generating thoughts, beliefs, memories, judgments, fantasies, plans, and so on. Think of it like a fire hose of words and images always flooding your brain with information (which may or may not be factual).
Th observing self, on the other hand, is the part of us that is purely aware of whatever we're thinking, feeling, sensing, or doing in any given moment. The observing self is the only part of us that stays constant throughout our lifetime.
Think about it: as you go through life, your body changes, your thoughts,behaviors, and feelings change, but the "you" that's able to observe these things has been there your whole life.
Making peace with your inner-critic requires switching your awareness from your thinking self to your observing self. In doing so, you recognize that your inner-critic is nothing more than words and images, not your true self -- who you really are at a deep, soul level.
Get Clear on Your Values
Your values are what you deem to be most important in life: the standards of behavior that you believe would be a reflection of living your life as a reflection of your highest, truest self.
Your values are what you want your life to be about, what you want to stand for, and how you want to ideally spend your time here on Earth.
When we sit down and get very clear on our values, we are able to change our behaviors so that they match up with the call of our soul. The words of the inner-critic become less important and less impactful because we are living our lives according to what gives us meaning and fulfillment, not what the voice of fear is demanding or dictating we "should" do.
Take Values-Based Action
It's only when we live a life that's in integrity with our values that we begin to find inner-peace and self-love on a full, rich level. When we take action based on our values, we are likely to experience a wide range of thoughts and feelings both pleasant and unpleasant, both pleasurable and painful. It may require us to do things that are uncomfortable or that our inner-critic tells us we can't or shouldn't do because we won't be successful or because we're not good enough or because we don't deserve it.
Taking values-based action means the inner-critic is allowed to say what it wants about our choices (and it will!), but we stand firm in taking action anyway because we love ourselves enough to gift ourselves with a life that is full of meaning and congruence with our life's purpose(s).
Our inner-critics can be demanding, shaming, hostile, and aggressive. They're there because our brains are designed to protect us and keep us safe from anything that might be painful. After all, for our ancestors, doing things that were difficult or outside their comfort zone had the potential to result in catastrophe. Our inner-critic doesn't want to see us hurt. It wants us to keep our walls up so that we can survive. It does so because it loves us in the only way it knows how -- by keeping us playing small in the game of life.
But connecting with your observing mind and your values allows you to live life in a different, more aligned place. Fear can have a voice, but your heart and your values will always be making the decisions.
And now I'd love to hear from you: what tools work for you in making peace with your inner-critic? What have you learned about life with your inner-critic that might help someone else? Feel free to comment below.
If you'd like to learn more about how to apply these tools with individual counseling, my teen group, or my women's group, please reach out and call or text at 973-769-2401 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org