by Brandon Nappi
We are all familiar with the voice that arises periodically and without warning. The voice is persistent and usually booms following monotone themes:
I am not good enough. I will never be better. There’s something wrong with me. No one understands. I need to change for people to like me. People will reject me if I let them in. I am too much for others. I am not meant to be truly happy.
These themes expressed with unapologetic harshness can become an incessant soundtrack to our lives. Remarkably, we speak to ourselves with words and indictments we would never use with others. We reserve the harshest of tones for ourselves.
The following are five practices that can help ease the intensity of the inner critic and provide a way to respond when these unforgiving messages do not subside.
Begin by observing each time you become aware of a harsh inner commentary. Observing is an incredibly powerful act. The act of mindfully observing changes the experience of the thing we observe. By observing, you may notice a stunning fact: there are two of you in there. There’s the voice you hear in your head and there’s the hearer of the voice. Which one is the real you, you may ask? Remember you are not your thoughts.
The observer is not the commentary. Try to observe as non-judgmentally as possible. Notice the inner critic’s statements. Why do they seem so authoritative? Observe as if you were peering into a stranger’s inner world and overhearing the inner monologue. The very act of noticing itself is healing, and reminds us that we don’t need to believe everything we think.
The breath can support us in the midst of observing. The breath is a familiar friend that can calm the body and the mind. By aligning our attention to the breath we naturally ground ourselves in the present moment, and that’s always the safest place to be. This present-moment awareness is called mindfulness.
So often the inner critic and its harsh judgments launch us into a storyline about the past or the future. Like a tripod steadies a camera so we can take a clear picture, resting our attention in the breath grounds us in the present moment and enables our own stability.
When the inner critic roars, gently feel the breath supporting your life right now and reminding you that in the moment, everything is OK.
Remember that it’s not all bad. This voice has probably fueled you to do many positive and beneficial things in the world. The voice has convinced you to not settle for mediocrity, convinced you that you could be better, and urged you to pursue a goal. Offer sincere gratitude to the inner critic for all the good that it inspired (even if it did so with great harshness). The ability to recognize beauty amid the brokenness can be incredibly freeing.
Here’s a little secret: the inner critic longs for love and acceptance. It does not need to become your enemy. Waging war with the inner critic only confirms its tormenting logic that something’s wrong with you. There’s no use in arguing with the inner critic—you will always lose. While the inner critic baits you into argument, what it really needs is acceptance. Whenever I sense persistent harsh messages arising, I smile and send compassion and love to the inner critic who just can’t seem to help himself.
First, the bad news: For those of us who have a particularly bold inner critic, the voice probably will not go away. The good news is that by repeating these simple mindfulness practices, we can be happy, grounded and at peace even with the chattering critic in our heads. Courage is not the absence of this harsh inner voice but the willingness to proceed amid its protests. With some practice, we warmly invite the inner critic to join us on the road trip of life. The difference now is that the inner voice is riding comfortably in the back seat rather than driving the car.