by Theresa Nygren
For the first two decades in my life, my inner critic ruled. She commanded center stage with a vengeance! Her ranting and raving were a composite of generations of fear and negativity that had been passed down to her. Little did I realize that I had a choice if I listened to her or not.
After graduating college with a bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Relations, I thought it was high time to escort this critic off her mountaintop perch. I entered my own therapy and uncovered a plethora of beliefs and behaviors that I had incorporated into my life which were really not about me!
Fast forward to having been in the field of social work for almost 40 years and I can honestly say that the learning about how to be kind to myself is an ongoing journey. What has helped immensely is my mindful self-compassion practice which is based on a program created by Kristin Neff, a researcher and an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, along with Chris Germer, a clinical psychologist in Boston and a founding member of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy.
Both my colleague, Angela Mazur, and I went through the training program to become mindful self-compassion teachers. This program works! It offers both informal and formal mindful self-compassion practice meditations. What I love about the program is that you don’t have to sit 30 minutes a day on your cushion to benefit by this practice. Bringing MSC on board whenever it is needed throughout the day can change the quality of your mind and your life.
We are all wired for survival. As advanced as the world is with technology, our reptilian brains can hijack us in a moment’s notice. Now, however, unlike during the caveman era, it is our self-concept that is under threat. You probably know that voice all too well. It may say something like this, “I can’t believe how stupid you were just now” or “when will you get it” or maybe, “you have really let yourself go, look at Mary or Joe, they sure look good.” Sound familiar? Without realizing it, this voice may claim the backdrop of what buzzes in your ears all day long!
How do we counteract this oldest part of the brain that believes it is being helpful? First and foremost, we need to become mindful of the inner critic. When we can notice this part is present, we have a chance to let go of this voice and draw in a more life giving voice of mindful self-compassion.
The informal practice called “the self compassion break” is a great place to start:
- The first step is to notice that this is a moment of suffering (mindfulness).
- Second is to realize that we are not alone in our challenges. We all struggle at times (common humanity).
- Lastly, we replace the inner critic with a soft, gentle voice of compassion and kindness to help tend to whatever is occurring in the present moment (kindness/compassion).
This practice could happen while stopped at a red light. It doesn’t take much time to experience the benefit. On a physiological level, we are replacing the “fight or flight” mode of the reptilian brain into “tend and befriend.” This practice quiets the reptilian brain and allows the prefrontal cortex — the highest functioning part of the brain — to remain active and engaged.
Imagine waking up and instead of that pesky inner critic, you now have cultivated a kinder, compassionate inner presence? Wouldn’t that make life so much easier? I know it has for me. Yes, life still happens with the misunderstandings, the feelings of loss around life changes, the unexpected events. However, my kinder, more compassionate self has gotten much stronger and she can now be the one that takes center stage, that reminds me life can be hard, that I am not alone and that I need to keep bringing gentle attention to the distress I feel inside. Just like the crashing wave on the shore, the distress does pass and I am not left with the feeling of being beaten to a pulp. Mindful self-compassion works and I will continue to work it until my last breath.
May you discover the benefits of this practice and help dissolve the cruel voice of your inner critic. It is life changing and well worth the effort!