Befriend Your Mind, Tame Your Inner Critic
If you could listen to the voice in my head during a typical workday, you might hear:
“Stay focused, you are distracted.
Don’t forget to update the coaching contract for Jon.
I am not going to get the proposal developed on time.
I forgot to pick up the vacationing neighbor’s mail.
Is the orthodontist appointment this week or next?
Oops – nothing in the house for dinner again!”
We spend much of our lives governed by the voice in our head. The nonstop, inner chatter is constantly running – the insatiable wanting, comparing, evaluating, reacting to our experiences, and the unending self-referential thinking. And it is often harsh.
Many of us admire self-criticism, believing it is necessary to grow and improve ourselves. The unwritten message in our culture is that being hard on yourself is the price you have to pay to get things done and meet the often impossible expectations, standards, and ideals we sometimes hold for ourselves.
But according to Dr. Kristin Neff, a leading researcher on self-compassion and associate professor in human development at the University of Texas at Austin, self-criticism only sabotages you and produces a variety of negative consequences. Her research suggests that self-criticism can lead to lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, “is really conducive to motivation,” Dr. Neff says. ”The reason you don’t let your children eat five big tubs of ice cream is because you care about them. With self-compassion, if you care about yourself, you do what’s healthy for you rather than what’s harmful to you.”
People may resist a self-compassionate approach, seeing it as “soft” or believing it leads us to avoid problems, stay unmotivated, or become passive about our own or others’ missteps.
”I found in my research that the biggest reason people aren’t more self-compassionate is that they are afraid they’ll become self-indulgent,” Dr. Neff says. ”They believe self-criticism is what keeps them in line.”
But research has shown the opposite to be true. A 2012 study at the UC Berkley found that self-compassion is more effective than self-criticism and more effective than a self-esteem boost, “not only in helping you cope with a setback, but also in encouraging you to move forward.”
According to Dr. Neff, self-compassion involves three components:
1. Mindfulness – being aware of, but not “overidentified” with, mental or emotional phenomena, which often means simply recognizing that you are in a difficult moment or hearing your harsh inner voice.
2. Common humanity – recognizing that suffering, setbacks, and failure are part of the shared human experience, versus the idea that “there’s something wrong with me.”
3. Self-kindness – meeting oneself with warmth and kindness, rather than harmful self-criticism or judgment.
If self-compassion feels counterintuitive, know that you can shift how you see and relate to the voice in your head. One example involves Jennifer, a media photographer in Washington, D.C., and a mindfulness coaching client of mine.
Like many of us, she had a hard time taming the admonishing commentary in her head, and she believed that it was necessary for her to excel — in fact, she attributed her success to it. Jennifer feared that if she changed how she talked to herself, she wouldn’t be able to juggle all the balls in the air and get her projects over the finish line.
I coached her to start paying attention to her internal negative comments, phrases like: “You should have” and “You are always,” and to hear herself with kind understanding, telling that voice: “I hear you; I know you are worried; thank you.”
This approach is known as “Befriending Your Mind.” By recasting your inner critic as an inner protector, you begin to talk to yourself with compassion rather than judgment or criticism. The results can do wonders for your outlook.
Recently, I taught the self-kindness phrase “It’s okay, sweetheart” to a group of 120 men and women from across Europe that had gathered in Paris. Since then, I have received emails from both genders telling me how much this one line has transformed how they talk to themselves, and how they are shifting their internal state to one of self-compassion.
Here are three keys to tame your inner critic:
1. Make friends with the voice in your head. Realize that the worrying, scolding voice is trying to help you, keep you out of trouble, and be sure you’re okay. Greet the voice with “Thank you. I know you are trying to help. I am okay. I’ve got this.”
2. Realize that you are not alone. It is part of our common experience to struggle or have hard times. Realizing that you are not the only one to fail, experience job loss, drop the ball, hurt others, or make mistakes helps you see that all of this is part of being human.
3. Deepen your self-awareness. Pay attention to the language you use to talk to yourself. Would you say that to a friend? Practice talking to yourself as a kind mentor or close friend would talk to you.
Here’s a wonderful new Podcast on this topic from Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
We all can be too harsh on ourselves, especially when we get stressed, drop the ball, fail, or disappoint or harm others. May you find greater kindness and compassion for yourself as you practice befriending that critical voice in your mind.