A man staggers out of the shop holding more than his arms can cope with. He moves towards his car and stumbles; a cascade of vegetable tumbles on to the ground and rolls away. ‘You stupid idiot’, he mutters to himself.
A mother carries her screaming child out of the coffee shop. 10 minutes later she’s back looking flustered, looking for her phone. ‘Typical of me; always losing stuff.’
When that critical voice gets hold, it can be hard to shake it off. You don’t need a partner, boss, friend to be giving you a hard time about what you’re getting wrong. You have plenty to say about that to yourself already.
The inner critic
What is it about that inner critic? Almost everyone has some kind of inner dialogue that gives them a hard time for their weaknesses and failings.
It’s a voice that has its origins early on in life. It develops as a response to not being accepted or valued for who you are. The voice starts abit like an inner censor, telling you off when you’re about to do something that will meet with disapproval or rejection. It tries to head you off at the pass.
Sometimes that’s helpful. It gives you a way of knowing what behaviours are acceptable or unacceptable to others. As a child, there is nothing you crave more than loving attention. Keeping to a parent’s rules, their explicit assumptions or expectations can help that. (I’m not saying this is right, but it is common that however unconditionally parents may think they love their children, often there are all sorts of conditions attached to that love.)
When you did everything you could to abide by these rules and that loving wasn’t forthcoming, you may have started acting differently to get that attention. A child rapidly draws a conclusion that some attention, even negative attention, is better than no attention.
But that’s a story for another time. Today we’re thinking more of that stage before, where conforming gets you enough of what you need. The inner critic does all the work for the parent / caregiver without them having to say or do a thing, in most circumstances.
The trouble with the inner critic, is that it stays on well into adult life, telling you when you’re getting it wrong, whether you are or not. That constant niggling voice can become quite restrictive and takes away from your freedom to be yourself in some of your actions and decisions in life.
How to tame the critic
Counselling can help you manage your inner critic by supporting you to become more aware of when it starts to be vocal. With that, you can find ways to turn it down or even tune it out.
One of the most powerful ways of supporting yourself, when your inner critic volume is turned up, is to bring an attention of loving kindness to yourself.
Loving kindness is that focus of compassionate energy on your experience, whatever it is. As a child, when you didn’t get loving kindness from a parent or carer, you began to develop the inner critic as a way of pre-empting that feeling, that you must be not loveable in some way. It’s the only way a child can make sense of not getting what it needs. When you are a child, you’ll generally think the reason must be you, not your parent or caregiver who’s at fault.
That external critical voice is made internal. Loving kindness is about embracing that critical voice as just another voice in yourself, to observe it with loving attention and to wonder what it might need, to feel safe, wanted, accepted.
Loving kindness is also about embracing that young, more vulnerable self who is attacked by the critic and reassuring it that all will be well, that it is loved and needed.
This week’s lifeline
Here is an exercise you can do to cultivate loving kindness to yourself. It’s adapted from the Buddhist Metta Bhavana practice.
Stand in a quiet private place where you won’t be interrupted. This works well outdoors but can be done inside too.
Turn your attention to your breath, and establish a focus on the movement in and out of each breath.
After a few minutes, bring your attention inwards to a deeper and still place within.
Imagine a golden thread emerging from your centre, through the top of your head reaching high up into the sky, beyond the clouds, through the earth’s atmosphere and connecting with the universe above, the thread spreading out in to a multitude of thinner threads spidering out in to the great beyond.
Then imagine another thread descending from your centre down into the ground, deep through the soil and rock, through the Earth’s crust till it touches the Earth’s core.
Stay with this feeling of connection for a few moments and say to yourself, I am at one with the world and the universe.
After a few more moments, say to yourself:
May I be kind to myself
May I accept things as they are
May I be happy
May I be well
May I be at peace
Repeat this 3 or 4 times before returning to your breath and then gently bring yourself back into awareness of the external world.
You may want to write about your experience afterwards to ground it.
Always critcising yourself?
If you’re you own harshest critic and it feels like that’s standing in your way in life, I offer counselling and psychotherapy in Totnes, Paignton and Newton Abbott to help you change your relationship to your inner critic and to find a kinder place from which to act. Counselling and psychotherapy can help you build your self-confidence and self-esteem, so you feel freer and more at peace with yourself.
Like what you read?
Sign up below for regular updates and get my free eBook: Wellbeing in Nature Toolkit. An ecotherapy guide to relieving stress, anxiety and depression.