Dealing with the Inner Critic through Self-Compassion

Clare Bowditch – singer, storyteller and actor – recently released a biography titled, Your Own Kind of Girl.   In the book, which she had been attempting to write since she was 21, Clare discusses how she dealt with her inner critic which was all encompassing and destructive.  Clare writes that the book is “about the stories we tell ourselves, and what happens when we believe them”.  She lived in hope that someone would tell her that she was “more than” her grief, her failures and the negative stories about herself that she constantly carried in her head.  Clare explained that the title of the book is drawn from a song she wrote in 2008 and, to this day, she is immensely moved by the lyrics in the second verse, including the words, “You are fine, you’re more than enough”.  The book is about her painful journey to come to this realisation – a journey that is a common story for many people, particularly women.

The debilitating effects of the inner critic

In an earlier blog post, I spoke about the negative self-stories that we perpetuate, partly because our brain has a negative bias but also because of social pressures and the materialistic values that are propagated on an hourly basis through intrusive advertising and image making in videos and films.  Our self-stories can undermine our self-esteem, entrap us in a sense of helplessness and create a negative spiral leading to anxiety and depression.  These stories, often based on irrational fears, can become deeply ingrained and extremely difficult to shift.  They can blind us to creative options, block the realisation of our potential and harm our interpersonal relations.

Self-compassion to overcome the inner critic and negative self-stories

Tara Brach recently released a book titled Radical Compassion: Learning to Love Yourself and the World with the practice of R.A.I.N.  This meditation practice involves four basic steps – recognise, accept, investigate and nurture.  Tara provides a brief example of this process in a 9-minute, guided meditation, Reflection: Healing Self-Blame.   Below are some of the key points in this meditation that is based on the R.A.I.N. approach:

  • The starting point is to recognise some aspect of your life where your inner critic is active.  It does not have to be a major example of self-denigration – it could be some relatively minor self-critique, e.g. focusing on your failure sometimes to really listen to someone or diverting a conversation to establish your credentials.   The important thing is to have a focus for this meditation.  More complete self-awareness can grow out of recognising even a small aspect of the inner critic in our life – this can puncture a hole in the wall of self-protection that blocks our self-realisation. 
  • As we progress in the meditation, we come to a point of self-acceptance. This involves acknowledging what we say and do but also accepting that we have an innate goodness and that we are not defined by our thoughts – that we are “more than” our negative self-evaluation.  In Clare’s words, “You are fine, you’re more than enough”.
  • Our investigation of the impacts of our inner critic extends to recognising bodily sensations as well as feelings that flow from the inroads that negative self-stories make on our sense of self-worth.  We can experience tension in our muscles, pain (e.g. in our arms, neck and back), headaches or a nervous twitch when our inner critic is running rampant in our thoughts.  A body scan and progressive tension release can help here.  The key thing is to experience the impact of our negative self-story in a holistic way – this builds awareness and increases our understanding of the negative impacts of our inner critic.
  • Lastly, we reach the stage of self-nurturing in the meditation process.  This can be expressed physically by placing your hand on your heart or mentally through naming the self-criticism and countering with expression of self-forgiveness, acknowledgement of your positive contributions and achievements and gratitude for all that you have in life – opening yourself to what is good in you and what is wonderful in the world around you.

Reflection

Our inner critic is deeply entrenched and can be very damaging to our self personally, and to our relations, both at work and at home.  As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and especially the R.A.I.N. meditation, we can become more aware of our inner critic (negative self-stories), understand its impacts physically and mentally and develop strategies to counter its inroads into our sense of self-worth.  As both Clare and Tara point out, dealing with the inner critic can create a new sense of freedom and realisation of our true potential.

____________________________________________

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

How to Overcome Negative Self-Talk through Kindness to Yourself

Leo Babauta, creator of Zen Habits, recently wrote a comprehensive blog post on the importance of self-kindness to achieve your potential.  In his post, How to Be Kind to Yourself & Still Get Stuff Done, emphasised the disabling effects of negative self-talk, the potentiality in releasing yourself from a focus on your deficiencies, defects and mistakes and the power of self-kindness to achieve this release.  Leo is a leading expert on the formation and maintenance of healthy and productive habits, the author of Zen Habits: Handbook for Life and the developer of the Fearless Training Program.

How negative self-talk disables you

Your brain has an inherent negative bias, so it is so easy to constantly focus on what you have not done well, your defects and deficiencies and your mistakes.  This negative self-talk can lead to depression (regret over the past) and anxiety (about possible future mistakes).  It also engenders fear of failure and prevents you from achieving what you can achieve.  It serves as an anchor holding you in place and preventing you from moving forward.  Negative self-stories, if entertained, can lead to a disabling spiral.

You might find yourself saying things like:

  • Why did I do that?
  • What a stupid thing to do!
  • When will I ever learn?
  • Why can’t I be like other people, efficient and competent?
  • If only I could think before I leap!
  • Why do I make so many mistakes? – no one else does!
  • If only I was more careful, more useful, more thoughtful or more attentive!

…and so, your self-talk can go on and on, disabling yourself in the process.

Overcoming negative self-talk through self-kindness

Leo suggests that being kind to yourself is a way to negate the disabling effects of negative self-talk that focuses on your blemishes, mistakes or incompetence.  He proposes several ways to practise self-kindness: 

  • Give yourself compassion – instead of beating up on yourself when you get things wrong, have some compassion, positive feelings toward yourself whereby you wish yourself success, peace and contentment.
  • Focus on your good intentions – you may have stuffed up by being impatient in the moment, by a rash or harmful statement or by making a poor decision, but you can still recognise in yourself your good intentions, the effort you put in and the learning that resulted. 
  • Be grateful for what you have – rather than focus on your defects or deficiencies. Gratitude is the door to equanimity and peace.  You can focus on the very things you take for granted – being able to walk or run, gather information and make decisions, listen and understand, breathe and experience the world through your senses, be alive and capable, form friendships and positive relationships.  You can heighten your experience of the world by paying attention to each of your senses such as smelling the flowers, noticing the birds, hearing sounds, touching the texture of leaves, tasting something pleasant in a mindful way.

I found that when I was playing competitive tennis, that what worked for me was to ignore my mistakes and visually capture shots that I played particularly well – ones that achieved what I set out to achieve.  I now have a videotape stored in my mind that I can play back to myself highlighting my best forehands, backhands, smashes and volleys.  You can do this for any small achievement or accomplishment.  The secret here is that this self-affirmation builds self-efficacy – your belief in your capacity to do a specific task to a high level. 

These strategies and ways to be kind to yourself are enabling, rather than disabling.  They provide you with the confidence to move forward and realise your potential.  They stop you from holding yourself back and procrastinating out of fear that you will make a mistake, make a mess of things or stuff up completely.

Ways to achieve what you set out to accomplish

Leo maintains that being kind to yourself enables you to achieve creative things for yourself and the good of others.  He proposes several ways to build on the potentiality of kindness to yourself:

  • Do positive things:  these are what is good for yourself and enable you to be good towards others.  They can include things like yoga, meditation, mindful walking, taking time to reflect, Tai Chi, spending time in nature, savouring the development of your children, eating well and mindfully.
  • Avoid negative things – stop doing things that harm yourself or others.  Acknowledge the things that you do that are harming yourself or others. Recognise the negative effects of these harmful words and actions – be conscious of their effects on your body, your mind, your relationships and your contentment.  Resolve to avoid these words and actions out of self-love and love for others.
  • Go beyond yourself – extend your loving kindness to others through meditation and compassionate action designed to address their needs whether that is a need for support, comfort or to redress a wrong they have suffered.  Here Leo asks the penetrating question, “Can you see their concerns, feel their pain and struggle, and become bigger than your self-concern and serve them as well?”  He argues that going beyond yourself is incredibly powerful because it creates meaning for yourself, stimulates your drive to turn intention into action and brings its own rewards in the form of happiness and contentment – extending kindness to others is being kind to yourself.

Reflection

There are so many ways that we can be kind to our self and build our capacity and confidence to do things for our self as well as others.  As we grow in mindfulness, we can become more aware of the negative self-stories that hold us back, be more open and able to be kind to our self, be grateful for all that we have and find creative ways to help others in need.  We can overcome fear and procrastination by actively building on the potential of self-kindness.  As Leo suggests, self-kindness enables us to get stuff done that we ought to do for our self and others.

____________________________________________

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Develop Equanimity to Overcome Reactivity

Much of the time we are reactive because of our ingrained habituated responses.  These develop over time and can vary with different stimuli – a confronting email, a perception of criticism by a partner or colleague, thoughtlessness by another person or traffic delays.  Our responses may be precipitated by negative thoughts that generate emotions such as fear, anxiety, frustration or anger.  We then act out these emotions in a reactive way – not stopping to maintain our balance or evaluate the best possible response. As we have mentioned earlier, there is a gap between stimulus and response and within that gap are choices and associated freedom.  Developing equanimity helps us to better utilise the gap between stimulus and response and widens our potential response options – as it frees us from being captive to our habituated responses.

Equanimity is being able to maintain a state of calmness, balance or even-mindedness in the face of a situation that we find challenging – physically, mentally or emotionally.  It builds our capacity to overcome reactivity and enables us to accept what is, without reacting impulsively.  Diana Winston makes the point that equanimity is not passivity – acceptance of what is, does not mean avoiding taking action to redress injustice, insulting behaviour or meanness.  What equanimity does mean is acknowledging what is and the inherent challenge (e.g. illness, mental illness of a family member, or loss of a job), not railing against all and sundry for our “misfortune”, but actively pursuing redress – including building our capacity to remain calm in the face of life challenges.  Equanimity enables responsiveness that is positive and productive.

A meditation to develop equanimity

Meditation, by its very nature, helps to calm us and, in the process, develop equanimity.  Diana Winston, however, provides a specific “equanimity meditation” designed to build our capacity to retain our balance and to remain even minded when confronted with a life challenge.  She provides this meditation as part of the weekly guided meditation podcasts provided by the Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), UCLA. Her guided meditation podcast, Equanimity and Non Reactivity, contains several steps:

  1. Grounding yourself in your chair by adopting a comfortable, upright posture; closing your eyes or looking down; and focusing your intention on the present – not thinking about the past or worrying about what is coming up.  Being present-in-the-moment is a calming activity that can build equanimity.
  2. Complete body scan – starting with your feet on the floor (feeling the firmness and envisaging the stable ground below); moving progressively through your body, while noticing and releasing any points of tensions (such as in your neck, shoulders, stomach, legs or hands).  You can begin to notice the sensations as you progress with your body scan – feeling the tingling in your fingers or the softness/looseness in your legs as you let go and allow the tension to drain away.  During the meditation, it pays to be conscious of a tendency to let your shoulders droop. [Note: this part of the meditation resonates with the first part of the Yoga Nigra Meditation focused on the physical body]
  3. Focus on your breathing – you focus on wherever in your body you can feel the sensation of your breathing, the in and out movement of your stomach or the air passing through your nose.  The process involves noticing, not controlling your breathing.  You can also rest in the gap between your in-breath and your out-breath.  You can extend the observation of your breathing to other parts of your body such as breathing through your mouth.
  4. Noticing sounds – now switch your attention to the sounds within and outside your room.  Again, the process involves noticing not interpreting or judging the sounds (whether they are pleasant or grating, for example).
  5. Anchoring yourself – you can choose to focus just on your breath or the sounds or adopt a position of natural awareness where you are open to the sense of being aware. Whatever you choose becomes your anchor that you can return to when your mind wanders.  It is natural to have passing thoughts and emotions – the important thing is not to entertain them or indulge them but to acknowledge them, for example, by saying to yourself, “I’m wandering again”.  Once you notice and acknowledge your diverting thoughts and/or emotions, you can return to your chosen anchor.
  6. Equanimity meditation – this involves two main parts that focus directly on developing calm, no matter what your stimulus is.  The first involves capturing a time when you were able to remain calm and balanced when confronted with a challenge – it is important to visualise the event and recapture the memory in all its richness including the stimulus, your initial thoughts/emotions, how you brought yourself under control and your calm response replacing what normally would have been a reactive response.  The second part involves envisaging a challenging situation you have to deal with; identifying what is your “normal” response; and picturing yourself tapping into your boundless internal equanimity, energy and awareness to adopt a response that is both creative and positive.

Diana maintains that this process of equanimity meditation builds your capacity to manage difficult challenges rather than revert to reactivity – that involves adopting habituated responses that are potentially injurious to yourself and others. On a personal note, I like listening to the calmness of Diana’s voice and hearing her highly developed insights as she leads me through a guided meditation process on the weekly podcasts.

As we grow in mindfulness, through meditations such as the equanimity meditation, we can realise a new level of personal resilience through the development of calmness, balance and even-mindedness.  We will experience less reactivity in challenging situations and be open to more positive and helpful responses.

____________________________________________

Image – Heron on branch in Wynnum Creek, Brisbane

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Awareness and Happiness

Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield, when talking about the power of awareness, identified happiness as a very significant outcome of awareness training.  They explain this outcome in terms of three elements of awareness:

  1. being present
  2. overcoming negative bias
  3. appreciation and gratitude

Being present

If we live in the present, we are not encumbered by anxiety and fear about the future or disappointment and depression about the past.  “Now” is the focus and source of our wellbeing.  Both Jack and Tara point out the Dalai Lama as a prime example of happiness and joy (despite suffering as a result of the loss of culture, freedom and religion by his beloved country of Tibet).

After publishing his book on happiness, the Dalai Lama was asked what was the happiest moment of his life, and he replied after considering the question, “I think now”.  There is a stillness and calm and associated happiness with being able to be “in-the-now”.

Overcoming negative bias

Neuroscience has established that part of our genetic make-up is a negativity bias – we tend to see the negative in a situation and perceive threats even when there are none.   In the past, this has served the human species well and helped our species to survive.   Nowadays, it works against our happiness because we can easily overlook the positive and be blinded by a focus on what is wrong or not working out as we had planned.

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are more readily able to focus on the positive in our lives and overcome our negative conditioning.   We are also better able to evaluate potential stressors and see them for what they are.   This opens us up to enjoying our life more and experiencing happiness more regularly.

Appreciation and gratitude

Awareness opens our minds and hearts and enables us to appreciate the good in our lives and express gratitude for what we have in terms of fitness and health, relationships, our lifestyle and our environment.  We become increasingly conscious of what surrounds us and become more open to joy and happiness.

Appreciation and gratitude serve as barriers to envy and resentment which can so readily diminish our happiness and destroy joy in our lives.

Jack Kornfield explains how mindfulness practices and awareness training increase the capacity for happiness in our lives:

These practices and trainings are really an invitation to allow not only well-being, but the innate happiness that appreciates the sunset and the reflected colors in the windows as the sun goes down, or in the puddles there on the street and the splashes and the smiles of the children as they stomp in the water and the mystery of life.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of AbelEscobar on Pixabay