Do you have a strong inner critic? I have seen countless therapy clients over the years absolutely plagued and even paralyzed by that critical inner voice running commentary and ruminating on every negative that can be found -- limitations, poor choices, shortcomings... the list goes on and repeats unceasingly. A very vocal internal bully is the unintended result, if this automatic thinking goes unchecked.
The unfocused Monkey Mind can develop some amazingly bad habits, with real-world consequences on mood, motivation, choices, relationships and outcomes. I want to call this out for what it is -- a mind that has, in it's desire and effort to protect, grown only more and more hypervigilant and perseverative to the point of wreaking havoc on focus, patience, sleep and relationships. Maybe this default mode is the internalization of a critical parent or other influential figure from the past, or maybe it's a message that's been reinforced by a critical partner or boss. In any case, we can call this tendency PROGRAMMING and the good news is, we can REPROGRAM our minds and the nature of our automatic thoughts by simply gaining the ability to re-direct our focus.
However, to say something is "simple" is not to say it is "easy".
Humor me for a moment so I can make a point. Please take a seat if you're not already seated, and sit up in your chair -- straight but not stiff. Roll your shoulders a few times, squeezing up to your ears, then rolling down toward the back. Imagine an invisible string connects the crown of your head to the ceiling. Notice whatever you notice in your body. Are the sensations pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Now take a deep breath, allowing your lower belly to expand on the inhale and contract on the exhale. Actually SQUEEZE your abdominal muscles on the exhale to lengthen it and expel all of the air from your lungs. Repeat for 3 more breaths, being sure to extend the exhale so that it is longer than the inhale. You can even count 4 with the in-breath and 8 with the out-breath if you like. Tune into your body. Do you feel relaxed? Do you feel more present? Now feel your feet on the floor. Are you wearing shoes? Are your feet warm or cool? Wiggle your toes, what do you notice?
OK, I just took you through a conscious act -- a mindfulness practice. I asked you to do something with your body and your attention, and somewhere in your mind you decided you would play along with me. For a few seconds you focused your full attention on my words on the screen, the position of your body and the resulting sensations. As you did all of those things, you were momentarily unaware of anything else. That is because our minds can only focus on one thing at a time.
We can use this Truth to our advantage. When the inner critic comes up (or any other negative, unhelpful thought for that matter), we can learn to pivot and REDIRECT our attention to something else -- something positive, helpful or simply based in TRUTH.
Now, the mind develops habits just like the body does, so it is likely that just as a rubber band would snap back to it's original shape, so too the mind will automatically snap back to default mode. Many of us have developed a negative (doubtful, worried, scared) default mode. It's OK, just notice and start practicing how to redirect your focus, again and again.
Simple, but not easy. Be patient with yourself. Stay with it.
Here is an example from my own life: I meet with a group of therapists on a monthly basis to consult on challenging cases, share resources and network. In a recent exchange, I offered another therapist some advice on how I would approach a situation; adding my voice to a few others'. Immediately my inner critic chimes in with "That's not as good as so-and-so's advice", and "That's so obvious... so pedestrian".
A brief waive of imposter syndrome swept over me as those two comments repeated several times. Once I recognized what was happening, I became actively engaged in shifting my attention. I redirected my focus to the fact that I spoke up at all, which is hard for me in a group. I focused on the fact that my goal this year is to "put myself out there" more in my professional life and I did that, I took the risk. I focused on the fact that the whole point of being part of this group is to HELP & SUPPORT ONE ANOTHER -- and I was making my contribution. Additionally, I have to recognize that most likely, nobody was judging me but ME!
Later, my colleague thanked me for my comments; they were validating and a good reminder. Taking that risk and allowing myself to speak up even though I felt vulnerable meant that I had to momentarily set my insecurities aside and focus on the goal -- participating instead of hiding. Our RESULTS come from our ACTIONS; sometimes we simply need to get the hell out of our heads and ACT, because if we wait for a different feeling or the "right" conditions to start, we never will. Learning to pivot away from our inner critic (and other negative thoughts) is a vital Life Skill that can be extremely useful in our quest to progress and grow.
Here's a three-step process to follow when you notice the inner critic
1) Recognize the inner critic's voice Call it out; remember, it's not OUR voice, and what it says is based in FEAR, not FACT. Can you acknowledge the inner critic's positive intention of self preservation? The inner critic is trying to protect and save us by convincing us to stay small; the message is, "DON'T speak up! Don't change ANYTHING because change is scary!" Our anxious minds will try to convince us that status quo is the safest and therefore the best choice -- even when status quo is stifling or killing us emotionally, mentally, physically, etc...
2) Reply to the inner critic The inner critic tries to motivate us toward perfection by over focusing on our imperfections. The hidden agenda here is, again: play small and don't change, since change evokes fear and a sense of loss of control. INACTION is the response the inner critic is going for. The message is, "Don't take that risk until you're perfect and you are guaranteed success." Of course we know the Truth: that nothing in life is guaranteed and making mistakes is how we learn and improve.
"Thanks but no thanks, inner critic! I'll find other ways to protect and care for myself WHILE making progress toward my goals."
3) Identify 5 Truths that contradict what the inner critic is saying. Instead of blindly going with the negative messages the inner critic is spouting off, look for FACTS and EVIDENCE to argue against them. This is an incredibly powerful practice and begins to break the spell that the inner critic has cast. "I spoke up instead of going invisible -- that's what matters... I put myself out there and I didn't die of embarrassment... I'm in a group of helping professionals who are here for mutual support... That thought is a common thought distortion called MINDREADING, so by nature it is distorted and irrational to begin with..."
That's what we are all up against when it comes to responding to the inner critic: One Fear-Based thought requires FIVE Reality-Based thoughts to neutralize it. It's a bad set up from the beginning!
Evolutionary psychologists argue that the anxious tendencies of our minds are a product of natural selection over the millennia; that the more cautious, conscientious and planful of our ancestors were the ones who survived and whose genes were passed down through the generations. Makes sense to me. Fast forward to 21st century life, with the constant over-stimulation of technology, our crammed schedules and the 24-hour news cycle, along with the overwhelming lack of support and resources experienced by so many of us, and it's no wonder our natural tendencies are put into overdrive and we wind up chronically stressed and anxious.
When it comes to wrangling the inner critic, we need lots of tools in our toolbox. We need to become wise and stealthy. That's going to take a lot of practice! A lifetime of practice, to be exact. Just remember that there are no finish lines here; take it easy on yourself and start your practice now. Begin to notice the thoughts, recognize the positive intention (however twisted and counterproductive the message may be), and begin to replace those thoughts with the Truth. Remember our 5-to-1 ratio.
With practice and over time, this process will require less effort and your recovery time will shorten. Eventually, you will internalize the process and it will become automatic. Then, you'll be silencing your inner critic without even trying. :)