You know that grating critical voice inside that points out all your mistakes. Calls you stupid? It’s the first to tell you that ” you’ll never succeed.” It sounds like someone you’d like to get rid of, right?
It turns out that the Inner Critic’s “perspective” arises from our nervous system simply trying to protect us. Only it’s not very helpful when our confidence suffers for listening to a litany of criticism. We mistake these thoughts for ourselves. Then we get on the Inner Critic’s thought train and ride all the way to Miseryville. For some, the Inner Critic creates paralyzing anxiety.
What causes this?
In the course of everyday life, challenges and stress accumulate. If we’ve had sudden losses, a medical or dental procedure that leaves us shaken, painful experiences in childhood, our nervous system becomes more vigilant. We have difficulty easing down from this heightened activity level of the nervous system.
Our bodies stand ready to take emergency action. The mind follows suit telling us that something is wrong. Enter the Inner Critic, warning us to play it safe. Cajoling us to stop what we’re doing to prevent further loss or pain.
But this voice of caution is driven by old and incomplete information from the past, and fear about the future.
When I was a kid, Mr. Magoo, a cartoon character who was so near sighted that he’d walk off cliffs, step in front of cars, and yet he escaped harm’s way by sheer good luck. He portrayed the Inner Critic’s worst nightmare: to trust that the world is a safe place and to step into the unknown!
If we asked the Inner Critic, we’d probably learn that reducing our anxiety would be foolish!
How to make peace with critical thoughts? And the Inner Critic.
We can go directly to the source that underlies the Inner Critics vigilance – the body and nervous system where stress is stored. We can use the mind to consult the body by simple observation and curiosity about body sensations. These fears, stored in the body, are more readily released by observing the body’s language: sensation.
Here’s an example from my own life. Dental procedures often unhinge me. It’s not painful, just scary. At the last visit to the dentist I tried something different. Rather than trying to be strong, I asked the assistant to hold my hand, even though it felt a little ridiculous (enter the Inner Critic telling me “how childish!”).
As I felt the stress rising in my body, I took little breaks from the drilling when it got too overwhelming. And when it was all done, I sat in the chair and surrendered to my body’s need to shake. I did this by turning my attention to my body and away from thought. I noticed the tension holding my body rigid. I waited and watched, looking inward to body sensation. Soon a little quiver started in my upper back and that gradually moved to shaking in my right arm. After a while it gently subsided.
It was the first time in years that I walked away from the dentist feeling pretty good. Wild animals do this instinctively to shake off stress, and thrive though they face life and death risks regularly.
What else can we do?
We can use our eyes! When we let our eyes look around to see what gives them pleasure, it’s like a circuit breaker cutting off juice to the Inner Critic. When I work with clients’ recovering from accumulated stress and trauma, they can find this simple activity challenging. We get used to scanning or looking rather than Seeing. Seeing brings us in contact with the here and now. Scanning for what’s wrong only feeds You Know Who.
What do your eyes see right now that gives them pleasure?
I remember reclining in the dentist’s chair, looking at the same old things in the sterile office until I remembered this simple tool. So I really looked and freed my eyes to See. I found soothing blue colors in the undersea poster on the ceiling. Beholding the colors and patterns, I felt a distinct shift toward relaxation. I didn’t think it would work and was surprised!
Try it right now yourself. Just look around notice how your eyes might first scan quickly. Then they start looking. And then you might notice a slight shift inside as your eyes start to drink in the room or the view.
Feeding the Three Hungry Wolves
Imagine we have three “wolves” inside of us. When we feed them:
- the wolf of fear, the mind ricochets with d anger and worry.
- feed the wolf of happiness, we are energized and busy.
- feed the wolf of well-being, we live in a place of ease, ready for what life offers.
We need all three wolves. When we need to flee or fight, we want that wolf to be well fed and ready to defend. We also need to be able to connect with others and enjoy our lives. And when we have a belly full of well-being, we help the other two wolves stay healthy and engaged and enlarge our capacity to be in the here and now.
If accumulated stress has rewired your circuitry, feeding the wolf of fear, your circuit breaker may need a little more capacity. For our nervous systems, the circuit breaker is the mind’s ability to observe.
When the wolf of fear uses all our bandwidth, the Inner Critic takes over our thinking. Here’s what you can do to move toward well-being:
- Start noticing which wolf is in charge!
- Then gently shift your focus to what your eyes see. Name a few things that you notice.
- Notice what your eyes enjoy seeing.
- When your attention lands on something pleasing, describe it to yourself, as if you were telling someone who was fascinated by your perceptions.
- Feel the shift that begins like a whisper in your body toward either neutrality or perhaps even settling.
- Notice how your body breathes out for a few cycles.
These few simple steps can decrease fear thoughts saturating the mind with stress chemicals. The more often you play with these simple steps, like training a beloved pet, your body enhances its capacity for well-being by practicing it.
You may have a thermostat at home and on the cold days you can turn the thermostat up to make your home more cozy. In the same way, you can turn up your well-being thermostat by dialing in these simple steps.
And best of all, the only side effect is more relaxation and less fear.