I don’t know about you, but I have a critic living inside my head.
On the outside, I’m not a big talker. But my critic, oh my critic—he loves to talk.
“You’re not good enough. Why would you do that; you stink,” he says. Okay, so the voice doesn’t actually say “stink,” but this is a family-friendly piece.
I hear from the critic unfailingly when I feel I’ve messed up. His voice is the voice of regret.
I’ll give you an example:
A couple of years ago, I missed my plane to Los Angeles. I had been sitting at the wrong gate—a gate with open seats—and didn’t hear them announce my name for a flight change. Rushing to the airline desk, I explained my misfortune to the attendant.
“No more flights today,” he snorted, looking mildly bored. I swallowed a mouthful of saliva. My trip would have to wait.
My inner critic pounced. “How could you be so stupid?” he asked. I tried to ignore his grating voice. “You really blew it, you idiot,” he persisted. I kept pushing his voice away, but it kept returning twice as strong.
The thing is, there’s always something for the critic—mine or yours—to latch onto. Maybe your critic likes to talk about legal issues, relationship woes, or health problems. And you might try to ignore his or her voice. But that never works.
Ignoring the voice doesn’t work because the voice is actually you; the voice is your mind—and you can’t ignore your own mind. And if you think you’ve ignored the voice, that’s just an empty, passing thought. It’s not the truth of the matter.
So if we can’t ignore our inner critic, what can we do about it?
Well, we can notice it. But consider the manner in which we might notice it. There isn’t much love there, right? We notice the voice, it annoys us, it keeps coming back, it annoys us some more, and so on.
Noticing the voice of the critic is obviously part of the picture, but it’s not the most crucial part. There’s another step after noticing. Ready for it?
We need to make the critic our friend.
That’s right, we should treat the critic like we would treat an old friend. And how would we treat an old friend? We wouldn’t get annoyed if they showed up and demand they leave. No, we would welcome them with a broad smile and ask them to stay a while. We’d probably let them stay as long as they liked.
You’re probably thinking that making friends with your inner critic sounds unrealistic, maybe even crazy. That’s because it’s counter to the usual advice that we should suppress and ignore negative thoughts. Or that we shouldn’t be having these thoughts at all—override them, throw them out.
If that works for you, cool. But it doesn’t work for me. And I suspect that most people, whether they know it or not, are in my camp. Negative thoughts and emotions are part of being human. That voice in our head is part of being human.
Even super-meditators like Joseph Goldstein, the founder of the Insight Meditation Society, can go for years without accepting negative voices. In his case, his voice was the voice of fear.
“All that time I was noting, ‘fear, fear, fear, fear,’ it was always with the energy of wanting it to go away,” said Goldstein. “And then something shifted all of the sudden, and the shift was expressed in the thought: if this fear is here for the rest of my life, it’s okay.”
The shift for Goldstein came when he accepted his inner voice in a permanent, sincere way. Even if he felt fear for the rest of his life, it was okay. That’s how you make friends with your critic.
Again, noticing what arises in consciousness is only part of meditation. The other, more important part, is relating to these mind states in a friendly way. If we notice a thought pattern with annoyance, it’s not going to foster peace or happiness. The mind can’t be peaceful when it’s annoyed.
Instead, try embracing each negative thought or emotion—each inner criticism—as an old friend. Greet it warmly, offer it a cup of coffee, prepare the guest bedroom. This won’t be a quick visit.
And here’s the best part: when we’re friendly to our mind, it’s friendly back to us. After all, that’s what friends do.
Goldstein, Joseph. “What Is Mindfulness.” Dharma Talk. Feb 6 2018.
Author: Brian Stanton
Image: Jared Eberhardt/Flickr
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Yoli Ramazzina