We all have self-doubt but if your inner critic is holding you back, Sarah Presley explains how to make friends with it…
You won’t have anything interesting to say to anyone. Everyone is going to think you are stupid.’ I am about to walk on stage to sing with my band. Just moments before, I was really looking forward to this gig, but now my feet are hesitant to move and it feels like my heart has plunged into my stomach.
I decide not to listen and begin to walk towards the stage again, but I can hear the voice, louder this time. ‘You are about to make a fool out of yourself.’ I want to turn around and tell the voice to shut up but the voice is in me. It’s the voice of my inner critic.
Singing with my band always gave me immense joy but I simply didn’t feel comfortable speaking to the audience in between the songs. On the outside, you probably wouldn’t have guessed this about me. I appear to be confident and outgoing, and so out of fear of appearing weak or silly, I never told anyone about my nerves. I hoped the feeling would go away, but it didn’t.
Over time, my inner voice convinced me I was not interesting, fun or smart enough for the audiences we played to. At the end of a song, I would be willing myself to say something meaningful, but my mind would go blank and instead I would say something inane, such as: “Hands up if you like the colour pink!” In desperation, I would attempt to write scripts for myself that were witty and entertaining but the inner critic would speak up and doubt would creep in. I would become paralysed with fear; all this just served to prove my inner critic was right.
The perfectionist trap
Most of us have experienced a self-critical and self-doubting inner dialogue at some time in our life. It can rise out of nowhere and speak of your most clandestine anxieties and frustrations, and its voice can be judgemental, disapproving and critical.
Your inner critic can be a perfectionist that wants you to be the best in your job and will say ‘this work is not good enough, other people are much better at this than you’. It can undermine your confidence and tell you ‘you’re not fun’ when you are about to meet up with friends. Or ask ‘who else would want to love you?’ so you end up staying in an unhappy relationship. It can tell you ‘you are wrong’, ‘you are ugly’ or ‘you are rubbish’ in a voice that is mean, degrading, unkind and unpleasant.
It can stop you from speaking up, trying new things and living life in a fun and happy way.
My first step to making friends with my inner critic came from my mindfulness practice. Through this, I was able to understand how I no longer needed to be attached to, or to act on, every thought I had.
The act of mindfulness allows me to view my thoughts without judging them, and so I was able to observe the negative dialogue I was having and the impact it had on my body, emotions and thoughts. Within this observation, I was able to create a space where I could take steps to understand my relationship with my inner critic and in this peaceful place, I discovered it was just trying to protect me.
Our inner critic comes from a natural instinct we all have for safety. According to Dr Kristen Neff, author of The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook, ‘If we look closely – our inner critic cares’.
None of us want to experience embarrassment, shame or a feeling of failure, and so your inner critic will speak to you in a harsh voice if it perceives you are entering into something vulnerable-making. It is attempting to awaken you, but this part of the psyche doesn’t understand risk is an important factor of growth. It doesn’t know that instead of protection, it is bringing great suffering.
If you witnessed a friend or family member being harsh or highly critical with themselves, you would recognise they were in a state of suffering. In this instance, you would open your heart to compassion for them; maybe give them a hug or words of encouragement. What would happen if you extended this same principle to yourself?
When you are being harsh or highly critical of yourself, you could see this places you in a state of suffering and you can open up your heart to compassion for yourself. Christopher K Germer, PhD, author of The Mindful Path to Self- Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions, explains that ‘compassion is simply giving the same kindness to ourselves that we would give to others’.
Recognise the signal
Opening yourself to self-compassion could quite simply be saying an open phrase such as ‘may I be safe’ or ‘peace is in me’. It can also come by the way of a visualisation, such as imagining yourself surrounded by a love heart or enveloped in a great big bear hug.
Just holding yourself in this place means the anxious or frustrated feeling can gradually begin to dissolve with each passing moment and you can begin to disconnect from the negative voice. The more you practise this, the more you are able to recognise your inner-critic voice signals a chance to o er yourself some self-compassion.
When I am walking onto stage now, I can recognise the moment of doubt as just that – a moment. I can view it as an opportunity for nurture and transformation and I can whisper back ‘thanks for looking out for me but it’s OK, I’ve got it from here’.
How to bring mindfulness and self-compassion to your inner critic
- PAUSE – when you have a harsh and unkind thought, identify it as the inner-critic voice.
- OBSERVE – Allow yourself to feel space between yourself and the thought to bring awareness without changing anything. Are you feeling tense in your body? What about your emotions? Your thoughts? Just allow it all to be there without attempting to push it away.
- RECOGNISE – notice the feeling comes from a place of vulnerability and this is putting you in a place of suffering. Be aware of any changes this brings to your body, emotions or thoughts.
- ALLOW – bring in a feeling of self-compassion. In this moment, think about how you would hold a friend who was having a hard time and bring this sense of compassion to yourself. Allow your heart to gently soften.
This article first appeared in issue 11 of Planet Mindful magazine. Join our community and make a pact to prioritise your self care – try an issue here for just 99p!