This might be the most powerful practice out of the whole summer. I walk through the valley of the inner critic again and again in my work as a coach and within my own life. It is a barren place, full of old bones.
Compassion, by contrast, is a warm cup we can offer ourselves. Especially when we feel we have made a misstep or mistake or are otherwise hurting.
Welcome to week three of the Summer of Meditation Challenge!
I hope you experimented with last week’s practices of uni-tasking, whiteboarding your thoughts + riding your breath. If not—no worries, there is no behind in the Summer of Meditation Challenge! You can read the whole reflection on Concentration here or just continue with today’s prompt and begin again!
This week we are exploring compassion and ways to dial down the voice of our inner critic.
Meditation: Compassion Meditation (15 minutes in AM + 15 minutes in PM of a walking meditation or reflecting with gratitude on your day.)
Real World Mindfulness Practice: Tame Your Inner Critic
(How to engage in both of these practices is explained in detail below.)
The Reflection: On Compassion*
So much of our suffering is really at our own hands- evaluating ourselves or our lives against some internal standard.
Where do we get this idea that we should be perfect?
That we can never make a mistake or a misstep?
Consider some time this past week when things did not turn out as you hoped. Maybe it really was your fault—maybe you weren’t as careful as you could have been, maybe you were sleepwalking through an activity and a mistake was made on your watch. Or maybe it was simply a misunderstanding or situation with no easy answer– something you did the best you could do with at the time and it still erupted into a mess.
Whether in your personal life or professional life—these moments of failure or of not meeting others expectations or our own — are really hard.
They are hard enough on their own but often we respond in one of two ways which only add to our pain:
- We try to run away from the misstep—drown it out, numb out, avoid “going there” in our own mind.
- Or we let loose with the inner critic— tearing into ourselves and saying things we wouldn’t dream of saying out loud to a child or friend in a similar position.
Sadly, neither of these responses (numbing out or self-criticizing) opens the door for us to learn from the experience. They only reinforce our habitual patterns. Making it more likely (this is the really sad part) that we will make the same misstep again in the future. And get to beat ourselves up about it all over again!
So what is the alternative?
This is not “going easy on ourselves.” But rather offering kindness to ourself in real time is what allows us to redirect the enormous amount of energy it takes to harangue ourselves for our humanity.
I am going to state the obvious here—everyone makes mistakes.
Everyone falls and fails. But we jump on top of the natural pain we experience in the fallout of such moments and add more— unless we cultivate some new habits of mind.
Compassion is where we can find freedom, grace and choice.
So first– how can you know the inner critic is on the prowl?
Track your experiences in your body.
Your body responds to these mental critical voices with a number of somatic (kinesthetic/bodily) sensations. Here are a few:
- Tightening of muscles in any part of your body: jaw, shoulders, neck, throat and face or a big knot in your belly
- A sense of weakness, as if you can barely hold yourself up
- Chronic pain in any part of your body
- A palpable heaviness in the center of your chest
- A somatic sense of mental fogginess
- Teeth gnashing
- A chronically upset stomach
- A paralysis or heaviness that makes it hard to move
- Heart palpitations
(These are from Deep Living by Roxanne How-Murphy who has a whole chapter on transforming your relationship to the inner critic– which I highly recommend).
Start tracking sensations in your body and especially pay attention if something feels familiar– even if you haven’t consciously noticed it before. Start to get curious about it.
I remember when I realized this mind/body connection several years ago while laying down to put my kiddos to sleep. I would lay there and pretend to sleep next to them (so they would get the idea:) and find myself mentally reviewing my day. Now this was before I had a regular meditation practice and so my mind would wander pretty much unchecked.
Predictably, the negative bits would rise to the surface. And then I started noticing that when I would think about these hard interactions or struggles I would actually feel a kind of blip in my heart. I could cause my heart to have a physical reaction– skipping a beat (or so it felt) –simply in response to the anxiety I generated ruminating at the end of the day. This got my attention and invited me on a journey to discover some alternative ways of holding my life.
Thankfully I don’t have to lay down with my kiddos anymore to get them to sleep (most nights at least) but I do try to reflect on my day in the evening –consciously grabbing the wheel of my attention and directing it to notice the good. This gratitude review feels way better. And in addition to not giving me mini heart attacks gratitude actually forms new neural pathways. Try it!
So that’s just one example—start to notice your own body patterns (especially in the wake of a hard day or a sense that you have made a mistake) and see what your body might reveal. Left unchecked your internal evaluator will drain or redirect a lot of your life energy as well as distract you from the present moment.
Which is where all the good stuff happens.
Some strategies for dealing with your inner critic.
(Quick Tip: You might not even hear the voice but can assume it is at work when you start to feel the familiar body sensations.)
- Acknowledge it. Thank it for its input and tell it to cut it out. But beware of judging the judge. Keep a light touch. If you berate yourself for judging yourself it actually just reinforces the whole pattern.
- Get out of your head—find an external resource: a bath, a friend, a good meal which helps you tune into your body and the moment.
- Agree with it. This is a fun one. Especially if your critic is stirred up because you are trying something new (which is bound to be bumpy). Say “You are right—I don’t really know what I’m doing. In fact I have no idea how this will turn out. I’m on a trust walk and its scary and exciting and I just know I need to take this one next step.”
And know that the critic tends to get louder while you are growing.
So if you are looking for new work, transitioning out of an old biz or job, or heeding a nudge to explore new options in any arena of life you can expect your critic to be louder than usual.
It is not uncommon in these growth spurts to feel like you must be going in the wrong direction because the critic gets so loud.
So if you hear things like: “This will never work.”
“You will never make a living doing this.”
Or “Who do you think you are to expect some better kind of work or life– you should just be happy with what you have.”
These are all examples of your critic having its way with you.
And your clue to offer yourself some compassion.
What is self-compassion?
Kristen Neff, a writer and researcher, explains that self-compassion has three parts:
Simply notice, in the moment, what is going on. Those somatic clues are helpful. See if you can really hear the harsh inner story and step back from it. Notice also the painful emotions, which arise in response to your self-judgement: guilt, shame, fear, anger are some common ones.
Remember that all humans make mistakes. None of us are perfect. And all people also experience some degree of suffering in the wake of this experience of falling short of what we hoped for ourselves. Far from making us different than other people, our mistakes are exactly what makes us most like others!
Cultivate a warm response to yourselves when you feel inadequate rather than ignoring your pain or criticizing yourself. We can actually use our mammalian brain to help here—we are hardwired to respond well to soothing touch, voice, and warmth. (Like putting your hand over your heart while you take a few breaths.)
There is an important distinction between self esteem and self compassion. Self-esteem is conditional and really built on the ego. Self-compassion meets us in the truth of where we are.
Rather than endlessly pumping ourselves up, it is easier and more productive to hold ourselves in kindness when we fall.
For many of us the hardest place to do that is in a work context—where we place high expectations on ourselves. Or we feel seen in our failure by people who we aren’t particularly comfortable with (a colleague who we may even feel competitive toward as opposed to say a friend).
But we can offer that friendship to ourselves. This creates resiliency and takes the sting out of the praise/blame cycle of attuning to others for our sense of self. It also makes it easier to see the way that others are caught in their own patterns and suffering.
Compassion is contagious.
How to do a Compassion Meditation (a variation on the loving-kindness meditation).
First choose a gesture. This could be a hand or both hands over your heart. Or stroking your cheek. Then call to mind a troubling recent event or misstep. See if you can tune into the emotions underneath (shame, fear, sadness) and notice where they land in your body. This might be a squeeze in your heart, church in the gut etc.
Offer yourself the gesture as a resource as you soften and allow space for those hard emotions/sensations. Repeat one or more phrases, such as “may I be safe/peaceful/kind to myself/accept myself as I am.” Continue to offer these phrases, allowing your heart to soften and move in response to the suffering you see yourself experiencing.
Lastly expand the phrases and include others as well “may we be safe/peaceful/kind to ourselves/accept ourselves as we are.” Take a few breaths to come out of the practice and gently open your eyes.
The Commitment. Now it is Your Turn.
What do you what to try on this week? Ready to keep going with a daily or almost daily practice? Great! Overwhelmed but think you could try to give your inner critic a new job? Wonderful.
This is your summer of meditation challenge! I do encourage you to get clear, even if only to yourself, about your commitment for the week– specificity is powerful. Write it on a sticky note. Tell a friend. or better… leave it for me as a comment below (you may need to click “leave a comment” above the post to open the comment space. ) I’d love to hold it with you this week.
PS If you would like more support, 8 guided meditations are available as part of the Meditation Support Circle. As a bonus to the first 12 people who enroll I’m offering a free half hour private coaching session (a few spots left!). Plus a percentage of the profits from this program will go to support entrepreneurs in the developing world. As we examine and create our own life-giving relationship to work it is good to share the love! Register today.
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* Themes for the Summer of Meditation Challenge are drawn from Sharon Salzberg’s new book: Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace (2014).