When I first started doing guided imagery and guided meditations in my private practice, I would always begin by asking my patients to let go of any expectations they might have and approach the experience without judgment or criticism. I can hear my voice now as I write this … I have asked patients to “let go of criticism and judgment” so many times. What’s fascinating to me now, is that I didn’t fully appreciate or understand what I was asking my patients to do. Many years later with more insight and experience, I can better appreciate the magnitude of the task at hand – to banish our inner critic – and how vitally important it is to our sanity and wellbeing!
Now as a mother, I’m that much more mindful of keeping my own critical inner voice in check. I notice how when I am feeling insecure or bad about myself, I’m less patient, I’m cranky and critical of others, and I’m miserable to be around. I don’t know about you, but the critical voice in my head can take a beautiful sunshiny day, and turn it into a hurricane. Some days, I think I’m a pretty kind, good and cool person. And on others, my inner critic can find so much wrong with me, it’s surprising I can get out of bed. “I’m not working hard enough, I’m not helping my patients enough, I’m not exercising enough, I’m not present enough with my kids, I’m not a loving or attentive enough partner.” Oh my god, can it please just stop now!
Perhaps you have heard similar things from your critical self, or perhaps your inner critic has more perspective than mine. Either way, we need to pay more attention to what we are telling ourselves and whether we are listening to and believing what we are saying. One thing I have noticed in working with patients over the years, is that people who are very critical and judgmental tend to be the most critical and judgmental of themselves. If we look at that observation from a different angle, we begin to understand that if we are kinder, more accepting, more compassionate, and more understanding of others, we will tend toward being all those things to ourselves. Conversely, the less critical we are of ourselves, the less critical we are of others.
I recently read an article in The Oprah Magazine by Martha Beck on how our thoughts affect our happiness. She talks about the “stories” we tell ourselves (that we aren’t worthy of love, that another person will complete us, that we will always be in pain) and how we are the ones who choose to believe our own stories or choose to reject them. This is so important when talking about listening to and believing our critical inner voice. She says, “If you can’t know a thought is true for an absolute certainty, it doesn’t pass the test. Reasonable doubt means the thought doesn’t get to rule your life.”
When I think about how my inner critic affects my children I really pause and take a step back from my critical self. If I had only one wish for my children, it would be that they accept, love and embrace themselves for who they are, not for whom others want or believe them to be. That is the essence of self-acceptance. But I know that in order for children to understand and embrace these concepts, they must be guided, taught and loved. And in order for me to guide and teach self-acceptance, I need to live it.
I can remember a morning this fall when I was getting dressed in my bedroom. My husband, son and daughter were on the bed waiting, somewhat impatiently, for me, as it was a beautiful day and we had plans to go out for breakfast. I had woken up on the wrong side of the bed, metaphorically speaking, and couldn’t find anything to wear – anything that looked right or felt right or that didn’t make me want to scream. I was one critical inner thought away from a major meltdown in front of my closet door … and most importantly in front of my children. I quickly collected myself as much as I could and asked my husband to take the kids downstairs and wait for me there. I knew I couldn’t completely pull myself out of the meltdown right then and I wanted to try to recover in private. I can’t always shield my children from my anxiety and my frustration, but I could in that moment spare them from watching my critical inner voice get the best of me – from watching me change and discards clothes for no apparent reason and stand in front of a mirror frustrated and emotional.
When I was left alone and had a minute to take a breath, I made the conscious decision to challenge my inner critic by showing myself kindness and compassion. I knew I needed to take a step back, and I knew I needed to love and accept myself in THAT moment. And even though that felt next to impossible, I knew it was my only way out. I could have continued down the unhappy path of believing my thoughts, or I could decide to banish my inner critic with kindness. I try to walk the walk and to live the words that I write about, that I lecture about, and that I ask my patients to have for themselves. I am aware of the magnitude and the challenge of that pursuit, but I am aware of the positive and powerful impact it has on our lives. When I enter the ring with my critical voice, I may feel initially beaten and bruised, but amazingly kindness and compassion stand victorious every time!
Our children look to us as an example. The kinder and less critical we are of ourselves, the kinder and less critical we are of them, and my hope is the kinder and less critical they will be of themselves. We deserve to be kinder to ourselves. We deserve to accept and embrace ourselves. We can, over time, banish our inner critic with kindness and embrace the feelings that “I am enough, I am perfect in my imperfection, and I unconditionally accept and embrace myself.” Next to impossible? I think not. It can be done!