Kindness is one of the greatest gifts you can give to others. It’s like spreading sunshine into someone’s life regardless of what the weather is like. Most of us know this. Many of us practice this with others. The world can certainly use more love and kindness.
But I wonder: How kind are you to yourself? Are you loving, compassionate and forgiving? Are you your own friend?
If you’re like most people, you might not be that nice to yourself. In fact, you’re probably pretty mean and say things that are quite brutal. Things you would never say to anyone you love.
“Imagine if someone invented a little tape recorder that we could attach to our brains… we’d discover that not even our worst enemies talk about us the way we talk about ourselves.” – Arianna Huffington
One of the most common areas people want to work on in coaching is taming the loud, nasty inner critic. Their deep inner sage knows that what the inner critic says is not the truth. They recognize that the inner critic is holding them back. Yet the inner critic’s grip on them is powerful.
Sometimes the inner critic’s grip is so powerful, so ingrained, so stealth that you don’t even see it as something separate from you. You barely notice it as criticism and merely accept it as simple truth despite how far from the truth it is. The inner critic might even lead you to believe that it helps you to succeed, make progress and enables you to do better and be better.
- If you make a small mistake you replay it over and over in your mind. “I’m just helping you to not mess it up again next time,” your inner critic says to you.
- You just give a presentation and get 10 compliments, but you focus on the one bit of criticism. “I’m just making sure you do better next time,” your inner critic tells you.
- You keep pushing through without a break because you don’t want to be lazy or weak. “I’m helping you to succeed,” your inner critic explains.
Do these sound familiar? If you believe these things then your inner critic has masterfully disguised her/himself as a friend rather than a foe. The truth is, these criticisms make you feel bad. They are self-sabotaging. And they hold you back from your full potential.
On the other hand, kindness towards yourself is directly correlated to your well being and ultimately your success. The more compassionate you are with yourself, the happier and healthier you will be both mentally and physically. And the more likely you’ll be able to tap into your inner wisdom to unleash your full potential.
Let’s pause here for a moment. Most people will hear that they need to be nicer to themselves, yet they find themselves struggling to do this. Sound familiar? Then what happens? You beat yourself up for ‘failing’ to be nicer to yourself. It’s an endless cycle. Truth is, while the concept of ‘be kind to yourself’ is easy to understand, it is harder to do in practice without the right strategy because of how our brains are wired.
The good news is that you can rewire your brain to quiet that inner critic’s voice. And with the right strategy, it’s not as hard as you might think.
Why do we have such strong inner critics?
In order to rewire and ultimately turn down the volume of our inner critic, it’s valuable to understand why it’s there to begin with. That requires us to talk about our brain from an evolutionary standpoint. You see, your brain is wired for survival. For logic and reasoning. For spotting potential dangers (real or perceived). This goes back to our primitive cave(wo)men days. The amygdala, a part of the brain, learned to be acutely responsive to any signs of threat. It learned, for example, that if you see the leaves of a tree rustle a certain way, that it might be a saber tooth tiger and you need to quickly decide whether to fight, flight or freeze. You were always on high alert for any signs of potential danger!
Today, we don’t have to protect ourselves from tigers the way our ancestors did, but our brains are still processing dangers the way they did tens of thousands of years ago. So we continue to be hyper vigilant and the result is this endless loop of our harsh inner critic. And while it might not always be obvious, the critic is here to keep you safe from danger. When you dig behind the inner critic you might find that it’s keeping you safe from a fear. It might be the fear of failure, the fear of embarrassment, or perhaps the fears of being unworthy or an inability to do what we want. The list goes on.
The key thing to remember is that your brain is great for survival. It’s wired that way. It is not so great for helping you to dream big or be happy.
So how do we rewire our brains to turn down the volume of our inner critic?
Remember that your inner critic is a survival instinct. It is not you. Your goal is not to get rid of it or banish it. In fact we can’t get rid of it because it’s how the brain is wired for survival purposes. The goal is to take away it’s power over your choices by quieting it and learning to step away from it.
There are three steps to quieting your inner critic:
- Become aware of your inner critic
- Appreciate and thank your inner critic
- Be a little playful with your inner critic
Step 1: Become aware of your inner critic
The inner critic can be quite annoying. So much that you want to banish it. You might try to shove it into a closet, lock the door and cover your ears as it bangs away on the door, trying to get your attention.
However, pushing it away will only give it more power. It’s like if I said, “Pink elephant. Don’t think about the pink elephant. What pink elephant? Why are you thinking about a pink elephant?” What happened? More likely than not, you couldn’t stop picturing a pink elephant right? Same principle goes for your inner critic.
Remember, you are not the inner critic. So see it as something separate from you. Visualize what your inner critic looks like: the size, the shape, the features. Your goal is to become aware of it, see it as something separate from your identity and quiet it. Not banish it. It’ll always be there. That’s normal. You want to let it do its thing but not let the inner critic determine your choices.
Step 2: Appreciate and thank your inner critic
You might be wondering: “Appreciate it?! But it makes me suffer. Why would I do that?”
While that might be true today, this inner critic kept you safe from something when you were a child. That’s where it learned how you had to be in order to avoid criticism, rejection, embarrassment or any other potential emotional pain.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t realized that you’re an adult now and can have your own values, beliefs and ways of doing things. So it continues to try to keep you safe today the same way it did when you were young.
The angrier and the more you fight your inner critic, the more power it gets. And for you, it can become quite emotionally draining. So rather than fight it, when you become aware of the inner critic’s arrival just say to it, “Thank you inner critic for keeping me safe from XYZ. I am an adult now and no longer need this protection.”
Step 3: Be a little playful with your inner critic
Humor and playfulness unleashes a different chemical response in your body. Now that you’re aware of your inner critic, you’ve thanked it, you can be a little playful with it.
I’ve had clients tickle their inner critic until it was quiet.
I’ve even had a client pull out her imaginary ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ gun and shrank her inner critic. Then tossed him to a corner as she continued on with her day.
Get creative and come up with something that resonates with you. It can be as simple as imagining a volume button on your inner critic and turning it down.
As you practice these steps keep in mind that change will not happen overnight. The inner critic has been with you for years. It is a learned habit that has taken years to develop and it will take time to learn this new habit. So be patient. Be gentle. By practicing and taking these small steps, it’ll lead to big transformation.
As Maya Angelou once said
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
This rings true, even with how you make yourself feel. You deserve to be loved, comforted, forgiven and supported in the same way those whom you love do. Just imagine your five-year old self; the beautiful, pure, innocent essence of you. Would you let your inner critic speak to that little child in the same way? I hope not!