Get Your Inner Critic to Stand Down with Mindfulness
Getting familiar with your inner voice, particularly when that voice is an inner critic – is one of the great benefits of mindfulness practice. This often puts you face-to-face with limiting beliefs, reactivity, and emotional challenges that can seem hard to effectively engage when they become limiting, and they almost always are.
We all have the experience of this inner voice and most of us just accept that experience as just a part of who we are. We don’t really examine the kinds of messages or content or feelings that voice imparts to us. Taking some time to take inventory of what your inner voice, is voicing can tell you a lot about what’s important to you in ways that are helpful and could also be in you’re way.
Exploring the inner voice in mindfulness
One way to think about this is to consider your inner voice as not really you, but a process that happens courtesy of your brain. Sort of like a constant companion but in some cases, this companion isn’t all that friendly. Some people, for example, have pretty harsh inner voices that are constantly reminding them of the need to be quiet, or putting them down in some way like an angry parent “you aren’t smart enough to talk in this meeting!”, or “don’t speak up! People will just see that you’re not so smart!.” Not such a great friend to have along for your private conversations every day.
You can take a mindfulness approach to listen in on what your inner voice is saying by periodically asking yourself how does this feel? Does it make you feel good, bad, or neutral, and why? This process of paying attention, somewhat objectively to your inner voice can help change the dialogue from criticism (“you’re going to a mistake”) to simply noticing that voice is saying that to you, and then choosing to act or not act based on more reasonable grounds, rather than in silent reactivity to your own inner dialogue.
This process of mindfulness can help you to notice when your inner voice is giving helpful or unhelpful feedback. When you become more aware of the content and tone, positive or negative for example, that your inner voice provides on a regular basis it becomes easier to listen with an open mind rather than simply reacting in habitual ways without awareness.
As a starting practice, take note of when your inner voice speaks up loudest. Where are you at the time? What’s going on around you? What kind of conversation is happening? For example, I worked with a client who had a strong inner voice come up in team meetings. Her inner voice would assure her that she was not as capable as others in the room so had no place to speak up about issues she knew about very well. In helping her become aware that this voice is not really “her” but just thought, a voice that came up in this situation, it helped her to press through her reluctance and speak up more.
When is a foe a friend?
It’s important when working with this voice, to avoid the tendency to make the voice wrong, or bad. Efforts to banish or mute this voice will fail, or worse, end badly. Instead, the mindfulness of this inner voice can help us to get more clarity on what’s important. The most effective approach is to simply notice the voice and recognize that in fact, it’s actually trying to help you.
That may not make sense at first glance, but look closer. How can an inner voice that says “you’re not smart enough to speak up here” help you? There’s a lot of shame in that, message, right? That is so, but let’s say for the moment, the voice was right. Couldn’t that lead to being embarrassed in the eyes of the group? Wouldnt that be potentially even more shaming to have everyone see you say something they thought was not very well informed?
The mindful approach is to simply notice the voice and recognize that in fact, it’s actually trying to help you, albeit in a way that isn’t that helpful. “Okay, so this inner critic wants me not to speak up here because I might say something stupid. I’m very familiar with this voice, and it feels really scary and I want to shrink. But I know this voice very well, and it’s not really me. It’s just a habit I learned somewhere trying to keep me from being embarrassed in front of everyone. So thanks for the advice, voice, but you’re services are no longer required here. I know what I’m talking about and they need to hear this.”
Where does a bad habit like this come from and why does it have so much power over us? In most cases, inner voice messages like this that are limiting us in some way are those we adopted from a time where you were actually shamed or too small or not enough. For example, if an older brother or sister was constantly saying you weren’t big enough to talk with them or do things you wanted to do, and when you tried, you were perhaps humiliated in some way.
Learned in this way, the message “you’re not enough” gets wired into your nervous system to the feelings of shame and humiliation. So later in life, when you’re in a room with “powerful” others, and you start to want to contribute, here comes your body and brain providing a “sense memory” that this is a dangerous situation, and you need to be careful. It shows up as you feeling small, and tenuous. The opposite of authoritative. When you start to speak up, you hear the voice “you aren’t smart enough for this!” and with the accompanying somatic experience.
Another example would be if you grew up in a household where there wasn’t enough to go around. You may have learned to get what you needed, you needed to act fast. Get in early, and get out quick at the dinner table. This is an actual example of a dynamic with one client I had who was seen as overbearing and intrusive in meetings. His feeling was that if he wasn’t aggressive, he would not get his needs met. From that child’s point of view, that was an effective way of dealing with his circumstances. (I’m not saying it was healthy, but it was effective from the point of view of a child with limited resources dealing with the situation as best they can.) The same voice, however, in a team meeting, was out of place and came across that way. When seen mindfully, these learned behavior that came into being for good reason, years later are now just bad habits. This helps them seem foreboding and more manageable. It’s not “who you are” it’s just how you’ve learned to manage. In truth, it’s simply your brain doing what brains do, help us manage. Sometimes it hard to update the program.
How Mindfulness Coaching Can Help
The good news is that a mindfulness practice, combined with some coaching, can help you rewire these patterns and make rapid progress. The more mindfulness practice you build up, whether it is through meditation or just taking some moments to observe your own mind and body activity in daily life, the easier it will become for you to notice when that inner voice speaks loudest. You’ll start recognizing when habitual reactions want to happen, then hit pause, take a breath, and perhaps respond differently – better.
Here’s an assignment I might provide a client related to this.
- Start a mindfulness practice (meditation or other depending on the client)
- Journal the kinds of messages the inner voice is telling you. Is it male/Female? Critical/Supportive? Soft/Loud? When does it show up? What does it want? How do you feel?
- Practice noticing and naming in the moment – the voice, the feeling. Then breathe like you do in mindfulness meditation and create some spaciousness in that moment. Does that change things? GO SLOW HERE. Slower than you think. This is a great practice in a coaching session where I would direct you strongly to the somatic, in the body experience of this, as that when you go “Oh, I get it” and where the real power lies. When you understand the experience in this way, it transitions from being an idea to an experience.
- Be kind to yourself through the process. This is hard, but important work.
In this way, you increase your ability to live and act in what I call your “embodied authority.” And that is a much happier place to live than under the thumb of some inner critique.
You have nothing to lose but your inner bully and a great deal to gain.
Other articles you might find interesting:
A Great Mindfulness Exercise, no meditation required.