How to quiet your nagging, lecturing, shaming inner critic

One of my favorite stories comes from spiritual teacher David Deida. At a party, he saw his mentor’s wife enjoying a conversation with an attractive man.

“Aren’t you jealous?” he asked his mentor.

“Yes,” his mentor responded. “But the fact that I’m jealous isn’t bothering me.”

In other words, the mentor was aware of how he was relating to his jealousy. Instead of making the emotion a problem, he was allowing it to just be there.

I love that story because I make everything a problem. When I’m sad, part of me says I should be happy. When I’m exhausted after work, part of me says I should still be working. (Thanks, capitalism.) When I’m lonely, part of me thinks I’ll be lonely forever.

That’s if I’m able to notice the emotion to begin with. Often, I’m completely blended, a concept from a form of therapy called Internal Family Systems. (More on that here.)

When I’m blended — overwhelmed, triggered, etc. — I’m caught up in my thoughts, believing they’re true. They’re like a movie. And I’ve forgotten the actual me is on the couch watching a TV screen.

Jealousy? I’m an expert in catastrophizing about how people don’t love me anymore.

One time, an ex-girlfriend and I went to a Washington Capitals hockey game. Who was sitting beside us? The team’s most popular former player, Peter Bondra.

My ex, a curious and remarkable person, struck up a conversation and had Bondra laughing in his Slovakian accent.

Does she think he’s in better shape than me? my mind sneered. Is it his perfectly tailored suit? I need to dress better. At least I’m a little taller than him.

Honestly, in past romantic relationships, I was more often than not lost in a virtual reality of thoughts, judgements, and assumptions.

That’s why mindfulness is so powerful. After meditation, it’s a little easier to unblend from my swirling thoughts. I can see them as they really are: not reality, but boring, two-dimensional ideas about the world.

“The movement from virtual reality — thoughts — to the awareness of sense-based reality is true homecoming,” says meditation teacher Tara Brach.

When I’m unblended, I’m in my senses — in my body. I’m seeing, feeling, tasting, smelling, and listening. Colors, sensations, tastes, smells, and sounds become more interesting than anything my mind can produce.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

As Brach says, this moment-by-moment awareness can be home-like. I can always return to the aliveness of the present moment, no matter what’s happening.

But emotions are seductive. They fly in and hijack your nervous system, triggering an area of the brain called the amygdala. The amygdala then tells your body to release stress hormones.

Your breath shortens and heart pounds. Your muscles tense up in areas of the body like the stomach and shoulders. You’re ready to fight a hockey player. Or at least ruminate until you can complain about it later.

Emotions even layer on top of each other. The jealousy is one thing. Then there’s the criticism, the making jealousy a problem.

That’s the big takeaway from Deida’s story. Sometimes you have to start with the self-criticism. It’s standing in the way of the jealousy, the anger, the loneliness, the sadness.

“What’s known as the inner critic, what Freud called the superego, is but one of many parts of the personality responsible for keeping you safe,” writes therapist Richard Schwartz. “Most often it’s criticizing you to motivate you to achieve, look good, be tough, and so forth, so you won’t be hurt or rejected.”

And sure enough, making it a problem won’t work either. Your inner critic needs loving just like the parts of you that are scared or hurt or jealous. It needs to be seen, understood, and soothed, like the little inner child it is.

Deida’s mentor wasn’t some otherworldly guru. No one is. He’d simply done the work to get to know his inner critic. I bet his inner critic was blaring in his mind as his wife smiled and played with her hair. He just wasn’t listening to it. He was unblended.

To be sure, self-compassion won’t make you weak or soft or a pushover. If anything, it’s made me stronger.

Unblended, Deida’s mentor could decide to intervene or discuss the situation with his wife after the party. Or he could decide not to. He was in a better position to choose his response to what was actually happening, not what was on the movie screen in his head.

When you’re not under the sway of your emotions, you’ll be able to access the confidence, the calmness, the curiosity, the wisdom, all the things us human beings are capable of.

I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. My weekly emails will help you bring mindfulness to work, relationships, and politics. Subscribe here.

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Photo by Nano Anderson