OVERCOMING THE INNER CRITIC
6 WAYS TO EMPOWER YOUR THINKING
They say the mind is a wonderful servant and a horrible master. The mind is always on the lookout for “errors”, or potential catastrophes all around it (and thank you brain, you save my life all the time). The mind is great at solving problems, but as I’m sure you’ve experienced, it’s even better at creating them. The comparing mind believes that it's helping make things better by always being hypervigilant. For example, it tries to help make my art better by pointing out all of the ways it’s incomplete and that it’s okay because we’ll make sure no one ever sees it anyway… You know, to save us from the shame of being seen as our actual, totally imperfect selves. It means well, but it’s not very skillful in nurturing the best from us. It can be a real slave driver to boot, putting unrealistic demands on us and pushing us too hard.
For many of us, this deep inner critic may be the scariest monster we’ll ever have to face. That little voice in the back of your head that can both lift you up and cut you down can be your greatest ally and your most insidious frenemy. This neurotic mind can really sabotage our attempts to step into our highest selves and live on purpose. But how do we reclaim our energy and take back the narrative from this deep inner critic?
Disempowering thoughts can lead to all kinds of negative outcomes (despite our best intentions). Feelings of overwhelm, "not enoughness", lack, and other internal misalignments can, if left unattended, turn into nagging thoughts that ultimately lead to self-destruction. Unfortunately, we are constantly engaging with thoughts that take us further away from our goals instead of closer to it. Why is this? Perhaps it is because very few of us have learned how to skillfully engage with and ultimately disarm these negative thought-forms. These thoughts can be so loud and incessant, that they can seem to take up our whole consciousness all at once. But these disempowering thoughts can be tamed and even repackaged into productive ones if we can learn to work with them. After such a journey, you may come to find that many of these “thoughts” aren’t really thoughts at all, but rather just emotions begging to be attended to by our conscious minds. But more on that later.
TWO KINDS OF QUESTIONS
The first step to unplugging from destructive thinking and behavior is to observe the thoughts currently on tap. By “thought” I mean the clear sentences that one hears in their head guiding them from one task to the next. Thoughts will generally have one of two flavors. I like to think of them as EMPOWERING and DISEMPOWERING. Checking in with the quality and flavor of our thoughts helps us to choose whether we’d like to a) nurture the thought, b) challenge the thought (eg. ask “is this objectively true?”, c) pluck the thought, or d) choose a new thought.
Yes, you can choose your thoughts.
I’m sure you’ve heard the voices: “Well that isn’t going to work,” “why am I such an idiot?”, “I did not sign up for this!”, or “What the fuck am I doing??”. All of these voices have a place at one time or another, but when they become persistent, you might have a problem. Notice that these thoughts don’t really have a positive outcome other than perhaps, snapping you out of a potentially deadly situation. Take for example the question: “What the fuck am I doing?”. That can be a jarring statement and a sign from your nervous system to quickly assess and course correct. In that case, you would “snap” out of it and you’d be on with your day. You would take responsibility and move on. You’d course correct. However, “this exact same phrase” may also be an abusive ego attacking itself in the form of a question. Take the same example “What the fuck am I doing?”. If you ask yourself this question and don’t give yourself an honest assessment, you are feeding your inner critic by succumbing to it’s judgement. “What the fuck am I doing?” is actually an unanswerable question that is only meant to assault your sense of self-worth.
Take a moment here to stop reading as you ask yourself this question: “What does an empowering thought sound like?”. Can you think of any examples? For some of us, this task is much harder than it should be. This may be a sign that your inner critic is running the show.
EMPOWERING THOUGHTS Empowering Thoughts are those that provide energy and a steadiness to persevere when things get hard. They are the thoughts that stir our will and inspire us to take action. Empowering thoughts are the ones that help realign us to the power that resides within all of us, but is uniquely expressing as something we call “YOU”. Empowering thoughts are the things that help us affirm our convictions and remember who the fuck we are. But THEY ARE NOT haughty, arrogant, or boastful - and most importantly, they’re not bullshit. They’re built on fact and a direct connection with our own inherent, divine self-worth. They are the fibers that when exercised daily, strengthen our connection to our truest and highest self. For most of us, however, these thoughts do not come flowing on tap. They have to be cultivated, nourished, and practiced. That is to say, they need to be seeded.
Empowering thoughts may sound something like “wow, I’m really tired right now, but this term paper is due tomorrow. I see how I set myself up for this, and I’m feeling resentment towards myself for getting into this situation again. I really need to make some changes with how I structure and use my time so I can take better care of myself and make my life easier in the future. This is a really uncomfortable experience, but I must get this paper done. The consequence is far too great. I realize that my energy is low, but I know that I've prevailed against all-nighters before. I can do this! I just have to move in steps. For the next 20 minutes, I’m just going to do the next right thing and then I’ll take a short break and come back to it. I’ll move in 20-minute sprints to maximize my time and maintain my stamina and focus. I'm going to get this done, but I’m also going to use this fire inside my stomach to make some serious changes to how I approach my study habits.”. Using an even, calm, and steady approach to parenting our inner child helps temper the impulsive critical thoughts and move forward with consistency. Empowering thoughts are the kind that soothe our panicking inner child and brings them along with us for the journey and not through coercion or tyranny, but by connecting with them over mutual goals and appreciation. Empowering thoughts are the kind that bring us back to our center, calm our nervous system, reorient us to the mission, and help us focus on the here and now.
HOW TO SWITCH
Becoming conscious of our thoughts is no small task. But, after some practice, it becomes much easier to identify and work with them and when we do, we start to consciously cultivate our energy. This is what they’re pointing to when they say “How you do anything is how you do everything”. Observation of our thoughts is the first step to reclaiming our inner narrative, our energy, and ultimately our lives. When you catch yourself feeding a disempowering thought, make sure to address it immediately. Here are a few practical first steps:
1) SLOW IT DOWN - Get your nervous system regulated by self-soothing and grounding yourself back into the moment. Deep breathing, Vagal nerve massage, and removing yourself from the situation are just a few ways to down-regulate the nervous system to get us out of the “flight or fight” response so we can actually engage the thought. You can’t help yourself from a state of panic.
2) GET REAL - Ask yourself “Is this true?” or “okay, what are the facts?” and my personal favorite “What is this feeling and where is it coming from?”. When we can get at the root problem (which is often an emotion) underneath the complaint, we can start to work with the actual issue. Sometimes all we need is an accurate assessment (not overly optimistic or pessimistic - just accurate) so that we can isolate the variable and start to work with it.
3) FIGURE OUT WHAT YOU NEED - You can’t get anywhere if you don’t know where you’re going. Sure, you’ll always be where you are, but that may not be in alignment with where you’re meant to be. Tuning into that still, small voice inside your heart (not head) can help you get to the root of the actual block much faster than thinking will. Ask that self what it needs to move forward. The answer may surprise you. Be willing to listen and feel into these wounds if you want to make real leaps in your life. Anything else is tantamount to spiritual/emotional bypassing and will likely come back to be dealt with later - and usually at the worst possible time.
4) POLISH THE TROPHY CASE - Take stock of where you are and what you’ve overcome to get here. We spend hours beating ourselves up in attempts to push ourselves forward, but there are kinder and more direct ways to achieve the same goal (and without all the stress). Remind yourself of your accomplishments and that you’ve learned a lot along the way.
5) MAKE A STRATEGY AND TAKE ACTION - Taking the time to get clear from a realistic vantage point is going to help you take charge of the direction and move forward. I’m not saying it will be easy, but it’s not as difficult as being unclear. Doubt is the first step toward fear and fear is the mind-killer. Once you have a clear course of action, take it slow. Remember: “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast,” so go slow and see how smooth life gets.
6) REPLACE THE WORD “FAILURE” WITH “LEARNING” - Look, we all make mistakes. Everybody plays the fool sometimes. Everybody. That’s how we learn. So wherever you are, know that you had to put in some effort to get there. Maybe you found some shortcuts on the way, but you’ve learned by doing. When we replace “Failure” with “Learning” life gets a lot easier and we’re able to operate from a growth mindset instead of a lack mindset. Start by going easy. Give yourself grace. Practice allowance and patience and watch your life bloom.
CHOOSE YOUR THOUGHTS WISELY Only you can prevent the fire of panic that rages through us all. And it just takes healthy habits. Those habits are strongest when they start from the center out. Practicing healthy thought hygiene will increase the joy in your life and make you a joy to be around for others. Having a solid grasp on these techniques will give you ample ammunition for pushing through your next block and help you nip your inner critic in the bud. Take it slow and remember, no one can do it for you.