Many of us have a strong inner critic, and we take its criticism to heart, no doubt because its source is our childhood and the criticism we received then. When we were a child, we took our parents’ words and perceptions as the truth, so when they criticized us, we believe them: “You’re so careless! Why don’t you listen? Your head is in the clouds. You’d better start paying attention or you’ll never make it in life.”
Surely when our parents said such things, they thought they were being helpful. But although their intentions may have been good, the result wasn’t. Now we carry their words and the way those words made us feel around with us, and whenever we make a mistake, the same shame and feelings of inadequacy come up as when we were young.
Mistakes are normal, kids are imperfect, adults are imperfect, but as children, we’re likely to have concluded that making mistakes means we’re bad, we won’t do well in life, and any number of other conclusions. It’s no wonder many of us are paralyzed by new situations and challenges: “What if I make a mistake? I’ll probably screw up as usual.” We may stop ourselves from going after what we want, trying and learning new things, developing our talents, growing, and having fun, all because we’re afraid of feelings those familiar feelings of failure from long ago. Parental criticism becomes self-criticism. We learned to do that perfectly!
Criticism feels terrible, whether it’s coming at us from outside ourselves or we’re doing it to ourselves. Just as our parents probably thought they were helping us by criticizing us, we may think we’re doing ourselves a favor by doing the same. We may believe this inner critic is watching our back and making us a better person, but the opposite is true. When we are self-critical, we feel more stressed, more apt to make mistakes, less effective, less at ease, less confident, less attractive to others, less loving and generous, and less in touch with the wisdom and strength of our true nature.
The good news is that self-criticism isn’t actually you criticizing you, but your egoic mind criticizing you. The real you—your true self—has nothing but love, acceptance, and compassion for you. So within our dual nature, we have both the capacity to criticize and hate ourselves and the capacity to do the opposite. Once we realize that self-criticism and criticism in general come from the ego and aren’t helpful, we can begin to free ourselves from this stifling and limiting voice and, more importantly, begin to hear our true voice of compassion and love.
It is often said that we can’t really love others until we first love ourselves, and this is so true. We all want love and we all want to love others. What stops us or makes it difficult is this voice of criticism of ourselves and others. If this voice weren’t there, it would be easy to love! Fortunately, the voice of criticism doesn’t have to go away to become free of it. You know that old saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me”? We can apply this to the egoic mind, which calls us names, shames us, and makes many of us feel guilty and inadequate. The egoic mind’s words don’t have to hurt us. They are just words, just thoughts. We don’t have to empower them with our belief once we see that they are lies.
Alternately, the egoic mind does the same thing to others. It shames, blames, and criticizes others as a way of elevating itself so that it doesn’t have to feel the shame that it creates, because if you are criticizing others, you are surely doing the same thing to yourself. Blaming and criticizing others are ways we distract ourselves from the self-criticism and self-blame we don’t want to experience.
It’s not necessarily easy to disengage from the inner voice of criticism, especially if we’ve believed it for a very long time. But with greater awareness of our thoughts, we can wake up out of the illusion that our egoic mind is ours and that it’s a true and meaningful voice. We wake up to the truth that we don’t need the voice in our head, we have never needed it, and it has only caused a lot of suffering. As difficult as it may be to change this habit of listening to and believing the mind, living with this voice is much more difficult.
What is it that can stand up to this voice and say, “Thanks, but no thanks” and turn away? That’s the real you! It’s right here, right now, accessible in any moment whenever you call forth your own inner strength and wisdom. Who you really are isn’t an abstraction—something out there in the ethers—but what is here, now, living your life. The more you turn away from the egoic mind and access your loving, wise, strong, accepting, and compassionate self, the more accessible this self becomes. Whenever you turn away from self-criticism, your connection to your true self is strengthened, and doing this becomes easier and easier, until one day you realize that the voice of self-criticism is a mere whisper or completely gone.
This is how the egoic mind and the negative feelings it produces are healed—we stop believing in the voice in our head and, consequently, stop producing negative emotions. Instead of criticism, we bring compassion to our humanness, our weakness, our failings, and our mistakes. If we do find ourselves caught in negativity or acting it out, we notice that and then bring compassion to ourselves for this very normal, human occurrence. It’s okay to not be perfect. How do I know? Because no one is or ever has been.
We are all in the same boat—all flawed, all struggling, all wanting to be happy and sometimes failing miserably at it. When you can love yourself just the way you are and have compassion for yourself, then it becomes easy to love and have compassion for others. Be kind to yourself!
From From Stress to Stillness, which will be available in November.