When the critic makes you feel bad, reach for compassion

July 24, 2018

 

Some of the greatest suffering we cause ourselves. The inner critic is the compounder of our fears  of purpose, being liked, loved, and our capabilities. It always says we can do better, we should’ve done more, and could be more - more than what we are now, more than what we did, and better than what we did. The lack of satisfaction is like a thirst that can’t be quenched: we keep trying but the voice is never satisfied. There’s always something that could be improved. 

 

Although I use ‘we’, the above is my felt experience of self-loathing and critiquing. I’m a bit of striver and perfectionist which has been helpful in many ways and debilitating in many ways. I came to yoga at 18 as it looked so calm and I wanted to feel calm as I was always a whirling on the inside over what I could improve, how I could be more liked, and always self-reproaching over one thing or another. It didn’t matter how well I studied or even receiving the best grades, I could always do better, should do better in all aspects of my life. How I ate reflected my perfectionist tendencies, which is no surprise as the relationship with food is very reflective of our relationship to ourselves and others. Although yoga helped to soothe my mind to a degree, as I practised more Ashtanga, eating became more rigid and pretty disordered - there was always something better I could eat, I should eat. I could be better at practising yoga, I should be better at practising yoga.

 

 

And then I discovered self-compassion - Mettha Bhavana meditations. At first I couldn’t feel anything towards myself but steadily over time - over 7 years - I am learning to catch the self-criticism, unpack it and dare I say, accept myself. Self-compassion meditation is a lifelong process, with even the Dalai Lama practises Mettha Bhavana everyday. Self-compassion is something we have to habituate and maintain as the inner-critic is always waiting to pounce on everyday emotions such as guilt, anxiety, and low mood to turn these into a reproaching narrative or shoulda, woulda, coulda. Self-compassion is not like riding a bike, it’s like owning a car - it’s got to be serviced and maintained. 

 

There isn’t one human on the planet who is perfect despite other people’s projections that they are. Every one of us makes mistakes and has inadequacies but because we have a mind we’re able to compare ourselves to others and ‘ideals’ in ways that animals can’t. This is part of being human. To notice where could’ve been better is one thing, but to begin a tirade of abuse is quite another. Imagine this as two people:

 

Friend 1: How did your exam go?

Friend 2: I feel terrible as I froze and couldn’t remember anything

Friend 1: You did what? Are you stupid? What is wrong with you? Do you think you’ll ever amount to anything?

Friend 2: You’re right, I am stupid and I need you to keep telling me I am so that I don’t make the same mistake again.

 

How Friend 1 replied to Friend 2’s mishap was incredibly cruel, yet Friend 2 felt it was valuable feedback to motivate them to do better. It’s clear that such feedback is rarely motivational, rather it debilitates a person making them feel unworthy. Here’s how a compassionate conversation would look:

 

Friend 1: How did your exam go?

Friend 2: I feel terrible as I froze and couldn’t remember anything

Friend 1: I’m really sorry to hear that and I can see that you feel terrible. You must’ve put a lot of work in. Let’s work together to create ways to prevent you freezing again.

Friend 2: Thanks for seeing that I feel terrible. I really appreciate your support and know you want the best for me. 

 

The kindness and acceptance shown by Friend 1 shows Friend 2 that how they feel right now is seen and accepted. It is imbued with compassion so that Friend 2 can feel supported as they make steps to address why they froze and how to prevent it happening again. 

 

The above dialogues represent the options for our internal dialogue. In a situation where we’re filled with self-loathing, self-love is the last thing we often want to feel. Holding the possibility of being neutral to ourselves can be more welcoming as we sit in-between the polarities of hate and love. After guiding a short self-compassion meditation, a student relayed that as she felt irritable and angry, she didn’t want to feel love for herself. This is understandable as it’s too much of a switch, especially within 10 minutes! Holding oneself in a neutral space is enough to set aside the debilitating feelings and narrative of criticism to create an inner atmosphere that has more clarity and is in touch with the here and now. The following meditation contains sentiments that I’ve found incredibly useful when sliding into self-reproach. If you feel able to, taking long deep breaths and feeling into your heart will help to ground you in your body. 

 

May I be safe

 

May I be peaceful

 

May I be kind to myself

 

May I accept myself as I am

 

Anytime you begin to stew over mistakes and inadequacies, know that most of us do the best we can given the circumstances. I want to repeat that again, this time in first person: I did the best I could given the circumstances. Once again, repeat silently to yourself:

 

May I be safe

 

May I be peaceful

 

May I be kind to myself

 

May I accept myself as I am

 

****

 

With love and compassion,

Charlene. X

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