– written by Trish Bartley
I was driving up the dual carriageway, in the dark, on my way home. I had just finished teaching a mindfulness class at the local hospital and was aware of feeling agitated and troubled. ‘Why had I made that remark?’ I tried to reassure myself. It was not so bad. I had meant well (that terrible cliché) but an aching hole started to dig itself into that place just below the sternum. Thoughts began building up in momentum… ‘You should not be teaching if you say things like that.’ There it was – entirely convincing.
I wonder if this is familiar to you? As mindfulness teachers and practitioners, we would hope to spot the inner critic when it appears – but very often we don’t. The patterns of our judging mind are incredibly pervasive and they find their way into so many places. Internal messages constantly comparing: ‘I’m doing better than her.’ ‘He is doing better than me.’ ‘I’m not doing well enough.’ ‘I’m doing rather well,’ and so on – switching from one to another in an instant. This sort of repetitive pattern may be all too familiar, but it is worth remembering that we were not born with inner critics or judging minds. We have acquired them over a lifetime.
The good news is that despite this habitual tendency, the inner critic needs various conditions to make an appearance. Something happens that feeds a certain mode of mind, usually triggered by a sense of threat. One of those F words (flight, fight, freeze, etc.) gets activated and cascades of negative thoughts and judgements follow. They might be directed internally towards ourselves or externally towards others, or both. Once the pattern is established, it is hard to break free since it is routinely reinforced by self-beliefs (e.g. ‘I am always like this when….’) The grip of the message is convincing in its tyrannical way and the experience can feel wretched.
The inner critic is probably the most common way that aversion lands. The combination of doubt, attachment, and ruminative anxiety produce a nasty conflagration of reactivity and suffering. It is not surprising that so many of us have troubling inner critics in view of the individualistic culture we live in and the driven goals we often set ourselves. Approaching the inner critic as a universal tendency shared by us all can offer some immediate relief. Maybe it might even be possible to catch the irony of the judging mind, (it is trying to help?!) if we can just get enough space to see around it.
I entitled this blog: Can the inner critic ever be a help? However, what do you think?
I used to assume that the inner critic was part of the way I evaluated what I did and how I then developed understanding. I have come to realise that the inner critic is different from a practice of discernment. The first brings aversion and ill will. The second heralds understanding and insight.
Here are some possible steps to cultivating discernment and managing the inner critic:
- Recognising the inner critic – coming into the body. Over the years, I have got into the habit of actively looking out for the critical voice – using the body barometer (see below) to alert to unpleasant / aversive feelings that offer early warning of upcoming weather .
- Learning to stop fuelling the inner critic. Turning to the passenger seat beside me, and inviting it in. What do you have to say? I know you!
- Getting steady – What is here to hold with kindness? Choosing a short or longer mindfulness practice to hold the experience in kindly awareness – not waiting for a good moment later on – and remembering to include the body barometer.
- Practising discernment – What is there here to learn from? Later, when settled, turning to reflective practice – widening the focus to include the context and the space around the experience – What is this? What is being called for here? What is my understanding?
There is an important distinction to be made between discernment and the inner critic. Discernment involves no shame or judgement. It does not drag us down into despair. It offers an incentive to deepen understanding and cultivate insight. As mindfulness teachers, there is a lot for us to learn. We will always be learning. Even becoming relatively competent takes a long time. The role is complex, and we are often not as embodied as we would wish to be. Yet it is vital that we learn to address the areas and cultivate the skills that we need. In the early days, we first need to discover what these are – knowing that all this is part of the positive process of developing understanding and discernment. Compare that with the inner critic that sabotages learning by accusing, blaming, and tightening into fixed views.
I remember friends telling me about a struggle they were having with their builder. Some work in the house had not been finished. They had tried everything and they were at their wits end to find a way through the impasse. As the weeks dragged on, they felt more and more negative. They blamed themselves for not resolving it, for not being more assertive; and blamed the builder for not being more reasonable. It had become a major source of stress. Then Jane had a brainwave (Jane had been reading Feeding Your Demons by Tsultrim Allione). She saw clearly that the way that they were reacting was making things worse. She decided to change tack and invite the builder to tea! She baked a nice cake and some scones, and it all went rather well. Soon after, he did as he agreed and completed the work.
Without the judge and jury of the sabotaging inner critic, we can be more discerning about what the situation needs. We can make mistakes without feeling devastated. When we recognise the critic early, know it for what it is, and choose not to be sucked into it, we open ourselves to the possibility of deepening our understanding and responding kindly.
The Inner Critic: helpful writings, models, and talks
Models of the Inner Critic
The Four Stages of Learning a New Skill
The Four Stages of Learning a New Skill add a useful perspective to the inner critic and include:
- Unconscious Incompetence
- Conscious Incompetence
- Conscious Competence
- Unconscious Competence
At the beginning, there is unconscious incompetence, which is a risky place. We do not know what we need to know, but naively think that we do. Later, we become consciously incompetent, which is an uncomfortable place that may invite the very conditions that fuel the inner critic. However, this stage is necessary in order to become aware of what we need to learn. It is central to the process of acquiring new skills and becoming competent. With time and practice, conscious competence evolves, where new skills are more or less in place though they may lack flow and rely on learned technique. Finally, in unconscious competence, the skill is no longer new and at best is practised with authentic simplicity.
This model suggests a further development – that of reflective competence. This works well in relation to mindfulness teaching, where personal practice, supervision, retreat, reflection and peer learning hold the deepening insight and ethical space of the teacher. (Source: https://www.businessballs.com/self-awareness/conscious-competence-learning-model-63/ – a helpful summary of the ‘4 Levels of learning’ model. Courtesy of Will Taylor, Chair, Department of Homeopathic Medicine, National College of Natural Medicine, Portland, Oregon, USA, March 2007)
Near Enemies and Imposter Syndrome
In bringing the inner critic alongside discernment, it is interesting to look at the subject of near enemies.
The traditional term near enemy points to some…unhelpful quality or experience that can be mistaken for a helpful quality or experience. The near enemy is a kind of counterfeit of what we’re actually aiming for, and it’s unhelpful because while the genuine article helps free us from suffering, the counterfeit doesn’t. www.wildmind.org/tag/near-enemy
So we could see the inner critic as a near enemy of discernment. The same would be true in relation to the imposter syndrome, which may also be viewed as a near enemy of discernment.
Imposter Syndrome is a term – coined by Oberlin psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the late 1970s – to describe a set of beliefs that has us feeling we are frauds, that we are in some way lacking or unworthy, that we don’t deserve our successes and/or it’s only a matter of time before we’re found out. Research shows that although Imposter Syndrome is experienced by men, it is particularly prevalent among women, with over 70% of us experiencing imposter symptoms during, and in many cases throughout, our careers. http://www.sarahdurrant.co.uk/overcoming-imposter-syndrome/
Oliver Burkeman wrote an article in the Guardian a few years ago on the sneaky characteristic of the near enemy. It is worth a read.
Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about judging, non-judging and discernment in this 4 minute YouTube clip at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OwVkxcw1eZE.
Christina Feldman has a talk on Dharmaseed called The Judging Mind at http://dharmaseed.org/teacher/44/talk/10595/.
A Brief Practice
The Body Barometer can be practised anywhere – in the office, in a meeting, waiting, etc.
If you have an old fashioned barometer or have seen one, you will know that you use it by gently tapping on the glass front. Depending on which way the needle moves, it is possible to forecast upcoming weather. We can use our bodies in a similar way to give us sensitive information about upcoming emotional weather.
Here is how you do the Body Barometer Practice:
- Find some part of your body – preferably in the trunk – such as the chest area or the abdomen or somewhere between the two – that for you is especially sensitive to sensations of stress and difficulty – and where the inner critic shows itself. You can put your hand there.
- Once you have found the place, it can become your Body Barometer. Tuning into it regularly, you will notice different sensations at different times. When you are under pressure, feeling anxious, or irritable, you may notice sensations of tension, tightness, shakiness, or discomfort. The intensity of these sensations varies, depending on the level of your difficulty.
- As you practise this, you can become aware of quite subtle sensations. These may signal that something is just beginning to emerge, long before you are aware of this in the mind. If you wish, you can practise Coming to the Breath, or do a Breathing Space to help you to turn towards and gently hold what is happening. Or you may choose just to monitor the sensations in your barometer, moment by moment, and be with them as they are.
(Bartley, T. (2017). Mindfulness: A Kindly Approach to Being with Cancer. Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, pp 148-149)
I finish with a rather bad poem, entitled the Inner Critic, that I wrote some time ago. I hope it brings a smile.
Large green warty bits hang off the side of his nose,
and smoky smells come from him.
He is creepy and slimy,
slithering around corners
sliding up from under the dark cellar
appearing suddenly and unexpectedly.
‘Here I am – thought you’d got rid of me – eh?’
And there he is bigger than ever and just as ugly,
totally without positive possibility.
‘What shall I do with you?’ I plead with him.
‘My life would be so much better without you.
You bring up hurt and hate
You drop me into places of dark rank emptiness
like the cellar you slime from.’
‘I am the voice in your heart demanding your time,
Showing you dark corners, your secrets and shame.
Without me you would be lost in pleasure,
Sick with the pinkness of satisfaction, bloated with pride.
You should go on your knees and thank me for saving you
by showing you the blunders and flaws,
Oh my word you should.’
The farting warty toad stood still
Passion oozing from his eyes
Heart pounding in sincerity
Slime dropping onto the stone floor.
‘Kiss me,’ he said.
Trish Bartley has written two books on mindfulness and cancer – Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy for Cancer (2012), a teachers’ handbook and Mindfulness: A Kindly Approach to Being with Cancer (2017), a companion book for people with cancer. She is one of the retreat leaders for the Mindfulness Network and a member of the core training team for the Centre for Mindfulness, Research and Practice (CMRP), Bangor University. She leads mindfulness workshops in the UK and further afield.