Photo by Stanley Dai
One of the things I so appreciate about training in mindfulness and self-compassion is how it helps bring things to light for me. Mindfulness has the potential to help me notice and understand what my mind is up to. Self-compassion can help me meet my suffering with kindness which makes more space for learning and growth. I’m thinking about this as I consider how critical my mind can be, how it tightens me up in unhelpful ways, and how helpful my mindfulness and self-compassion practices are in these situations.
Here’s an example.
As the Executive Director of Mindfulness Northwest (MNW) one of the challenges I’m privileged to have is fundraising. Last week I sent out a fundraising email. I find it difficult to write such a message. (I bet most people do!) Asking for money feels awkward. And it’s easy to doubt that the ask I’m making is even that valid. I can get into a scarcity mindset and feel like we’re not deserving enough, given all the many challenges we face as a people, as a planet.
I do know that what we offer at MNW is of real value and helps all kinds of people in ways that ripple outward for the good. I’ve heard a number of amazing stories over the years.
Reminding myself of these things helped me set aside my concerns and quiet my critical mind. So, I began to write.
Photo by Hide Obara
The words seemed to flow easily. A colleague proofed the email and made a few suggestions. I popped in a few images of people in some of our programs and sent it off. I tried not to worry too much about bothering thousands of people with yet another fundraiser message at the end of the year. Overall, in that moment of hitting send, it seemed okay. Go. Task done.
Moments later, however, I started thinking of all kinds of possible flaws in my fundraising email.
My first worry: I really should have included some of the wonderful testimonials people have written for us about how helpful they’ve found our programs. Bummer. Missed opportunity there.
Later, I was disappointed in my choice of pictures I used from our classes. Why hadn’t I shown a little more of the diversity of folks who come to Mindfulness Northwest programs? Darn it, another mistake.
Over the next few days, a longer list of “shoulds” and personal inadequacies started rolling around in my mind about the email. I started feeling pretty badly about the whole thing. What began as a reasonable fundraising message became a series of mistakes expanding with each new thought popping into my head. My gut tightened as I concluded that the biggest mistake in all of this was: me. Ouch!
Photo by Mira Kemppainen
Thankfully, the following morning I woke up with a realization, “That’s the inner critic talking to me,” I told myself. “And the way it’s talking to me is toxic.”
The inner critic. We all seem to have a version of it: that powerful inner voice that, although it wants the best for me, has a way of ‘encouraging’ me to do better with tactics that are really damaging and constricting. The inner critic can be so unkind in my head. Full of those “shoulds” and regrets. It seems to doubt that I’ll ever get it right so it tries to ‘help’ me in some painful ways.
For some of us, the inner critic may also be internalized shame we’ve lived with for a long time. Think about its corrosive power for people with marginalized identities who suffer under horrible messages from the dominant culture their entire lives. Or folks who hear in their heads the harsh voice of an early caregiver who traumatized them.
The inner critic can be a reflection of all kinds of messages we’ve received throughout our lives: some helpful and some not helpful at all.
Do you know what I mean? How’s that voice in your head?
Regarding the email I’d written, I began to realize that receiving the inner critic’s unsolicited advice as ‘true’ left me not feeling inspired to keep learning and growing and appreciating what I’ve accomplished so far. It left me exhausted and tight. Shut down. Ashamed.
In fact, in those moments when I was lamenting writing the fundraising email, the inner critic even brought up the faces of other people in my life. I was imagining that they, too, were criticizing me not only about my fundraising email but about other unrelated issues! A clever way, I guess, for the inner critic to exert even more power over me.
When I noticed what was happening – that what I was thinking about and the pain I was feeling was from my inner critic – it’s like a light bulb turned on for me. And in that moment of mindful awareness things slowly began to shift.
I could feel waves of tension, embarrassment, and even shame releasing. “I have an inner critic and I am not my inner critic,” I reminded myself.
As I encouraged myself with self-compassion, a more balanced perspective of this particular incident – and who I am – started to take shape. I began considering again that I’d written and sent out a perfectly fine fundraising email. Heartfelt and honest. Was I really as bad as my inner critic purported? Actually, no.
Photo by Kacper Szczechia
Once this frame shifted in my head and heart, I felt so much more hopeful. More whole. Could my letter have been more effective and more inclusive? Sure. But what else is true? Breathing in some self-compassion helped me remember: I’m not tragically flawed. I’m okay. I’m doing my best. And I can keep moving forward, learning and growing, with a good heart.
As my heaviness slowly lifted, I began thinking about how my own judgments of others can sound a bit like my inner critic. I reflected on a challenging friendship I have and how easy it is for me to give rise to critical thoughts about my friend. How that’s really the same sort of message running around in my head, just on another channel. Unhelpful. And often pretty unfair to my friend! I realized how easy it is to tell myself, “He’s always that way,” even if I never say it aloud. But I’m sure this type of critical thinking influences what I do say to my friend. And it certainly makes it harder for me to enjoy and appreciate his goodness.
Hmm. An awareness and a softening here, too.
As we go into this new year, here’s my resolution: pay attention to the critical voice. Just see what it’s up to. Naming it and meeting myself there with compassion may help me zoom out to a much wiser and kinder perspective with myself and with others.
Wishing all of us freedom and joy with our challenging minds!
P.S. I started learning to relate to the inner critic more wisely from the Mindful Self-Compassion class when I first took it. I’m so happy that we’re now offering a few sessions of this every quarter online and in person in Seattle and Bellingham. I invite you to check it out, too. We have 3 different forms of this class coming up: evening introductory programs, a weekend workshop, and the thorough 8-week class format.
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