The Inner Critic + Self-Compassion

I’m on my yoga mat and I’m angry at my body:

“My stomach should be more toned.  So should my arms.  My hamstrings shouldn’t be so tight and I’m pretty sure these sun spots, pimples, and scars should be gone by now.” 

The inner critic has paid a visit.  She is loud and convincing.  She knows my weak, tender spots and sets them on fire.  Instead of suppressing her, I welcome the flames.  Resistance has taught me that the only way out is through.

Not only does the inner critic callously criticize my body, she also thinks its an opportune time to remind me of various inadequacies.  Sounds something like:

“You should be at a different place in your life with a more expansive understanding of everything and have much better communication skills and have way more money in savings and no longer be triggered by past pains.  You’ve got a ways to go and I don’t think you can get there.”

The practice of yoga asks us to be present with what is.  To somehow, through breath and movement, arrive at a place of being a non-judgmental (and loving) observer of our self-talk.  It almost seems like an impossible ask.  It’s why I’m tempted to resist practicing and/or meditating.  Drinking coffee and scrolling through Instagram and comparing myself seems much more appealing.  Yet, it is only through that inner wise witness that we begin to see our vulnerability and fears and be guided on how to relate to them in a way that fosters healing and growth.

Psychologists reveal that there are several versions of the inner critic.  There is the inadequate self which asserts that you are incompetent, faulty, or lacking and will offer examples in your life to corroborate this claim.  There is the hated self which is verbally abusive and responds with animosity and self-loathing.  Then there is the more humane version of the inner critic which is referred to as constructive self-criticism.  This is the awareness of our mistakes and shortcomings and it opens us up to do things differently.

So, what’s the point of the inner critic? 

Psychologists offer an astounding response:

Herein lies the koan-like paradox of the inner critic: It attacks and undermines you to protect you from the shame of failure…Shame is the feeling that we’re not worthy, competent, or good—that we are, in a sense, rotten at the core.  Beating ourselves up is a preemptive gambit to inoculate ourselves from external shaming.

It goes even further:

People with a strong inner critic tend to have one thing in common: However great their success, they don’t feel it’s genuine.  The inner critic won’t let them see their past achievements as ‘real’ for fear that, if they do, they’ll slack off and end up a ne’er-do-well [a lazy and irresponsible person].  They may push themselves more, with diminishing returns, driven more by fear of failure than inspiration.

Somewhere in my soul, I knew the inner critic thought its job was to protect me.  That if I could just sustain her cruelty, I’d ultimately develop an armor that could keep me safe in the outside world.  That if I have an endless list of inadequacies and insecurities, then it will guarantee that I never stop striving to be finally good enough. 

The inner critic thinks I need her to survive, and at the core, she is a very wounded ego, child, woman, human.  She is an accumulation of ancient hurts, unjust cultural conditioning, losses, and a recipient of harsh words and actions.  She felt she had no choice but to become the inadequate, hated self.  In her limited perception, she believes this self could possibly offer protection from future disappointments, embarrassments, heartaches.  Without her, she’s convinced I would be fragile and unproductive.

However, if I keep listening to her, where does that leave me?  Always in a state of do more, be more, get more.  As psychologists noted, these aspirations are driven by fear.  So, even if I do “arrive” somewhere under her guidance, the very nature of her existence won’t allow me to feel that it is enough (whatever that “it” may be: body image, money, achievement, etc.).

Given that the inner critic seems to be a part of the ride in this human experience, how do we handle it?

Dr. Kristin Neff proclaims that the medicine for the inner critic is self-compassion.  Self-compassion begins with accepting your humanness.  Instead of mercilessly judging yourself, you extend kindness and understanding.  You recognize that mistakes and limitations are just part of the human condition.  It’s something that we all experience; none of us are perfect.  Self-compassion is the willingness to observe our negative thoughts and emotions, but not become over-identified with them.  We are mindful of our pain, but we try not to get swept away in an endless loop of negative reactivity

Dr. Neff verifies that self-compassion actually manifests in our bodies through the release of oxytocin whereas self-criticism triggers the fight-or-flight response.  Dr. Neff states that self-compassion is not dependent on external circumstances; it can be summoned at any time, especially when the inner critic has stolen the mic.

I believe self-compassion has 2 soul sisters: self-care and self-love.  For me, self-love is remembering that we are fragments of the Divine; that our truest nature is Love and we treat ourselves as suchSelf-care is the things we do to remember and respect that inner divinity.  It can be:

  • Yoga, meditation, body-movement (aka exercise), being in mama nature
  • Dancing, chanting, tending to your creativity
  • Healthy eating (interspersed with joyful indulgences)
  • Seeking helpful/healing knowledge
  • Respecting your resources: time, money, energy, accomplishments
  • Releasing habits and relationships that no longer serve you

These actions are driven by inspiration; not fear.  Self-compassion is braided into her sisters.  When we forget our true nature or “fall off the wagon” of self-care, she is there to lift us and remind us of our inherent worth, value, and goodness.  Even when the inner critic is kicking and screaming.

I’m back on my yoga mat.  I’m struggling to stay in some twisted high lunge pose.  My breathing gets shallow.  Uggghhhh.  Why are my hips so tight?!?  Then I hear this sweet, strong voice, “You’re not broken.

I’m not broken…

I can breathe there. 

I can keep going from there.

Published by Vanessa Soriano

Vanessa Soriano is a 500-hour registered yoga teacher with a Ph.D. in Women’s Spirituality from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Given her educational background, she has discovered helpful (healing) info which she shares through teaching classes on spirituality, yoga, and holistic wellness. Vanessa guides you on how to integrate beliefs and practices that empower your mind, body, soul.

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