All of us have a running stream of voices that direct critique inwards, which when well-managed can serve us well. However, for many students these voices become far too powerful, leaving them with low self-regard. In this blog entry guest writer Sangeeta Bansal and myself address this issue for students and teachers.*
This blog entry contains two parts. The first part addresses students directly with a summary of the message we would like them to hear about this incredibly important topic. Then in part two we speak in dialogue form about our own personal and pedagogical reflections on teaching about the Inner Critic.
If we could go back in time and tell our adolescent selves one message, it would very possibly be this: make peace with your self-critical voices. Both of us remember having strong consciences in our youth, but this gift of sensitivity would often morph into an autoimmune attack. A voice inside our heads was constantly questioning, critiquing, and scolding much of our lives – our motives, actions, abilities, and potential all came under incessant scrutiny. Its collective chronic message was, “You are not good enough.” Its tone was often mean-spirited and derogatory, and it did not seem to have our best interests at heart. Yet no one knew; by most measures we were successful academically, socially, and in our extracurricular activities. But worse than that, we didn’t know either.
Yet even then we were vaguely aware that something was amiss: why would we be so relentlessly critical of ourselves and so unfailingly generous to our friends who might be in the exact same situation? We were aware of the contradiction, but we had no instruction about what it was, its proper role, or how to deal with it. We would like to spare you this pain and confusion by sharing with you that this voice has been discovered, understood, and named – the Inner Critic – and that it can be harnessed for good.
Protector Turns Predator
How did this Inner Critic, with its unrelenting negativity towards us, come into our lives? Psychologists have found that at the age of six or seven, when we were separated from our primary caregivers for the first time, we started to internalize the language we heard from them and speak to ourselves in the same manner. “Don’t talk to strangers,” “Don’t eat that,” or “Don’t go there alone.” Initially, then, the Inner Critic reminded us of what was expected of us by our parents and by society, nudged us to walk that line, and reminded us of the consequences of not playing by the rules. This inner voice also provided positive functions, steering us away from potentially harmful situations, establishing a moral compass for our actions, and motivating us to strive for our full potential. So far, so good.
As we grew into adolescence, however, this inbuilt mechanism frequently became overly powerful and punitive, as we began the habit of comparing ourselves to others. Every hurtful experience became evidence that we did something wrong and created fear of walking that path again. You got a bad grade in Biology and your critic commented, “Don’t try to be good in science; you will fail and it will hurt.” You didn’t get invited to a party, and the inner critic reasoned with you, “Nobody really likes you, so you’d better not put yourself out there for further humiliation.” The memory of this pain got trapped in the innermost recesses of the body-mind complex with the warning sign: “That Hurt – Do Not Repeat!” When faced with a potential for a similar hurtful situation, alarm bells went off in the brain: “Don’t go there – Danger Ahead.”
The brain cannot distinguish between real and perceived danger. It reacts in the same way whether a tiger is chasing you in the jungle, or you feel left out from a social group. Fear activates the stress response, resulting in hormones cascading through our bodies, creating havoc in our body-mind system. The tough stance taken by the Inner Critic activates our stress-based survival mode – fight, flight, or freeze.
Very soon the Inner Critic started expanding its domain to include everything that you held meaningful in your lives. Because a certain activity is meaningful and important to you, it became even more important to build up the defenses. The Inner Critic rewarded you for NOT trying, for NOT taking on any challenge or any risk; on the other hand, it was merciless with perceived failure.
In time the Inner Critic has shrunken our world to a tiny island safely ensconced behind barricades where no one could threaten its security. We might then feel safe, but at the cost of sacrificing the best things in life – our potential for growth, creativity and joy. These voices, largely undetected, resulted in us making choices designed to keep us safe from being hurt but oftentimes result in preventing us from living out our dreams.
The collective impact of this negative feedback from ourselves and those whom we respect and admire results in us questioning our self-worth. This self-imposed inquisition becomes present not only in our thoughts, but also embedded in our emotions and even the body’s cellular structure.
Voices of the Inner Critic
So what does the Inner Critic sound like? Here are a few examples from HKIS students:
Girl: “I was bullied a lot when I was a kid and I always let what people say to me get to me. If someone said I was dumb I guess I am dumb then. I never stood up for myself either. My mom used to tell me I was a doormat and that I am weak for letting people get to me. I don’t create my inner critic; other people do and it gets so strong that it now has a mind of its own. I am not mentally strong, I know that…My mind has the better control over me. I am not myself; I am my inner critic.”
Boy: “Only this year did I find out that my parents weren’t the ones who were putting all that pressure on me to get to good grades. It was my inner critic telling me that I wasn’t good enough and no matter what I do, it will be bad or not up to standard.”
Girl: “As soon as I entered high school, I found writing becoming increasingly harder until I physically couldn’t write because I was scared of doing so. I would tell myself it wasn’t good enough and it didn’t make sense and that I would fail. That was why I constantly dreaded humanities assignments.”
Boy: “I always have trouble seeing the good in me even when I was younger. All I thought about was the bad things I did and the mistakes I made and It made me feel like I don’t deserve the love I’m given by this almighty God that is perfect in all ways.”
It comes as a relief to many high school students that they aren’t the only ones struggling with a negative soundtrack playing in the background of the mind.
What Can We Do?
So, what can students do once they realize that this is an issue in their lives? We have seven tips to help you manage the negative forces that have taken up residence in your subconscious mind and body, and channel that energy into more positive outcomes.
- Accept: We can start by accepting that the birth of the Inner Critic is a natural human phenomenon, a part of being a fully functional person. We accept the idea of a common humanity, where everyone goes through a similar experience of suffering, and we are not alone in this. “This is not just me, this happens to everyone.”
- Acknowledge: Every time you spot it, say “hello” to it. Recognizing its subtle, but distinctive voice already begins to lessen its authority. “Oh there you are again…” Try rolling your eyes with that acknowledgment! When seen, the inner critic has the tendency to scurry away into the dark alleys from which it emerged.
- Catch the Inner Critic in the Act: Start noticing when the Inner Critic noticeably asserts its strength. Be particularly watchful when you look in the mirror. It usually cringes or says things like “Ouch!” Watch out when you are about to speak in public. Your Inner Critic may warn you of how much your audience will hate your talk. When you have to do something you’ve always wanted to do but never actually accomplished, it will oftentimes throw distractions in your way to keep you from your goal. When you find yourself procrastinating on a project, it may be a sign that your Inner Critic is covertly undermining your work. It’s urging you to “not try,” to dissuade you from taking on something new, saying,“It’s not a good day today.”
- Spiritual Practice: A mindfulness practice sensitizes the mind to its more subtle movements, which will allow you to start spotting this Inner Critic before he starts sabotaging your well laid plans. “I see you, Mr. Critic.”
- Transform the Energy: Don’t fight the energy, but rather use it to further refine your goals, and then dismiss it. “I see how you are trying to protect me, but I really want this to work. You may now leave – I got this.” You may even take on a bolder tone and say something like, “Who asked for your opinion?!”
- Activate Your Inner Coach: Speak to your younger/unsure self with the voice of a compassionate, cheering and loving coach. “You can do this.” If your younger sibling or a mentee who looked up to you was bullied by someone, what kind of advice would you give him or her?
- Develop Unconditional Positive Regard: This can be something as simple as putting both fists in the air and saying loudly, “I’m Awesome!” This takes frequent practice and we should remember to applaud ourselves every time we go against the warnings posted by the inner critic, making it feel more and more like the boy who cried wolf.
We believe that these tips could have a profound impact on your whole approach to life. Give it a try and see what happens!
(This second image of the now-liberated Inner Critic is also borrowed from the
“She Stands Tall” blog site.)
Loving Kindness Meditation
We have found that spiritual practices can help tame the Inner Critic. By helping you become more aware of what’s going on in your mind, meditation enables you to catch yourself when you are making disturbing self-critiques. Then ask yourself: is that running commentary in my head useful or not? If not, try and let go of that voice.
Sometimes letting go, however, is a lot harder than it sounds. Gaining the power to allow self-critique to enter and then pass through your mind involves building up an inner voice of self-compassion. Many students find a Loving Kindness Meditation (LKM) an effective meditation to treat yourself with the same kind of compassion that you would treat a friend, which slowly shifts your subconscious thought patterns. Our advice is to try to the LKM on a daily basis for two weeks, and see if your self-talk becomes gentler. We particularly like this 10-minute LKM by Mark Williams.
But it’s not only about being kinder to yourself, but in time as you cultivate a heart of generosity towards yourself, you will also find a desire to treat everyone with this same love. You start with yourself, and then extend that strength to others. This is a very different approach than when you are critiquing yourself, which leads to either judging others harshly who are “below” you or envying those who are “above.” The LKM meditation has a leveling effect, connecting you to the rest of humanity.
Here is how one junior described the power of the LKM in her life:
“In any emotional situation, most people come to me for help because I give off a very caring and compassionate energy, or so I am told….In recent years [however] I have become less compassionate due to stress. I used to have a very sweet and bubbly character, especially to my parents, but in recent years I have lashed out at them and at other people that I normally would not….I remember being very focused during the [loving kindness] meditation….After the first meditation, I felt a change in my energy and my soul. I felt my old character revived, it was amazing. I got so many comments about my changed character from my peers. It was crazy to me that people around me could sense a change in my character that was motivated by a simple meditation….I made people happier around me because I was more compassionate due to meditating every day for 20 minutes. I became aware of how powerful LKM is. I had a talk with Dr. Schmidt after class one day about loving-kindness and it really hit me how life changing this meditation can be.”
Another powerful example comes from Natalia, a student who was deeply moved and distraught by her weekend experience at the Foshan orphanage. To deal with this emotional disturbance, she used the LKM to help her through this “grieving process.” She demonstrated how she worked through her emotions by playing an improvised piano piece at the beginning and then the end of her 10 days of doing LKM. Her second improv had a far more upbeat tone to it. To learn more about her story and hear her two pieces, hit here.
Our greatest hope is that you can recognize the inner contradiction that many of you as young people have between harsh self-critique and the generous support you give to friends with similar challenges. If your natural impulse is to care for others, why are you loathe to comfort yourself? The first step in dealing with the Inner Critic is recognizing its existence and how it oftentimes sabotages what you are trying to accomplish in life. The next step is to develop a regular meditation practice to anchor that inner voice of self-compassion in your body-mind-heart self. Putting these two steps into practice will enable you to develop this life skill, and in so doing enhance the gift of yourselves to the world.
- This 10-minute video by “The Honest Guys” helps listeners to question negative self-talk.
- This 5-minute video assists listeners to replace fears and doubts into confidence and calm.
Reflecting on and Teaching about the Inner Critic
Marty (M): Hello Sangeeta, I want to first say thanks to you for bringing this issue of the Inner Critic to my attention. Prompted by your reading and teaching in this area, earlier this year I asked my 9th graders how many of them felt that they were a stronger critic of themselves than anyone else in their lives, and I was pretty shocked when 17 of the 20 students raised their hands. I thought “Whoa!”, I need to investigate this more! My sense now is that this issue is pervasive in our school community. Is that what you are gathering in your teaching of high school students in New York?
Sangeeta (S): Yes, this is similar in New York where I’m bringing this lesson to my high schoolers. Most kids raise their hands when I ask them if they have heard this critical voice inside their heads, and some even admitted that they had names for them! However, they are rather taken aback when I tell them about the potential havoc that is wreaked by this inner critic.
M: It rings true for me personally, too. I think that for most of my life I’ve suffered with an overly active Inner Critic. I remember as both an adolescent as well as an adult being struck by the contradiction that I was far tougher on myself than I would be to a friend who had the same problem. It didn’t make sense to me, but at the same time I couldn’t release myself from this internal conundrum. I have a very distinct memory from college that I would like to share, put into the Christian terms of my upbringing. I was standing outside the student center at my university in North Carolina, and that Inner Critic muttered to myself, “What a sinner!” I have no idea what the thought or issue was, but what made it memorable was that in the next instant some other voice responded, “But you’re a forgiven sinner!” Some other more hidden part of me, it seemed, had to make the obvious point that the Christian message was all about forgiveness, so why was I beating myself up about my imperfections? Something inside me was trying to dampen that self-critical voice, which was the right intuition, but then I didn’t have the power to integrate this insight into my daily life.
S: How do you make sense, if I can ask quite candidly, of your inability as a young Christian to carry out a most basic teaching in Christianity: to love yourself?
M: No, that’s a great question, and I think it’s quite relevant here. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr recently commented, “Most people naturally feel that God must be pleased and placated. The isolated ego cannot imagine infinite and gratuitous love. Until we receive the Gospel on a cellular level, the little mind processes reality in some form of ‘tit for tat.’” I take this to mean that our default system can only accept conditional love, which leads us to great insecurity. With all the negative voices that we have internalized from our childhood, we can’t truly believe that God or anyone else values us unconditionally, a message which appears in religious traditions across the globe. So, even though we may be taught that God loves us in our religious communities, the ego can’t accept it as true. What a tragedy!
S: And we can go one step further. Most religious traditions teach that the goal is to become one with God, so if we cannot believe the teaching that we are deserving of unconditional love, just think how impossible it would be to absorb this even more radical non-dualistic teaching about our oneness with God where we become active co-creators of the world. As I became familiar with the self-critical mindset, I began to wonder if this is what holds us back from experiencing our innate divinity. This is why I see the Inner Critic concept as a gateway teaching to the most profound religious truths concerning unconditional love, unity with God, and creating a better world.
M: So, Sangeeta, let’s go from these sublime considerations to Rohr’s statement that we have to receive how deeply we are loved “on a cellular level.” I’m still trying to understand this counter-intuitive teaching that such brilliant esoteric truths need to be ground-truthed in bodily flesh and blood!
S: That’s why spiritual practices generally aim not just at the mind, but at the body and heart level as well. Just as we once internalized all those negative messages about our unworthiness as children throughout our body-mind-heart self, we now need to replace that message with the “infinite and gratuitous love” into our deep physical selves – down to that energetic cellular level – where matter and energy, body and spirit are indistinguishable.
M: Yes, I agree. And if loving our neighbor is perhaps the fundamental religious command, yet we can’t even love ourselves, how authentic and consistent can our actual care be for others?
Let’s turn to you, Sangeeta. Can you share your experience with the Inner Critic?
S: Well, like you, Marty, the inner critic has been a companion on my educational journey. As an undergrad in college I was a history major, which I loved and did very well in academically. However, when I decided to pursue a masters degree in business, there were several voices around me – friends, teachers and other well-wishers – that warned me that this was a difficult choice for someone who did not have advanced college level mathematics. Eventually I internalized those voices and whenever a difficult math problem came up I would say to myself, “Oh, this is impossible for someone like me because I’m no good at math – I’m just a history major…these people are much smarter.” I stayed away from any work opportunities that involved doing math.
Years later, when I migrated from business to teaching topics in psychology, world religions and then eventually Buddhist and Indian philosophy, my inner critic once again reacted rather predictably. “Who do you think you are? There are so many experts out there, you’re not anywhere as good as them. You should not be in this area, you don’t know enough. You’re a business major, for god’s sake!” By this time, I had some understanding of how this voice was trying to keep me from making a fool of myself. It had my “best” intentions at heart. It urged me to not put myself out there for ridicule. It encouraged me to stay small and invisible.
M: So, what did you do to deal with the Inner Critic?
S: Interestingly, what worked against this “safe player” mental state, intent on shrinking my world into a safe haven where I would never get hurt, was another strong inner voice that said, “Doing this feels so good.” When I chose to act out of my highest intentions for myself, not just the intention to play safe, I was energized by a force that can only be described as “purpose.” I felt aligned with my true purpose. I noticed my body and mind going into stress mode before a big talk, and then I noticed a rush of excitement that overcame this stress. I chose to pay attention to this rush of excitement rather than the voice of the inner critic.
M: Both of us have this sense of distinctly different voices inside of our heads, battling it out for our attention and ultimately for our decisions to act. And I have to say over the last five years that I’ve been meditating, the Inner Critic in its adversarial role has pretty much disappeared. The generosity that I can extend to other people I now extend to myself.
But here’s the question I’ve been asked in class: has the dismissal of that “slavedriver” that always tells you to do more meant that you have become less productive? In all honesty, it’s possible that I do achieve less in terms of actual output. But what has happened is that as I learn about ways to heal myself through meditation and all the body-mind-heart connections, I am changing what and how I teach. I have discovered, it seems, what really matters for myself and my students. In that sense, I am more “efficient,” even if the volume of work is reduced. That’s my take at this point on this question. How would you address this, Sangeeta?
S: There is nothing wrong about noticing our flaws – for example, a tendency to procrastinate – and try to motivate ourselves by pushing a little harder. Very often, my students fear that if they don’t have this self critical voice, they will let themselves off the hook too easily and not get any work done. I like to emphasize that there is no problem with trying to boost self motivation, and avert slacking off. It’s the delivery method and the tone of the message that we are trying to change. Over the long-term the inner critic does not accomplish its goal to boost motivation; in fact, over time it damages morale. A voice that is compassionate will do the opposite – it will encourage you to try again, and not beat yourself up for what happened in the past. The inner critic judges and condemns based on one misdemeanor whereas the inner coach gives you several opportunities to grow.
M: That’s a helpful way to reframe this question. Accepting myself has been a life-long journey for me, so I don’t want to pretend that doing a Loving Kindness Meditation is a cure-all, but I would say that there has been a growing acceptance of who I am and who I am not. Over the years I have come to see that following my intuition, even when it wasn’t recognized by others at the time, is a reliable guide to what I need to do with my life choices. What meditation has done for me is allow a lot of baggage that I was carrying from childhood thought patterns to recede into the background.
S: Yes, I agree that meditation is really about changing habitual patterns of thinking and behavior, most of which we acquired before we became conscious of the damage they could do. This awareness shines new light on areas of our lives that hold us back in so many ways, keeping us from experiencing life in a joyful way.
M: Yes, living a more abundant life seems to come from letting go of the Inner Critic, which subtly shift one’s identity from this visible, tangible world (what I often call the horizontal dimension in religion class) to a more secure invisible domain. Success or failure on the horizontal is not so important now because there is a rootedness beyond it that allows me to accept life as it comes, to somehow relax into reality. Of course, these things are not easy to describe, but my sense is that letting go of the Inner Critic in the end is a surrendering of the ego to something greater. There is a comfort in not taking oneself so seriously, and resting in something else.
S: I love that…This is why I just keep reading about these new insights from professors and researchers. We are discovering new ways to apply ancient truths to our lives. It’s an exciting time to be alive and I’m so grateful to have these teachings available to us!
M: I feel the same. Can you recommend an author for us to get started with to learn more about the Inner Critic?
S: Kristin Neff of the University of Texas has become the leading voice in the field. The insights she has gathered over the last 20 years are shared clearly in her Tedx talk. Her book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself provides more detail about the key concepts that she speaks about.
M: Thanks for your years of dedicated study; look forward to more insights to follow.
S: And I want to hear how you integrate these ideas into your SSS class and your exciting new Spiritual Explorations course.
M: Will do, and let me know how this all plays out in New York.
S: Of course. Bye.
*Note: The featured image is borrowed from the “She Stands Tall” blog site.
About the Authors
Sangeeta Bansal, Ph.D., is a certified mindfulness teacher based in New York, dedicated to bringing self awareness to the community. She has taught mindfulness at several universities and schools in the New York area, including Princeton University, NYU Stern School of Business and Rye Country Day School.
Marty Schmidt teaches high school humanities and religion courses at Hong Kong International School. He completed his Ed.D. in social conscience education in 2010.
This is their second cooperative effort on this blog. You may also read their “Teaching Consciousness of the Body: Two Practitioners in Dialogue” here.
“Why You Should Stop Being So Hard on Yourself,” NY Times, May 22, 2018.