“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but thought about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking.”
I spent the three days leading up to my thirtieth birthday at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center, also known as Green Dragon Temple, a Buddhist retreat in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition. I worked on their farm, listened to lectures, and meditated.
In their nightly dharma talk, the monks spoke about being a witness to the critical inner voice, but not empowering it. For me, this was a foreign concept; I still believed that this voice was who I was. Though I had become awake and conscious enough to take myself to a Zen center, I was still flying the defective, self-critical banner. As much as I wanted to love myself, I couldn’t stop the voice in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough, smart enough, thin enough…enough.
I left Green Gulch on my actual birthday and drove home, crying the whole way. (At the time, I thought crying was a sign of weakness, but I always knew on some level that tears were scrubbing bubbles for my soul.) When I got home, I had several birthday messages on my machine. I returned the call of one friend—a role model who, for many reasons, embodied the way I wanted to be myself. I had spent three days at Green Gulch trying to find a way of being that didn’t involve suffering, and Debbie was someone who actually lived this way.
In her bold, truth-telling way, she said to me, “Laura, I am fifty years old, and you are turning thirty today. I hope that you don’t spend the next twenty years agonizing over who you are.” She said, “You have suffered enough. Get over yourself and be happy now. Don’t wait until fifty!”
I laughed and cried through the talk with her, realizing that beating myself up was a choice I was making and, though I didn’t yet know what it was, there was a way out of this cycle.
Following that conversation, whenever I would begin to agonize over why I wasn’t thinner, prettier, or more successful, I would tell myself, “Remember what she said: It does not have to be this hard, Laura. You can take yourself out of the cycle.” I began to acknowledge the cycle for what it was and knew that I was the only one who could—and would—liberate myself.
Slowly, I began to see the voice as a part of me—the wounded part of me—while at the same time knowing it was not me. One cannot deny feeling crappy or depressed. What I ultimately learned is that I first had to accept that I was unhappy, but that the emotion was not who I was. It was simply where I was in that moment, whether for an hour or a year.
Through years of practice, I have finally incorporated the messages of Green Gulch and Debbie into my daily life. I have learned to step back and observe my patterns of thought. When the inner critic or doubter raises its voice, rather than ignoring or getting angry at it, I simply say, “Oh, there you are again.”
The solution is much simpler than it seems. None of us can kill the pain or beat it out, but we can quiet it.
What Is The Inner Critic?
The inner critic comes out in the everyday putdowns—the negative self-talk we use to discourage ourselves. For example:
- Personal attacks on yourself. These include name calling, harsh criticism, and feelings of self-hatred and self-loathing.
- Complaints about your situation and the people in it. Complaining disempowers you. As long as you have someone or something to blame, you keep yourself in the role of victim.
- Judgment is the subtlest form of negativity. If you compare yourself to others, you are not only judging the other person but yourself as well. And every time you compare yourself to the ideal standard, as perfectionists do, you always lose.
Until I understood the science behind it, I didn’t realize the extent to which my self-talk ruled my body and health.
Negative self-talk will actually shrink your brain!
A study at McGill University, by Dr. S. Lupien, found the brains of those with negative self-esteem actually shrink over time. In the fifteen-year study, the brains of those with low self-esteem became 20% smaller than those of the participants who felt good about themselves. Furthermore, many studies have attached low self-esteem to chronic depression, eating disorders, addiction, learning disorders, nervous disorders, cancer, and heart disease.
How to Quiet the Inner Critic
How can we concentrate on bettering ourselves and our lives without judgment and negative self-talk? It involves a skill most of us excelled at as children but have since lost.
As adults, we get in the nasty habit of attaching a story, label, belief, or judgment to everything we experience. Our memories recall our judgment and belief about the experience rather than the authentic nature of the experience itself.
Observation is an art and a potent practice for joyful living, somewhat akin to meditation. Being aware of your thoughts releases you from their power and allows you to let them go instead of turning them into your reality.
Try not to judge your judgments. Instead, imagine yourself hovering above your thoughts, watching them flow into your brain.
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Acknowledge them, thank them, and then lovingly let them go.
Observing negative self-talk and taking on the larger role of “observer” in your life will take some time to get used to.
An affirmation is a statement in the present tense, using only positive language, about what you want to be true (or maybe what is already true but that you can’t quite yet believe). By halting the automatic program that activates our negative thoughts, our brains stop and allow us to consciously choose which of the two thoughts to activate. Once we do that enough, our bodies form a permanent relationship with the positive thought and its new peptide, and this eventually becomes as natural and automatic as our negative thought once was.
To create an affirmation:
- Make it Personal. It’s about you, not other people. Use phrases such as: I am, I do, I have, I receive. We can’t use affirmations to change other people, but we can use them to change our reaction and perception of them.
- Be Positive. Always have a positive focus of what you desire to experience. Use only positives (i.e. avoid no or don’t). Use positive words (i.e. change “I don’t complain” to “I see the positive”).
- Use Present Tense. The affirmation is a statement that you already have what you are affirming. Use the most bold, positive phrasing that you can muster.
- Be Precise. Be Specific. Imagine you ordered something from a catalog or website, and all you specified is, “I want a dress. Something pretty.” The company won’t have a clue what to send you. What size? What color? The universe works the same way. If it doesn’t know exactly what you want, it can’t deliver it.
While I know myself today and feel the love that I am, I still have an inner mean girl, a critical voice that lurks in the background. As I said, we can quiet our critic but maybe not get rid of it entirely. How I react to that voice today is different; I call on my true self and ask her to help me. And it works! I have mastered making that mean girl’s voice quiet down pretty quickly. She starts up; I observe her; and then I replace her with the positive truth. We all have the power to do this.
I welcome hearing from you if you have any tips/tools on how YOU quiet your inner critic.
Weight Release & Body Image Coach, Laura Fenamore, is on a mission to guide women around the world to love what they see in the mirror—one pinky at a time—so they can unlock the secrets to a healthy weight and start loving their lives as soon as possible. Having overcome her own battle with addiction, obesity, and eating disorders, Laura released over one hundred pounds twenty-four years ago, beginning her on a journey to guide other women to live more joyous, balanced lives. Laura believes that self-love and self-care is where the transformation begins. Learn more about Laura at OnePinky.com and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
*Image courtesy of carolynsn.