I remember how critical I used to be about myself. I would compare myself to others and almost always feel like less – less beautiful, less eloquent, less talented. It caused me pain and limited me. I didn’t realize then how much pain I was creating for myself. The sad irony was that I was so immersed in my pain that I didn’t understand I had great gifts to offer just by being me.
The journey from there to here wasn’t something I planned out ahead, but looking back I can see the steps I took to get to a completely different place. It’s not that I’m constantly happy and everything is blissful now. However, I am in a place where first and foremost I’m compassionate towards myself. I’m rarely at war with myself like I used to be.
The key was to start befriending myself. For me the first step was to become aware of my inner critic.
Meeting the inner critic
I was seeing a therapist and I confided in her, full of shame, that I had this voice inside of me that was so critical. It would criticize not just myself but the people I loved the most. When I met my friends, it would say all kinds of negative things about them. Of course, I never told them. I was so ashamed. I thought there was something wrong with me since I had such an evil side.
To my relief she told me I wasn’t the only one with this experience. She told me it was my inner critic that may have grown too strong and loud. She helped me see that this was originally something that was actually there to protect me, to look out for me by paying attention to potential dangers and threats. She guided me through an NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) exercise. I don’t recall the details, but at the end I drew a bird which symbolized my critical voice. She recommended that I put it somewhere visible. She helped me understand that I didn’t have to believe what it said. By identifying it and getting to know the voice, I would create distance from it and it would slowly become softer. It would not disappear but that was not the point.
There’s nothing wrong with us
I can’t tell you how liberating it was to find out that I wasn’t this critical voice; there wasn’t something fundamentally wrong with me. As I write this now I feel sad that I ever had such feelings about myself. At the same time, I feel strongly about sharing my story. It’s by talking about things like this that we understand there’s nothing wrong with us.
Becoming aware of the stories
The next thing that really helped me was when I started to meditate daily. I went on a four-day silent retreat where we were guided through different meditation techniques. We alternated between sitting and walking meditations for 10 hours a day. It was intense. I had a couple of sessions when I would get very strong emotions and cry and cry and cry. I told the leader about it. He helped me pay attention to the stories in my mind when I experienced these emotions. It was interesting to see how my mind would wander to memories about some painful episode or fears about an imagined future. That would trigger really strong emotions.
Getting to know the mind
What I took away from this was the ability to start seeing how my mind works, to start paying attention to the stories that are created in my mind. Not because I need to stop them or change them, but by being able to see them and observe them I can create a distance and increasingly let negative stories have less power over me.
(I feel I have to mention that I feel old trauma and wounds can be stored in us that need to come out. This can happen in meditation, therapy, movement, bodywork, etc. but that is not the focus of this post.)
The nature of the mind is repetitive
If I have a painful story about myself that comes up regularly, it will most likely trigger emotions and I will feel bad. If I don’t recognize that it’s just a story that comes up, then I will feed it by engaging with it – fighting it, believing it or feeling sorry for myself. I will actually help it grow stronger and reappear more often by engaging with it. It’s an endless spiral.
Naming the top ten tunes of the mind
“There is a whole drama department in our thoughts, and its casting director is indiscriminately handing out the roles of inner dictators and judges, adventurers and prodigal sons, inner entitlement and inner impoverishment.” – Jack Kornfield
Meditation teacher Jack Kornfield talks about naming your top 10 tunes of the mind. You start paying attention to the stories that most normally come up. By knowing and naming them you can create distance. For example, I found out that one of my top 10 tunes is comparing myself to others and telling me I’m less. Once I saw that, I could see clearly when that song played in my mind. “Oh, hello comparing voice, there you are again.” By naming it I created distance and don’t give power to it.
Let go of judging the judging mind
Once we start becoming aware of our thoughts and identify our tunes along with the inner critic, we can then unconsciously create more pain. We try to get rid of them or judge the fact that they are there in the first place.
In Buddhism, they talk about the first and second arrow (like you’re being shot by an arrow). The first arrow is a metaphor for the actual pain we experience in any form – rejection, criticism, feelings of depression or dissatisfaction, to name a few. The second arrow symbolizes the pain we create ourselves in our minds. It can be self-judgment for feeling like this, aversion to the feelings, blame, etc.
Taking back the personal power
The key is to know that we have the power to not shoot the second arrow.
We can choose not to engage in deciding whether our thoughts are good or bad. In this way we do not induce extra pain on ourselves. Instead we observe, name, tend to and accept what is. Acceptance is not to be confused with resignation. Acceptance is to know that the nature of the mind is to think. There are tons of thoughts that flow through us. Our personal power lies in not fighting it and learning to use our mind when it serves us; otherwise just let it go.
Nurturing the relation to oneself
Once I started to see this separation between thoughts and lived life I could increasingly let go of the negative self-beliefs I had. It takes practice to retrain how we relate to ourselves but I find it to be the most valuable practice in which we can engage. How we relate to ourselves is the foundation for everything else. So, here’s an invitation. If you don’t already do it, start paying attention to the thoughts that go through your mind. You might be surprised by what you find.