The Habit of Self-Criticism

"I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud becasue they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish." Anne Lamott

My inner critic on any given day, “Oh my god . . . can you believe I did that again. When will I ever learn? What is wrong with me? How embarrassing. WTF. I’m so broken.”

In Dr. Kristen Neff’s new book, Fierce Compassion, she says, “ research shows that women are less self-compassionate than men. The reason we’re less self-compassionate is partly due to the fact that we tend to be more self-critical. When the threat-defense response is triggered, it often manifests as self-judgment, feelings of isolation, and over identification. Individuals in subordinate positions have to be more vigilant against danger, leading women to rely on self-criticism as a way to feel safe.”

We criticize ourselves to feel safe? Wow stop the press. You mean the persistent, hypercritical, and repetitive voice in my head, just wants me to be safe? It doesn’t seem to notice that its unrelenting diatribe makes me feel anything but secure.

Prior to understanding the brain’s primary function is survival, I was baffled by how cruel my inner critic could be because I was naturally kind and patient with others. There seemed to be a big disconnect. I practiced self-talk and managing my mind, which was helpful to a point and somewhat exhausting.

What turned out to be the game changer for me was understanding that the self-focused criticism was a strategy created to protect myself when I was very young and had few resources. Isn’t that interesting how as a child, my brain developed the tactic of when feeling threatened, find fault with myself and then set out to fix the same self. It made me feel less vulnerable, in a way, it was protective. The ongoing fix-myself project was a way to soothe myself when feeling anxious.

Here’s the brain’s strategy: "I’m not feeling grounded or secure, it must be because of my (fill in the blank) problem. I will find a way to fix the problem, then I will be ok.” Or safe as Dr. Neff points out. In theory it was brilliant, but the same brain isn’t programmed to rest, it scans for the possible next problem. It will never say, “good job, everything is fine, you can relax now. My work here is done.”

The critiquing, fixing, strategizing becomes a habit. It’s habitual the same way a person might over drink or overeat when feeling insecure. They just want to feel comfortable. They just want to quiet the noise in their head.

If fixing or numbing ourselves isn’t the answer, what is?

My breakthrough came when I started to understand how my brain or intellect sees things through the lens of protection. It scans for threat. Its insurance policy against threat is keeping me in my place with its ongoing criticisms and I told-you-so’s. As long as I was too confused or scared to be curious about my current experience, my brain offers up the familiar problem/fix answer.

And I am not my brain.

I am the space that has a brain. I am the wisdom that has come to understand I am not my thoughts. I can intelligently use the data system in my brain to retrieve my social security number, the birthdays of those I love, and endless other details, but not how to feel about myself. The inner critic’s glass is always half empty and will always offer up solutions to fill the glass, e.g., lose five more pounds, buy the new shiny car, and write a better blog. I mean, come on! This isn’t even making sense.

When we turn our attention away from the brain’s endless chatter, we can hear our innate wisdom. Wisdom quietly knows, while the brain surmises, presumes, and predicts. Wisdom is grounded, the brain is all over the map.

When wisdom comes through it doesn’t need to repeat itself endlessly and the truth is the truth. But the brain chatters on and on about the same things over and over. This repetitiveness is a big red flag that the brain isn't accurate.

This is what my brain has to say about my weight: I should lose five more pounds, I better make a plan, be more discipline. I am so undisciplined. Maybe I should go back to Weight Watchers, even though I never lost weight there. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

This is what my wisdom says about the same five pounds: I know what I’d like to weigh, and I’ll get there. I’m not going to miss this precious moment with fairy tales about being the perfect weight. Right now is what is real. Right now is where I feel at home in my body. Go ahead brain, chat away, that’s what you do, but I’m not interested. Full stop.

Wisdom has no problem with the brain’s rhetoric. Wisdom understands that is how the brain functions. The heart beats, the lungs breathe, and the brain chats (and a lot of other cool things…too technical for me to write about.) Wisdom is fine with the brain’s ongoing chatter, like a loving mother to her babbling child. Wisdom doesn't take the chatter personally.

Wisdom lets the brain come along for the ride but won’t let it actually drive. Liz Gilbert says it this way, “Fear is welcome on the bus, but it doesn’t get to pick the destination. It doesn’t even get to choose the radio station.”

Do you see how the inner critic might be trying to protect or help you?

Is it possible your inner critic is also an outer critic? Quick to find fault with others or situations? Still the brain seeking security and comfort.

What would it be like if you didn’t care what the critic had to say? Could you develop a different relationship to it?

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