Inviting the Critic In with Courage and Curiosity

“You’re not enough.” “You don’t deserve this.” “You are weak, broken, a burden on everyone.” These are just a few of the familiar mantras that my inner critic seems to be whispering to me under her breath every waking moment. For most of my life, I didn’t even recognize this as a voice. I didn’t hear the phrases themselves. I accepted these perspectives as simple facts. I never even thought to question the deeply held belief of my own unworthiness. I was unworthy, obviously, and that was that. I lived my life from these painful premises for most of my time here without even the slightest inkling that I had the option of challenging them, or respond in any other way.

More recently, now that I’ve recognized this hateful, critical voice inside of myself, I have tried to shut it out, to silence it. That has not been very helpful either. While I now know I should question these opinions I have of myself and try to determine if there is really any true basis for them, it doesn’t make them feel any less true or unchangeable. The voice hates me and I hate the voice. I spend my mental energy in this gridlock a fair bit of the time. No resolution, no relief. Perhaps a different tactic is in order.

I see you Mara. Come, let’s have tea.

The Buddha

This is a quote from Buddhist mythology in which the Buddha, instead of trying to avoid or destroy Mara, the demon god, he invites her in. This serves as a lesson for how we must respond to our own inner demons. The struggle to resist them and cast them out is only multiplying our suffering. We shrink away from our self-defeating, self-judging thoughts in fear, shame, and sorrow. We cover our eyes and close our hearts to our own harsh words in an attempt to protect ourselves. But we don’t need to hide away. We don’t need to fight. These thoughts, our inner critic, is a part of us. We cannot outrun her. What might happen if we invite her in instead?

For me, ideas like this, that feel so contrary to my natural instinctive response, are revelations. It feels as though the clouds have parted over my heart and mind and I am able to gaze at a clear blue sky I had forgotten could be there. The mere thought of opening myself up to all that I want to reject within myself is healing. I can almost imagine the look of shock, bewilderment, and finally, gratitude of my inner critic as I welcome her too, into my heart.

The next time I find myself despairing and berating myself, I am going to try this new method. I am going to tap into my bravery, my courage, my curiosity and turn towards that suffering voice inside my soul. I am going to extend my hand, to invite that voice in, to ask questions and learn more about her. Responding to the unpleasant parts of ourselves with denial and rejection is exacerbating the problem and intensifying our suffering. If we can teach ourselves to open rather than close, to reach out rather than pull away, to offer loving kindness instead of rejection, that will bring us closer to that calm, steady, inner serenity and acceptance that we all urn for.

I am going to work hard to cultivate my courage and my curiosity. I am going to keep trying to be brave enough to embrace every part of myself, even the parts that might feel hurtful or hateful. Love is always powerful enough to disarm hate. I intent to prove this to myself one day.

Spiritual Backsliding

At the beginning of my yoga practice nearly 8 years ago, I felt that I was irrevocably changed. I could hardly believe the powerful shift I began to notice within myself. A daily 7 minutes was all it used to take to completely transform my mental state. A sense of gratitude, humility, and awe seemed to follow me wherever I went. My heart felt open for the first time in my life. I experienced a new sense of self-acceptance that I had previously thought impossible. My only hope was that some day I might become a yoga teacher as a way to repay the universe for bestowing this gift upon me by sharing it with others.

Driving home from the Saturday morning class I’ve taught for three years now, all of that seems like a distant memory. I feel bitterness, stagnation, regression, apathy. Not only do I suffer greatly from these states, but they also illicit a strong sense of imposter syndrome. Who am I to teach yoga? Who am I to promote meditation and gratitude and self-love? When I seem to have utterly lost my connection to everything. I know that no one is able to avoid these experiences forever, but I had hoped they would pass over me more quickly. I have been waiting for so long now. I fear that my rejection and refusal of them has kept me trapped beneath their weight. Despite this I feel helpless to free myself or accept where I am.

Nothing feels right anymore. Nothing feels worthwhile. I can hardly remember what it was that once sparked such joy inside my heart. I no longer enjoy my morning writing ritual or my daily drawing sessions. These few hours used to be what I looked forward to, the passion that kept me moving forward. I was filled with such energy and inspiration, pride and contentment and gratitude. These were my natural reactions to many parts of my life that have now lost all color. I often think that this is a sign that the things I’ve been doing are no longer serving me, that it’s time to come up with different habits and hobbies that do bring me happiness. Yet when I search my mind for a new direction, a new interest, I find nothing. “What’s the point?” is the only reply I am able to hear echoing back from the walls of my hollow heart.

I can’t even remember now how long it’s been that I’ve felt this way. It seems like a lifetime. I’m trying to take comfort in the fact that I do generally become more depressed and withdrawn at this time of the year. The lack of warmth and sunlight finally begins to grip me once the holidays have passed. It’s always so hard to convince yourself it’s just a transient state of mind when you are currently being consumed by it.

I think it would suit me to slow down and take notice when I find myself in these difficult periods. Rather than keep pushing myself to produce, to create, to transcend, it’s time for me to draw back, to let go, to be still. Intellectually I know that to have balance, I must incorporate rest. There is always a part of me that fears it. I’m afraid that if I stop moving, especially when I’m feeling down, that I’ll never get back up again. I’m afraid that momentum is the only thing keeping me alive, keeping me sane, and just barely at that.

The worst part is feeling as though I’ve completely lost all the progress I was so proud of a few years ago. It’s as though all of my effort, all of my lessons were for nothing. I feel like I’m right back where I started. Worse even, because now I’m also beating myself up for backsliding. A persistent shudder of shame and self-denial has been my constant companion for the last few months. And part of me feels at home here to be honest. A snide inner voice says, “See? This is just who you are. How foolish you were to believe that you could change.” Even when I know it’s not true, I have succumb to this voice. I’ve allowed it to suffocate all remaining self esteem.

My last hope is holding out until spring. While my heart may not even have the strength to long for the sun, part of me still has faith that there is healing to be found under its powerful rays. It is inevitable that some day soon, this long dark night of the soul with be flooded with light once more. I pray that it will be enough and that I can sustain myself upon my last scraps of inner strength until then.

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The High Five Habit

Affirmations have become a big part of my life in the last year or two. Even though I still find them cheesy and cringe worthy a lot of the time, I know that they work. I’ve seen the roll they’ve played in my own life. Honestly, we all use affirmations every day whether we do so intentionally or not. I guess the word “affirmation” implies intention, but unconsciously we are all repeating beliefs and self commentary every moment of the day. Sometimes it’s only after recognizing the intense emotional reaction we have towards positive affirmations that we realize just how toxic and self harming our own have been all this time.

One of the trickiest parts about affirmations for me is finding one that I can fully believe. Imagine you start off by saying to yourself “I’m perfect just the way I am.” If you don’t believe it, then not only is that affirmation not helping you, it could be hurting you instead by subconsciously reinforcing your disbelief in that statement. A simple reframing can make that affirmation a bit easier to embrace, especially in the beginning. “It’s okay to be imperfect.” “I can love and accept myself even though I am imperfect.” Still, this requires a lot of thought, time, and inner work. A lot of us just are not in a place where we feel able to do that just yet.

This is where the high five habit comes in. I heard about this amazing idea on a podcast the other day. The High Five Habit is also a book written by Mel Robbins. She was the guest on this podcast, and she explained how she came up with the method and how it works in our brains. Her personal story moved me to tears, because I have been the lead in that story many times. She found herself in the bathroom critically observing her reflection above the sink, picking out and attacking all of her perceived flaws. She was exhausted and depressed and for some reason that not even she is able to fully explain, she gave herself a high five in the mirror. Robbin says the woman staring back at her looked like she needed it. She laughed at the absurdity of it, but the next day she found herself excited to meet herself again in that mirrored image. But why?

Robbins discussed this phenomenon with Marian Diamond, the woman who discovered neuroplasticity. (I had no idea this earth shattering discovery was made by a woman, but we’ll circle back around to that another day.) From what we know about neuroscience at this point, the high five habit seems to make sense. The high five is something that we have so ingrained in us as a positive action. We associate it automatically with reward, team building, approval, success, etc. It doesn’t matter who is offering this gesture or in what context, the action alone triggers that reward pathway in our brains.

We’ve all heard the expression “actions speak louder than words.” The high five habit is a particularly powerful example of that. Unlike verbal positive affirmations, it doesn’t really matter what our background thoughts are. We could still be displeased with the person staring back at us, we could be thinking “I don’t deserve a high five. This is stupid. This will never work. I feel like an idiot.” Regardless of our inner critic, this physical movement overrides all of that the moment we make contact with our reflection’s raised hand. Now the “habit” part of it is committing to give yourself this high five at least once a day for five days. Apparently that’s all the time it takes to begin to notice a difference.

This is only my third day of this practice, but I can say that it makes me laugh or at least smile each time I do it. And if that’s all that comes of it, I’d still say it was worth the try. It might feel silly, but that’s another thing I like about it. It reminds me not to take myself and my life so seriously. It also helps me in that moment to realize that I am not just these thoughts and the tyrannical inner critic. I am a human being who is doing the very best that she can. I am the frightened woman staring back at me, asking for reassurance and support. We are all deserving of the compassion and forgiveness we have learned to withhold from ourselves. The high five habit reminds us of that.

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Space to Witness

One of the most common misconceptions I encounter when it comes to meditation is that the goal is to “clear your mind.” Not gonna lie, I thought this was the purpose for the longest time myself. Yet this is a very unfortunate misunderstanding that can cause people to give up on the practice all together. It seems like an impossible goal, and that’s because it is. Our minds are meant to always be thinking. We should be grateful for that fact and all that our brains do for us in every moment. There is no way for us to completely turn off our inner thoughts. And there is no need to. Meditation is not about doing that at all.

There are many different forms of meditation, but to my knowledge, none of them have the intention of emptying your mind of all thought. Meditation is about focus. It is training our brains to pay attention. The object of that focus really doesn’t matter. Regardless of what you choose, the intention is to keep bringing your mind back to that object. And I say bringing your mind back because it is inevitably going to wander and stray from your point of focus, especially if you are just beginning your practice. Our job while meditating isn’t to criticize or judge ourselves when we notice this wandering. It’s just to notice. That’s it. Our minds are our most powerful muscles, and just as other muscles need training and exercise to become stronger, so do our minds.

Sounds easy enough right? Well, I’ve always found one of the most fascinating parts of meditation to be just how difficult that really is. Doing nothing should be a simple task, but when you actually try to do it, you realize just how conditioned we are to always be doing or at least planning something. You realize how oddly uncomfortable it is to do nothing. You start to see all the ways your mind and body want to rebel against it. And while it does get easier with regular practice, there will always be days where it feels like the first time all over again. Those days that you find the hardest are the most important of all.

The hard days give us the opportunity to witness how we treat ourselves, how we speak to ourselves when things don’t go the way we want them to. Even though the brain may revert to it’s favorite hurtful comments, this might be the first time you’ve ever been present enough to really notice what those are. There are a few reflexive phrases my brain likes to throw out that, until I began meditating, I had no idea I was even saying to myself, let alone how often. It makes me think of that common school yard taunt: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. You can tell how dated that saying is, because now we have learned that words can hurt us too, even the words we say to ourselves. In fact, the way we speak to ourselves may matter most of all. Because these are often the words we take as gospel truth and believe without question.

While meditation alone does not necessarily help us to reframe this negative self-talk, being aware of that internal dialogue is the first step in doing so. The longer I practice meditation, the quicker I am to realize when I am being cruel to myself. Whereas before I either didn’t notice at all or felt too enmeshed in those painful feelings to extricate myself from them, now it is as if I can take a step outside of myself even in intense moments. The benefit of that space is that I am able to use it to choose a different path.

Now rather than piling on insults when I’m already having a bad day or have made a mistake, it’s easier for me to offer myself understanding and compassion instead of criticism. A lot of the repeated commentary inside my head is downright shocking to me when I examine it. There are so many deeply held unconscious beliefs I’ve been holding onto for years that when I lay them out in front of me seem absolutely awful. Meditation hasn’t stopped these thoughts from coming up, but it has helped me catch them when they do. And that alone has made a tremendous difference in my day to day life.

So while meditation is not what a lot of people imagine it to be at first. It is still one of the most valuable practices that I’ve incorporated into my life. It has allowed me to begin to heal in ways that I never thought possible. It has allowed me the space to craft an entirely new relationship with myself, which in turn helps me strengthen the relationships I have with other people in my life. It is one of the most beautiful gifts that we can choose to give ourselves each and every day.

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