Eckhart Tolle, in his modern classic, The Power of Now, writes: “You have probably come across ‘mad’ people in the street incessantly talking or muttering to themselves. Well, that’s not much different from what you and all other ‘normal’ people do, except that you don’t do it out loud. The voice comments, speculates, judges, compares, complains, likes, dislikes, and so on…It is not uncommon for the voice to be a person’s own worst enemy. Many people live with a tormentor in their head that continuously attacks and punishes them and drains them of vital energy. It is the cause of untold misery and unhappiness, as well as of disease.” Does any of this sound familiar? Almost everyone in our culture seems to have an “inner critic,” which relentlessly evaluates their performance in the tasks of life, and consistently finds it deficient. In my experience, the attacks of the inner critic contribute to a myriad of problems – anxiety and depression, dissatisfaction and despair, addictions and compulsions, and on and on.
One of the things that makes the critic so problematic is that, while it speaks with a tone of parental authority, psychologically, it develops when we’re very young, usually about five or six years old, so it’s really a child’s idea of parental authority. That’s why its judgments tend to be unreasonable and sweeping. (“You never do anything right!”) rather than mature and discerning.
Is the inner critic more of a problem for people in the LGBT community than for others? My own impression is no – intense self-criticism is ubiquitous in the American psyche – but it may be that sexual minorities have a recognizable “flavor” to their inner critics. For gays and lesbians, it often speaks in the language of internalized homophobia. Even for those who have long ago come to terms with their sexual orientation, for instance, it may still tell then that they’re unlovable or unworthy of respect because in some way they’re “less than” or “out of step” with others. While they may no longer be blaming themselves for their sexuality, often the habit of self-blame has merely been focused on other aspects of their personalities.
But it is possible to counter the damaging effects of the inner critic by deliberately working to develop an inner protector. Where the critic judges you, your inner protector will instead offer compassion, acceptance, and where necessary, forgiveness. When someone we care about suffers, we naturally feel compassion, which means the wish that this person not suffer, coupled with a feeling of sympathetic concern. In the same way, we also have the power to extend compassion to ourselves which isn’t self-pity. We simply recognize that “I’m hurting right now,” and offer ourselves the same warmhearted wish for suffering to end that we would offer any friend grappling with the same pain or difficulty. Studies have shown that self-compassion has many benefits, including reducing self-criticism, lowering stress hormones like cortisol, increasing self-soothing, self-encouragement, and other aspects of resilience. It can also help to heal any deficits in receiving caring from others in our childhoods.
The practice of evoking self-compassion usually takes only a few seconds, and there are meditative techniques which facilitate it. Here’s one example:
Pause for a moment and bring to mind the feeling of being with someone you know cares about you, maybe a close friend or family member, or even a pet. Let yourself feel that you matter to this being, who wants you to feel good and do well in life. Now bring to mind any difficulties or suffering you may be experiencing, and imagine that this being who cares about you is sending you waves of well-wishes and compassion. Bask in this compassion, taking in its warmth, concern, and goodwill. Open to feeling more understood and nurtured, more peaceful and settled.
The power of this visualization is that the experience of receiving caring primes circuits in your brain to give it, both to yourself and others. Having received compassion, let go of the visualization and turn your attention to what it feels like in your body to be on your own side. Strengthen that feeling as much as possible. One way to do this is to offer yourself well-wishes such as “May this suffering pass”, or “May I be happy, peaceful and safe.” Have some warmth for yourself, some acknowledgment of your own difficulties, some wish for things to get better. Feel that this compassion is sinking in to you, becoming a part of you, soothing calming and strengthening you. Finally, ask yourself: Now that I’m on my own side, what’s the best thing to do in this situation?
When you practice self-compassion regularly, you’re strengthening the neural pathways that support it, and creating an inner protector that will be available to you in times of pain or stress. When you turn to it, you’ll find that, because you’re freer from the dread, anxiety and guilt which the inner critic induces, you’ll have greater clarity to make decisions that are more rational, mature, and self-affirming.