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Silencing your inner critic: even in the toughest of times

Updated: May 12

About 10 years ago, I was on a 7-day silent retreat. My secret hopes of finding inner peace and bliss were high, but of course convincing myself I was ‘open to whatever comes up’ (as long as it was inner peace and bliss!).

But so far by day two, my moment-to-moment experience was mostly frustration and disappointment, and a very familiar quiet, seething rage was building. 

You see, an old hip injury had reared its ugly head just as I’d arrived (my sacrum had literally popped out of place), and so it was uncomfortable to sit, to lie down and to stand.  Wherever I was, there was pain. And being with this, with absolutely no distraction or reprieve – no book, no conversation, no phone - gah! I couldn’t even complain to anyone (which became apparent, was one of my favourite past times).

Well, this wasn’t in the plan! Yes, I’m open to the experience. but not THIS.

The type-A part of me got all stirred up into its usual reactivity – playing the old melodies of “this isn’t fair”, “its not meant to be like this”, “I’m so angry at my body right now, why is it FAILING” me?” “Well, that’s not very spiritual, what sort of yoga and meditation teacher are you? See you’re even failing at THAT!” “Right body, sort yourself out and do as your told – stop it!”

It was exhausting. Yes, there was the pain in my hip, but the suffering created in my mind made it A HUNDRED times worse.  I was stuck, and seriously considering going home or finding a nearby hotel with cable TV and room service.

And then, in a moment of gentle guidance, the retreat leader skilfully reminded us to use the practice “if there’s something happening in your inner experience right now that’s uncomfortable, what would it be like to turn towards it and take care of it?”

This sweet reminder was enough for me to journey down through my aching body, right into the epicentre of the pain. And with real curiosity and kindness, ask my hip and back what it needed right now?

And here’s the mad, weird, beautiful thing… hip talked back to me! Yup, as clear as day it replied“There's something wrong down here that needs attention. I keep trying to let you know, but you keep shouting at me which is causing even more tension and pain. I don’t know what else to do. I’m trying to do my job – to get things back into balance and keep you safe - but you just keep getting angry at me”.

It felt like the voice of a child, trying desperately to please an emotionally unavailable and rageful parent.  My heart melted, and I began to quietly weep.  I wept for the way I’d been treating myself and my body these past two days. And then I wept for all of the moments, days and years I’d turned on myself - shouting, criticising, judging, berating – my body, my mind, my SELF ‘this isn’t good enough’ in a thousand different ways.

In that moment, my heart broke into tender pieces, and I got it. I really got it.

You see, when we’re struggling in life, we need MORE love, not less.  We’re hungry for our own attention, our own self love and willingness to alleviate the pain – not through intolerance, self-judgement and shame – but with the same care, kindness and patience we would gladly give a loved one. And it’s in all of the dark places of our being – the parts we’d rather hide and not face, that we need it the most.

I could see how often I’d used self-judgement, self-criticism and self-shaming as strategies for change, self-development and healing.  Read that again.

I could see how often I’d used self-judgement, self-criticism and self-shaming as strategies for change, self-development and healing.  

That makes no sense!

And yet, it was like the air that I breathed. Looking back, it’s so clear how and why – I’d been trained well by caregivers and systems – family, education, work and culture i.e.  I was worthy of love and appreciation when I was ‘performing well’ but not when I was ‘failing’. Maybe this rings true for you too?

For some of us, the habit of turning on ourselves when we perceive we’re falling short, means our inner critic is loud and relentless, governing who – and how – we are in the world. Not only is this a miserable existence, but it often underpins problematic behaviours with overworking, social media, food or booze, in the attempt to find some relief, as well as mental health problems including anxiety and depression.

If you’re a parent, or in any kind of leadership role or manage teams – you know these strategies of criticism and shame cause much more damage than any kind of mistake or failure. Or maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of this?

AND YET, here I was turning on myself like a drill sergeant.  And no one responds well to a drill sergeant. We might get compliance yes, but there will always be a rebellion at some point.

As I widened the lens, I could see despite all of my self-awareness - the therapy, the yoga, the work I’d done on myself – I’d spent most of my life trying to avoid or force my way through pain. In the early days it was drugs and alcohol, and later by being busy and hustling for a sense of worth. It looked like achieving, it looked like jam packing my life like a cupboard that you couldn’t fit one more tiny thing into, lest the door ‘fly open’ and out the great mess would spill.  

I’d convinced myself this was fine, because life was jam packed with ‘good’ things – work I loved, relationships I cared about, adventure, travel, exercise and routines that supported my health. But god forbid, there should be any space for the slightest feeling of discomfort to slip under the radar and take me down.

I’d choose exhaustion over sadness, boredom, anxiety or loneliness any day!

Even studying books and listening to pods on self-development, can be another sneaky attempt to avoid pain – believing if I learn about it, think about it, talk about and understand it, then I won’t have to actually feel it.

But this moment on the retreat was a total game-changer: a moment where I knew in my whole being that the ONLY response to pain was to turn towards it, give it space (and maybe a voice) and meet it with love. Moments of fear or sadness cannot be cured or defeated, they can only be transformed by learning how to love and support ourselves when they arrive.

When we do this, any action needed comes from – not self-loathing and self-bashing, but simply care and kindness. The inner critic goes quiet and the inner coach comes forward - yep, our own friendly, calm and encouraging support team.

Miraculously, as I tended to my hip – pouring in loving attention and actually, gratitude, for how hard my body was working under these difficult circumstances – my whole system began to relax. The stress response I’d triggered by my internal self-attack downregulated, the inner critic got quiet and my whole mind body system eased. Within hours, the pain was gone.

This experience was so powerful, that ever since, I’ve actively sought out and practiced ways to turn towards my pain with a lens of unconditional kindness and love. Learning how to turn towards, move through and heal pain, rather than run madly around the planet or avoiding spending quiet moments with myself trying to dodge it. It’s incredibly empowering.  

And it works in all of places we hurt and struggle – fear, resentment, anxiety, stress, overwhelm, disappoint, shame, exhaustion, sadness, - the whole smorgasbord of our human experience. More often than not, the same thing happens - the dialog in the mind becomes friendlier and we’re able to move through and actually become a bigger version of ourselves, knowing we can feel it all with a sense of space and care.

The fancy term for this is “self-directed neuroplasticity” – using practices to help us rewire our own brains.  Self-compassion IS the antidote for self-criticism. And Mindfulness within self-compassion is about using mindfulness in a more targeted way, to support emotional development in moving through and overcoming difficult feelings and thought patterns.

So instead of finding fleeting ways to feel better, practicing mindfulness and self-compassion is a readiness to engage with pain at its source and disrupt the spiral of negative thoughts patterns and difficult emotions.

Most of us find it easy to demonstrate compassion for a friend or loved one when they’re going through something hard. And yet, and YET - we so often struggle to extend this same, basic kindness to ourselves. Instead we often become overly critical and judgmental, thinking destructive internal thoughts about who we are and how we show up in the world, in a way that really takes us down.

My friends, we’re heading into some strange territories as a human race on this planet. The world is changing so rapidly, it can make your head spin. And by the look of things, it will only get more challenging.  We can’t change much of the external, but we can ABSOLUTELY have some mastery over our inner lives, helping us to navigate these tricky waters.  

As Danna Faulds says, “Allow the dialogue within the mind to grow friendlier, and quiet. Shift out of inner criticism and life suddenly looks very different.”

If your internal monologue is a relentless critic or bully, please know my love, there IS a way out. You don’t have the stay in your own, self-created war zone. Sign up to a course, study this topic a little more or start a little ‘brain-training’ practice using an App – do something to help make the shift. So when do you arrive in the dark, you no longer create your own internal hostile environment, but instead can bring love to your own self.

Then maybe, just maybe the world and our precious, little tiny lives won’t seem so bad.

There is an inner freedom and peace that is so glorious waiting for you, that once you’ve tasted it, you wouldn’t give it up for anything. I want that so much for you. What better life assignment is there?




Take action, do something.

Hope to see you along the path.


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