Listening to the critic within generates a series of negative thoughts that when believed as truth can be detrimental to your performance, your relationships, and your health. Ignoring or reprimanding unwanted thoughts, the shoving them under the rug technique, can cause them to intensify. The solution to overcoming the inner critic is to have a beginners mind. To bring curiosity and play into the mix and find your flow within the chaos of the moment.
Just the other day, I stood in front of a room full of people reciting a lengthy poem I had memorized by heart. Many times in my living room I practiced my lines, with only the sleeping cat as a witness. Driving in traffic, I linked the words and phrases together in perfect cadence. Alone, the lines poured out of me with no problem.
In a banquet room with women seated at round tables after lunch, the lines would flow and then sputter. Not in the ideal manner I had planned but in the messy, perfect way that so often accompanies creative work. I held the pages of the poem in my hand in case I needed them for reference. In the end, I did need to glance at them three or four times. I kept my focus on the message I wanted to transmit, the big picture of how pain and redemption move through a lineage. All the while, batting away the critic with stealth, Tai Chi-inspired movements.
Of course, moments where the words did not come, my inner critic gladly showed up to fill the vacuum. These days I see the judgment that wants to take over as John Goodman’s character, Sulley, in Monsters Inc. He’s big, colorful and at the end of the day, he doesn’t want to mess up the process. He’s just doing his job.
Contemplation, from the Latin meaning, “To gaze or behold,” is like thinking with your feelings. Where rather than words and concepts coming up and being put together like a puzzle to be solved, thoughts merge with feelings to create a blanket of experience from which to act. Contemplation offers you options other than the inner critic to feel or think.
The inner critic, guided by the ego, is not an excess piece of flesh that can be lopped off on a whim. The ego wants identification with the self. Being empowered in the ego is not sustainable because it leads directly down the path to suffering. I can hear my mom’s voice in my head quoting the Book of Mathew, “The path to hell is wide but gets narrow, the path to heaven is narrow and then gets wide.”
Personal development techniques so often focus on the ego as a problematic. We think that if we could only calm our egos, trick them, or get rid of them all together we could be a better, stronger, more enlightened humanity. If subordinating the ego worked then we would have abolished suffering long ago.
When I first began to write poetry and short stories the inner critic was the mayor of my entire internal space. I judged everything. Only the most exemplary and perfected works of others that had received the highest accolades were deemed any good by the standards I had set. I was frozen, unable to even finish writing a sentence without pressing the delete button and erasing every single word. “Who was I,” I wondered, “to think that I had anything to say.”
Meditation, sitting in stillness while focusing my mind on my breath provides a supportive place from which to watch what’s going on around me minus the negative filter of the inner critic. To practice observing my thoughts and then letting them go without identifying with them has allowed me to reclaim the real estate of my mind that the inner critic once lorded over. Softening my attachment around what I define as me and who I am has given me the freedom to express myself creatively that I would not have been able to do without meditation.
A developed inner critic, much like a wild animal, needs focused attention, compassionate understanding and a little playful curiosity. What you have to say is essential. Your words need to come out, and when expressed fully they can be transmitted to others in a way that touches the heart of each person who hears them. Creativity takes courage. It takes a willingness to try new things without the filter of the inner critic, or at least an inner critic that you tame through committed focus, intent contemplation, and consistent meditation practice.