In my experience people have a vicious inner critic, myself included. I say things to myself sometimes that I would never tolerate another person saying. This is very common, probably something that is developed when we are children, and it rides with us most of our lives. Whenever someone turns us down for a date, or when we say something a bit silly upon meeting someone for the first time, that mean little voice is right there, ready to send a spear of self loathing or shame right into our heartguts. I have wanted to write upon this topic for quite a while as I think it is something we all suffer. Especially in times of increasing external stress the internal commentary from our worst selves cranks up to eleven. As the holidays, finals and the end of the year approaching I am sure many of us are feeling the external stress begin to brew. In the article this week I wanted to share the most powerful encounter I had with those mean commentators in my thoughts and the solution I found to dial them down a little bit.
Three years ago I embarked upon an adventure with my partner to go hiking and camping across Colorado for a week. He and I had not know each other for very long and it seemed like a very spontaneous and daring prospect to go galavanting into the wild blue yonder. My rationale was it was a fascinating way to get to know the intricacies of someone’s psyche. How do we function on a long road trip? How do I behave when I am tired? What does he say to you when you begin lagging behind? It could be amazing! It could be difficult. But there are so few opportunities in life to pluck up your courage and do something intense, so off we went. The climb we began the first day was near the intended trailhead, and we suspected it boasted a pretty view and a nice warm up to the rest of the week. Needless to say the climb was much more intense than I had anticipated. I am no greek goddess, but I jog a few times a week and lift weights on my off days. Not in the best shape certainly, but I like to consider myself tough, certainly not a whiner, and no stranger to mountain hiking. I thought there was nothing we could encounter that would stop me.The terrain was beautiful but it felt as though we were not climbing switchbacks but straight up into the clouds. As we ascended I realized my pack was probably ten pounds heavier than it should have been and I was beginning to struggle. As we climbed I found myself falling further behind my partner, and he would often stop to wait for me. Each time I stopped to catch my breath or when he would ask me if I was doing okay, I would drop my gaze and burn crimson with humiliation. I was enraged with myself. And in my humiliation grew the deluge of negative deprecating thoughts began to seep into my conscious levels of thought.
How dare you let him see this is difficult for you?
Never let them see weakness!
This shouldn’t be difficult for you anyway, you are stronger than this.
What is wrong with you? His pack is much heavier than yours.
You are slowing him down. He hates this.
I’ll bet he regrets taking this trip with you.
You are never going to make it.
The higher we climbed, the more upset I became. My partner, all credit to him, never once raised his voice to me, and never expressed irritation. He smiled at me. He encouraged me. He offered to carry my heavy pack along with his own. (Which I would never, ever let him do.) He was unbelievably kind to me. So much kinder than I was being to myself. As we came around the last bend in the trail, right at the place the tree line stop and from here onward there would be only grassland, I saw four of the brightest hummingbirds flitting in and out of the trees. I had no idea hummingbirds even lived at this altitude and for some reason it felt like a magical experience to see them. As we put our packs down and began to set up our camp for the evening I kept watching those hummingbirds zipping through the forest around us. I was in awe and almost envious of how light and easily they seemed to move compared to my lumbering form. And as I watched them I felt my thoughts begin to change.
You don’t have to be so mean to yourself. It is okay if things are difficult.
What would be different if you said things to encourage yourself?
What if you treated yourself with the same compassion you treat your partner?
Hiking is hard stuff. What would happen if you took all that negative stuff, all that baggage and just left all here?
You can leave it here you know. If you want.
That was my moment right there. That was my first step toward understanding. Yeah, I had a bunch of emotional baggage, and I carried it around with me at all times. And it made me a miserable person. What kind of person would I be if I i decided to just leave all that crap on the trail? Never to shoulder it again. The realization that I had a choice. I was stunned. I was completely humbled by the wisdom of hummingbirds. As we cooked one of those weird dehydrated camping meals on a pitiful fire I was filled with exuberance. I wanted to leap up and exclaim that I had experienced something meaningful and amazing and life changing. I wanted to fly around like those hummingbirds. As we lie down to go to sleep in our tent I made a commitment to myself to grow out of this. I made a promise to myself never to forget what I learned on the mountain. And more importantly I wanted to share this experience with my partner and the people I loved. For so long I had been looking for a way to get free so to speak, to fix myself. I had gone to gurus, I had been to shrinks. And here it was. I had found the first step to freedom at twelve thousand feet.
From that little spot on the mountains I have wandered an amazing path of self growth. The big battle between me and the shitty things I say to myself in my head has changed drastically. The inner critic still exists but we have a different relationships these days. I have spent hundreds of hours meditating and introspecting, searching for the message the inner critic actually has as well as where that critic hailed from in the first place. What is the message at the center of off of the self doubt? And more importantly what can we do to regain control?
First and foremost, do not pit yourself against your critic as though you are going to war. You are one. There is no separation between you and the critic. The inner critic is a self defense mechanism created when you were probably very young and it’s purpose was the keep you safe. This is an old world system and is really no longer necessary since you have developed language. Do not go to war with your critic, do not try to dam up his voice, because he will return louder than ever. Instead I encourage you to spend a set amount of time listening to all of his worries and gripes. For example the ultimate message from my inner critic is “I am not good enough.”All the comments about weakness and success, all of that boils down to the belief I gained somewhere that I am not good enough. And so I embarked upon a path to prove to others that I was smart and successful and all of that. The critic’s message slips in every time my confidence slips a bit. Find that message and how it has fit into your life so far. How does that message keep you from pursuing fulfilling relationships, or a promotion you really want. Observe the way your critic encourages you to remain safe and small. Now here comes the fun part. Here is the moment where you put it all down. All that worry and fear, all the baggage, make a commitment to yourself to put it down and carry onward without it. It does not always happen at once. You may find that some days you have picked up some of it again. No worries, bring your awareness to this, and then mentally set the baggage down again. Each time you practice this it becomes easier and there is less baggage to put down each time.
As you practice transforming the critic’s message and putting down all the mental crap, it may be fun to find a partner to practice with. Discuss the messages you both receive from your critic, discuss what it feels like to leave that baggage behind. Talk about what sort of situations surround the arrival of the critic and what sort of times you notice yourself saddled with your old baggage. I encourage you to take your time and enjoy the journey of the introspection. Remember there is no rush, this is your growth. Along the way don’t forget the lesson of the hummingbirds: Be kind to yourself, be gentle to yourself.