Meeting the inner critic with compassion? How in the world can I do that? Is that even possible?! This week I had several opportunities to meet face-to-face with my inner critic, and I’d like to tell you about one of those times.
Monday afternoon, as I was attending to some items at work and feeling pretty calm, I received an email, alerting me to something I had forgotten to do the week before–something that impacted several people. I felt my stomach clench, my throat constrict, my heart begin to pound, and heat rising in my face. Tears started to well up in my eyes as I realized my mistake, and I could feel the looping, self-critical, ruminative thoughts beginning to spin. How could I forget this? This is horrible! This is going to destroy so much trust. How could I make such an awful mistake! And on and on it went.
I was standing at a coworker’s desk at the time as I read the email on my phone, and I told her what happened. “It’s going to work out,” she said. “Things like this happen.” Her kind words felt foreign to me in that moment, as my inner critic was starting to rage. I tried to believe her, that it would work out. But in that moment, I couldn’t see any possible way of this working out well. The tunnel vision had begun.
I placed my hand on my heart and said out loud, “Wow, this is a moment of practice.” I made my way back to my office and let the tears flow. I sat with those feelings of sadness, regret, and worry for about a minute and noticed the wave of emotion move through my body. I tried to recall the focus on self-compassion for the week and tried to remind myself that yes, in this moment I am struggling, other people have made mistakes and forgotten things too, and maybe, just maybe I could offer myself some kindness. I felt my nervous system begin to calm, and then had the presence of mind to send a few emails, acknowledging my error. We were, thankfully, able to get the matter resolved quickly (much to my surprise and great relief!).
I am learning that attacking the inner critic with more shame and blame doesn’t work very well at all, and only heightens the stress response. In Dr. Kristin Neff’s research, she highlights that self-criticism is the fight response turned inward and is a survival mechanism at play.
In the moment when those thoughts started looping in my head, that was my inner critic actually trying to protect me! What would it be like to respond to the inner critic as if wrapping it in a warm, cozy blanket and saying, “Oh sweetie, you’re trying to take care of me right now. It feels like we’re in danger. We’re going to get through this.” This is what I am going to keep practicing.
If you haven’t yet joined us for our 100 Days of Mindful Self-Care, it’s not too late! We’ll keep learning and sharing our experiences with self-care along the way, and we’d love to hear from you too!