Most of us have an inner critic, the little voice in our head that—depending on the degree of power we give to it—can be an inhibiting enemy or a good, supportive friend.
After a long career in business, I turned to writing as one part of my second act. Recently I read several early blog posts and was horrified. I knew I had lots to learn about the craft of writing when I began, and those old posts were dreadful evidence of how little I knew.
My inner critic accelerated to warp speed, chastising me for every dangling participle, adverb, and run-on sentence.
Inner critics are pesky that way.
They trash-talk us, specializing in shame, fear, negativity, and inadequacy. They have a knack for identifying our vulnerabilities and have the audacity to use that knowledge to beat us over the head when we fall short. Often, the inner critic takes the voice of an authority figure in our lives. While browsing my early posts, I heard my dad and Mr. Prouty (a demanding but beloved high school English teacher) expressing their disappointment.
Mercifully soon their disapproving voices were edged out by Mary’s, my writing coach. “Of course those early writing attempts were bad,” she murmured. “Don’t focus on the mistakes. Instead, look at how far you’ve come and how much you’ve learned.”
Inner critics can be helpful that way, too, if we let them.
Most of us are quick to give others the benefit of the doubt. However, we’re usually slow to do the same for ourselves. As the old slogan goes, we deserve a break too.
Kristen Neff, professor and author, offers a way to give ourselves that break. She suggests ditching the super-sized portion of self-criticism we serve ourselves and replacing it with a healthy portion of self-compassion. She says self-compassion is “a courageous mental attitude that stands up to harm, including the discomfort that we unwittingly inflict on ourselves through self-criticism, self-isolation, and self-rumination when things go wrong.”
To practice self-compassion, Dr. Neff advises doing three things: be kind to ourselves, recognize our own humanity just as we would that of anyone else, and be mindful about excessively beating ourselves up—getting caught in that nasty cycle of “not enoughs.” She notes this is tough stuff to do, “The problem is that it’s hard to unlearn habits of a lifetime.” No kidding. However, there’s a great payoff to be had from all that unlearning: her research shows being self-compassionate helps us stop taking things so seriously and so personally, feel less self-conscious, and do less social comparison in which we invariably come up short.
Moving from horror to humility is a matter of mindfully shifting perspectives: from not allowing ourselves to feel belittled by the inner critic to, with some help from our inner coach, giving ourselves permission to be inspired and perform our best
Sometimes that perspective-shifting process takes a lot of edits. Time, too. And that’s OK.