From inner critic to compassionate ally
I am just beginning a new art piece made from some of the multitude of beach rubbish I have collected over recent months. The idea for it has been bubbling around in me for some time and I have noticed that I’ve allowed a lot of things to get in the way of making a start, including self criticism. Self criticism is not only universal in our culture but can also be totally debilitating if we remain unaware of it so I thought it worth talking about.
I like to start any project with some time to play with my materials even when I have a clear idea because, as mentioned in a previous blog, playful energy fosters creativity. The current artwork is an experiment and if I remember this I can feel free to enjoy each aspect of the process of making it without prejudging an outcome that cannot be known until it is finished. And only when it is finished, can it benefit from a constructively critical eye. When I get too serious too soon, thinking I know how the finished piece must look before I’ve started or I incessantly judge the quality of the marks I am making before it is fully formed, then I’m doomed to make myself feel badly, I definitely won’t enjoy it and it will get put aside, yet again; I might even believe ‘there isn’t enough time to do it now’, if I am not aware that it is the critical self talk that has actually killed my desire to be creative.
Fighting this part of ourselves also won’t help because we will just make ourselves feel worse, so what can help? I think recognising these critical thoughts for what they are is essential to begin to break free of their power. Firstly, they are usually not true and even if there is some vague truth, if that particular thought isn’t helpful at that time then its best put aside. Secondly, these thoughts are coming from conditioning, from the voices of people in our past, sometimes well meaning but whose beliefs we have taken to be true for us. Thirdly, we are not our thoughts, which may be tricky for us to grasp on the mental level but somewhere within us we will know this is true when we enquire deeply within. Thoughts are continually coming and going, like clouds in a blue sky or waves across the sea. We are more like the blue sky across which all manner of clouds arise and pass through or the sea through which wind and waves move continually.
When we notice we are feeling badly about something, it is worth questioning ‘what is going on in my mind?’ If we can hear denigrating or judging thoughts then we can choose to question them and hold an intention to stop believing them until we find we have let them go; we can unlearn the habit of giving them our power and actively choose alternative thoughts or affirmations which can foster self confidence rather than low self esteem.
While there is potential liberation simply in recognising the familiar critical voice for what it is, it is not necessarily easy to change or suddenly stop believing our habitual thoughts. It requires a compassionate vigilance to notice the quality of our inner dialogue often enough to make real change. I have found the key to be compassion, which means that we are not judging ourselves for having and believing the thoughts; and we let go of blaming those in our past for passing on their beliefs because they were also only following their own conditioning and knew no better; we can take care of the parts of ourselves that feel hurt by the critical voice and create an inner ally to take over the role of inner critic. With commitment and practice, over time we will find that this inner voice changes and can be supportive as well as constructively critical when needed. Exploring your critical voice and its origins with a counsellor or psychotherapist can also help you create long term change.