Compassionate curiosity

I had to retrain my inner critic.   I had a critic who was so skillful, so sly, that she could find something wrong with just about everything I thought or did.   And she could present the criticism in such a way that it was clear that it was both 1) true and 2) necessary for me to know how bad I was.

Woohoo!    If I had a person in my life who treated me that way, I doubt that I would have stayed around for coffee.   But I lived with this person in my head for a long, long time.

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One of the side effects of having a strong inner critic is that often the real-life person (me, in my case) is extremely critical of everyone and everything else.   Well, it only makes sense….if that’s what you experience all the time, every day, then perhaps you figure that’s what your response to the rest of the world should be….ought to be…..MUST be.

Oh my gosh, there they are, all three of them in a single sentence….SHOULD, OUGHT, and MUST.   Hmm, my old favorite thought distortion….that there are shoulds, oughts, and musts in the world.   I remember the first time I ever knew that there were other ways to think about things.   An art therapist who was on some committee with me, many years ago, made some laughing comment about “shoulding all over oneself” but that was long before I was introduced to cognitive psychology and I had never heard of such a thing.  But before long, I was able to see that I not only “should” all over myself, but I was continuously “shoulding” all over other people as well.

thanks to http://www.minalhajratwala.com/ a lovely blog about writers, writing, and social media
thanks to http://www.minalhajratwala.com/ a lovely blog about writers, writing, and social media

In some stories, that would have been enough but no, I’m a pretty slow learner, and it took a lot more years, completion of my psychology training (which helped me to be ever more critical), and intensive body psychotherapy before I could start to really recognize the many manifestations of my inner critic.  First I had to detach myself from the messages I had been hearing from myself. And that’s where, finally, the title of this post comes in.

Light and shadow;  can we observe without judging, without labeling?
Light and shadow; can we observe without judging, without labeling?

When I can look at myself without immediate judging (“that’s okay, that’s not okay, I like this, I hate that, I’m doing well, I’m not doing so great”) then I have a chance to see what is really happening in my inner space.   When I can catch a passing thought and see it as a thought, then I can notice….Oh, that was a critical thought.   Hmmm, isn’t that interesting?   When I can have a friendly interest in my own processes, without having to change them, harden against criticism or melt into praise, then I am offering myself compassionate curiosity.

So what happened when I began to observe my own inner critic?  At first I was horrified to hear how much harsh self talk was going on.   Then I realized that some part of me was being highly critical of the critic!   (Yes, check out THAT logic…).  When I realized that the critic was originally a defense, yes, originally something that developed to help me to negotiate a difficult childhood,  then I could bring a bit of compassion to that part of myself.

In my bioenergetic therapy training program, we talked about ways to work with the critic:  our own critics, and the critics that accompanied our clients into the therapy office.  One plan was to figure out ways to off the critic….toss him off a cliff, for example, or trick her into leaving.   I decided to take a softer approach.  I decided to try to befriend my critic, and re-train her.  I wanted to be in charge, so I thought I would approach this situation as if she was an employee who had taken on too much responsibility over the years.

I began a dialog of sorts in my journal, and basically re-wrote the job description.  I thanked my critic for the years of protection, and spent quite a lot of time reflecting on the ways that my strong internal demand for certain behaviour saved me from an angry parent, from dismissal from my graduate program, from neglecting my children despite my fatigue.   Then I just informed her that things were now different.  I was an adult with good habits and didn’t need anyone constantly harping about me.  What I did need, though, was support.

Support is one of those ambiguous terms.  People may mean very different things by that term.  So I did with my critic what I suggest clients do with family members:  I carefully described what I wanted for support.   I wanted, for example, my inner voice to learn to say things like  “Good job on that!” and “You are working hard enough” and “It is okay to take a break.”  Actually, I modeled those kinds of comments on the statements that my therapist offered to me over the years.

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Did it work?  Well, it was a program of change, and, like most changes, time, practice, and consistency have been involved, but yes, it did work.   I have to be vigilant, as I expect most people who have lived with an ornery inner critic for about 45 years would have to be.   But I can recognize my negative self talk, I can notice it without labeling and just say, oh, yes, there it is again.   I wonder if there is something going on that has that critic reverting to old behaviour?  And with that gentle sort of curiosity, I can look deeper without fear of what I might find.

Finding the deep desires of your heart

What is your heart’s desire?  What do you REALLY want?

Thanks to http://www.djrichardsdesign.ca/2011/11/16/hearts-desire/
Thanks to http://www.djrichardsdesign.ca/2011/11/16/hearts-desire/

Notice what happens inside you as you sit with that question.   What is my heart’s desire?  What do I really, really want?  Watch your mind generate all sorts of answers, excuses, plausible reasons not to even consider the question, and perhaps even responses that are socially appropriate.

Maybe you were taught that it is rude to WANT something.  Maybe you had many experiences of disappointment in your wants, to the point that you stopped WANTING.  Or you told yourself you didn’t have any WANTS.   Maybe you are very busy trying to make sure other people get what they WANT, and your own little wants have lost their voices.

Watch your thoughts as you start to consider this question.  Notice if you resist the question itself (“I don’t need to read this stuff.”)  Notice if you reject your ideas about what you might want.   How do we get past the mind’s pattern of criticizing itself?   It is hard to know what you really want if you have an inner critic telling you to shut up all the time.

A beautiful place to sit and ponder
A beautiful place to sit and ponder

Now try an experiment.   Get up on your feet.  Yes, you, right now, on your feet!   Jump up and down a little bit, get your breathing going.    Now hop around on one foot, then the other foot, and maybe even wave your arms around up over your head.    Yes, get silly and move around vigorously, shaking your head, letting your jaw go loose, maybe letting some sound out of your mouth….
“ahhhh,   ooommmmmm,  raaaahhhhhh,    bbbrrrrrrrr…” whatever sounds come out as you are jumping, jogging, shaking, and waving.

Oh, yeah.  Just let ‘er rip!  Let your body move, let your voice come out, get energy flowing all through your body.   It could be a dance, could be cheer-leading, could be gymnastics or calisthenics  whatever works for you, but it needs to be vigorous, free, and energetic.  Yahoo!

Now let your body come back to a still place.  Feel your feet firmly on the ground, feel the breath in your body, notice your heartrate, still elevated, and notice what is happening in your thoughts, in your mind.   And now, just standing there, let your answer come….What do I really, really want?   What is my heart’s desire?

Let go of any judgment, any self-criticism.  What do I want, now that I have let my body start to have its voice?  Just notice what ideas come up for you, and see if you can make note of them without commentary.  What do I want?  What does my heart want most right now?   Nothing is off limits…whatever arises for you, that’s what you want.

And your job is to let it be okay that you want what you want.   That’s all….you can want whatever it is that you want.  Just wanting is a big thing for many of us.  This  exercise is a beginning. Your heart’s desire is there waiting for recognition.

What did you find out when you tried the little experiment?   I wonder what would happen if you did it several days in a row?  Could you get more skillful at letting the body’s truth come out?  Could you start to recognize self-criticism and learn to just let that go?