In this episode, David talks about saying no to the inner self-critic. Self-criticism, low self-esteem and thoughts of being not good enough can be really debilitating and hold us back from achieving our dreams and highest aspirations. Talking from the perspective of Buddhist psychology, David talks about what leads to overly critical thoughts and beliefs and provides some ways of letting go of these thoughts and building our self-confidence.
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This week we are looking at ‘Saying No to Self-Criticism’
Self-criticism expresses itself in many ways. It can actually be a relatively useful tool, when it is controlled, as it helps us to become self-aware and acts as motivation for our personal growth and development. This is positive judgment, driven by wisdom, compassion, morality. It teaches us and helps us, draws us closer to our practice, to realising our most powerful inner energy, our Buddha nature. For many though, this healthy balance of recognising our flaws and using it as inspiration to move us forward, just isn’t there.
Too much self-criticism will, instead of being a driver for change, easily spiral us into grief, wallowing. Negative thoughts such as “I’m a failure.” “I can’t do this” “I don’t deserve this” or “It’s hopeless for me, I can never change” really hold an individual back and damage their mental wellbeing and their mental health. It takes its toll physically too, tiredness, low energy.
These statements, or thoughts, are in no way useful self-criticism. It is the inner critic, it is not judgement driven by wisdom.
The inner critic may also drive us to our practice, but it comes entwined with a story that we’re telling ourselves. A story that tells us we can’t do it, that we’re not worthy. That we can’t change.
This feeling of not being good enough, is endemic, very common. Millions of people are plagued with these thoughts of not being pretty enough, productive enough, intelligent enough, of just ‘winging’ there way through life with no idea how or why they’ve got where they have and feeling like they don’t deserve it, this imposter syndrome.
So this self-critical mind, this judging mind, is powered purely by our mental afflictions, our ‘Klesha’ – these anxieties, worries, anger, jealousy. It is driven by our attachment for some things, aversion to others, and our misunderstanding of the true nature of self and the world around us.
Like any mental affliction, this self-critical mind which causes us so much pain, which destroys our inner peace and poisons our practice, requires courage, self-compassion and the same level of engagement and investigation as we give any other mental affliction. It requires a calm, patient mind.
Avoiding it, suppressing it, or trying to block it out by distracting ourselves with TV, alcohol, or whatever doesn’t work. You’ve probably tried that before.
So, how does self-criticism arise?
Ultimately, the Buddha would say that it arises from our holding on to this idea of ‘self’, the ‘I’, the ‘ego’ as a solid, living, permanent thing – almost separate from our body and our mind. This ‘self’ which we see as permanent and solid, and we want to protect at all costs.
But then, something interesting happens, in order to protect itself from failure, from making a fool of ourself, we unconsciously focus on all the negative things we’ve ever done, everytime it didn’t go so well, we compare ourselves to others and see how well they seem to be handling things, how well they seem to be doing in life, and then we label ourselves a failure, a pale comparison, and we see that solid self as not deserving of success, of being unable to change.
But the self isn’t a permanent phenomenon. It is changing from moment to moment, everything is. Would you say that you are the same person you were 5, 10, 20 years ago? Do you have the same beliefs? Do you prioritise the same things? Chances are that you have changed.
And, upon deeper investigation, through the practices of Vipassana, on the Four Close Applications of Mindfulness, we start to check and discover that this ‘self’ is quite elusive, and doesn’t belong in the body, the mind, the feelings. There is no one solid thing we can label as self, ‘I’ or ‘mine’. And this collection of things is always in motion, always changing.
The truth is, we actually do most things well. We’re here, we’re alive, we’ve made it to this point. Sure, through lack of experience or talent, in some areas we may not do as well in, but that’s not about us being not ‘good enough.’
Not feeling good enough, and being overly critical of ourselves is a sign of having low self-esteem. Many of us have some low self-esteem, and it manifests itself in various degrees. For some, everything they do is a failure, for others, only certain situations.
So, we need to bring some balance to that bias for negativity. And here I’m going to propose two ways, one is the direct opposite, curating and focussing on the positive, the achievements, the compliments. And the other is a process of releasing the self-critical mind, through meditation, over and over again, breaking the habit over time.
So, first, how can we start to bring balance by focussing on the positive?
The first step would be to not only mentally, but physically, make the intention to keep track of our accomplishments. Instead of focussing on your shortcomings, start acknowledging all the things you’re doing well either through some sort of diary, notebook, even an excel! Write your accomplishments down. Start yourself off by trying to create a list of 50 things you’ve accomplished in your life to date. These can be big things, or even small things, but try to come up with at least 50. This will help you see how well you’ve already done.
Then, at the end of every day, take a few moments just to add to that list. Maybe you didn’t feel like you achieved anything today, but, did you wake up on time? Eat healthy? Go out for a walk? Even brush your teeth? Perhaps you took some me-time? If it’s an achievement for you, write it down.
The idea here is not just to start putting more weight on the positive, but to cultivate some kindness towards yourself, some respect.
Another tip could be to learn to accept compliments well, to not brush them off, or tell someone you don’t deserve it, or it was all down to someone else. Learn to just say thank you, to make note of and appreciate the compliment you’ve been given, because you deserve it, and that compliment was meant especially for you. You could even keep track of these compliments in the same place as your achievements, and this may seem odd at first, but it will help you really take into consideration the positivity, the love, the respect you deserve.
Then practically, what can we do to get some relief from the self-critical mind when it’s got us held tightly.
Well, let your first act be one of loving-kindness towards yourself. A recognition that you are, by nature, peaceful, loving, and joyful. Your first act should be one of patience, acceptance, and non-attachment – this self-critical mental state arises in your mind, but it is not you, it is not your true nature. It is temporary, like a cloud which temporarily appears in the vast, expansive sky of mind.
From here, with a sort of non-attachment from self-critical thoughts and an acceptance of them, we can look them directly in the eye. Mindfully, moment to moment attending to the self-critical thoughts. We may see that even the act of simply noticing and catching these negative thoughts in the act, they begin to lose their power.
From here, there are many approaches. We can attend to the referent of the thoughts themselves, investigate the underlying beliefs of low self-esteem, a lack of self-love, we look and we see that these thoughts are rarely truthful, or rarely account the whole picture. Instead, this self-critical mind fixates upon small specific details about us or events from our past, exaggerates them, and then labels them as truth.
Another complementary approach is to look at the nature of thoughts themselves, see them for what they are, see that they have no shape, size, colour. They have no power to harm us, if we do not follow them, believe in them or attach ourselves to them. See the relationship between awareness and thoughts, emotions, other mental objects. See that we have the power to control how we feel by choosing which thoughts to act upon and which ones to let go of.
In the Sufi tradition, it is suggested that our thoughts should pass through three gates. At the first gate, we ask, “Is it true?” If so, we let the thought pass through to the second gate, where we ask, “Is it necessary or useful?” If this also is so, we let the thought continue on its way to the third gate, where we ask, “Is this thought rooted in love and kindness?” Thoughts that come from the self-critical mind which are neither true, helpful, nor kind, will stumble at the gates.
I wanted to thank you for listening to this week’s podcast, I hope it brings some benefit to you. If you would like to learn more about meditation or join us for our free weekly online meditation sessions, then please join our Samadhi Community on Facebook. Please, don’t forget to subscribe and share and I hope to see you again soon.
What is the Samadhi Podcast?
The Samadhi Podcast is a series of bitesize talks and guided meditations that help you become a happier, more peaceful and positive person. Learn how to calm the mind, deeply relax, gain control of feelings and emotions, find inner strength, and let go of negative states of mind such as stress and anxiety by developing a positive approach to life.