What is that inner critic saying? How does this voice inside your head help you? How does it hinder you? Colette Mrazek shares an exercise for mental health.
By Colette Mrazek, M.Ed., R.C.C.
We’ve all had that coach. You know, the one who acted like a drill sergeant, screaming at us to hustle or move our lazy buts. Insulting us, chiding us, calling us names in an effort to make us work harder or make our resolve stronger. For some, the memory is vivid, and for others, much more subtle. We might not even notice it until we find ourselves back in a situation where we are learning to move our bodies in a new way, or returning to physical activity after a period of absence. But sure enough, it returns, and often with a vengeance.
What is that voice and what’s it all about? How does it help us? How does it hinder us? Why does it return when we don’t even like the way it talks to us? What can we do instead? These are important questions to consider when embarking on any change process, particularly one’s fitness goals.
That voice has been given a lot of names in the field of psychology, but is most commonly known as our inner critic. Its function – on a good day – is to look for all the things we do wrong so that we can correct them and improve our situations. But for many of us, it is overdeveloped and has become quite detrimental to our health – physically, mentally, spiritually, and emotionally. The trouble is, our inner critic can become relentless and get very out of control.
How does it get so pronounced? Well, just as our muscles are strengthened through repeated exercise, our brain’s neural pathways are strengthened by the repetition of these messages. So the more we repeat certain messages to ourselves, the louder and more automatic they become. And the more we listen to them, the more space they take up in our minds and the more difficult it can become to shut them down. In fact, some find that in their quietest or most vulnerable moments, the inner critic can become unbearably loud, beating us down and persuading us to give up on the very things we want most in our lives.
Ironically, some of us are quite attached to our inner critic and actually believe it is doing us a favour. “How else do I stay focused?” they argue, “I need to be tough on myself if I’m going to meet certain challenges or achieve my goals!” But the research on this shows otherwise. While it is necessary to set goals and challenge ourselves, we can achieve them much more easily with the antidote to self-criticism: Self-Compassion.
Studies on self-compassion show that people who speak kindly and gently to themselves are much happier and therefore have an easier time accomplishing tasks and achieving their goals. They encourage themselves throughout the process, applauding their efforts, celebrating small gains while simultaneously looking ahead and setting new goals. Failings or setbacks are met with kindness and understanding. They acknowledge the difficulty in their experiences and comfort themselves rather than turning against themselves.
Many think that self-compassion lends itself to feeling sorry for ourselves, or making excuses for ourselves, or being lazy… a technique used by those who are afraid of hard work. Not so. As Paul Gilbert, an internally acclaimed leading researcher in the field of compassion explains: “Compassion is one of the most important declarations of strength and courage known to humanity. It is difficult and powerful, infectious and influential. It is a universally recognized motivation with the ability to change the world.” (compassionatemind.co.uk) It involves taking responsibility for ourselves, being honest with ourselves and exercising self-discipline. We simply learn how to do this with friendliness and compassion for ourselves.
So next time you are embarking on a new fitness goal (or any goal for that matter) and you find that mean, self-critical voice emerging, try this exercise instead:
1) Listen to the words it is saying – if you can, write them down (eg. why do you bother? You’re way too out of shape; look at you, you’ve never been good at sports; you can’t do anything right)
2) Imagine what this voice looks like – if you can, draw a picture of it (eg. sharp, pointed face, looking down at me, hands on hip, expression of disgust …)
3) Imagine yourself picking up this inner critic, look it in the eyes and say “thank you for your help, but I don’t need you anymore” – if you have a drawing of it, rip it up (or scrunch it, burn it, shred it, whatever feels most powerful to you)
4) Brainstorm some new phrases that are kinder, more encouraging and more compassionate. Write them all down. (eg. It’s been a while since I’ve done this. It’s gonna be hard but at least I’m trying; Look at me! I made it to the gym…and I’m trying a new machine, good for me!)
5) Experiment with the phrases you just wrote down: Close your eyes, put your hand on your heart and say each phrase to you, one at at time. With each phrase, take a few deep breaths and notice the effect the words have on you.
6) Choose the compassionate phrase that feels most true for you. You may have smiled when you said it to yourself, perhaps you teared up or got a lump in your throat. Perhaps you felt a sense of relaxation or relief. As long as it was kind, loving and encouraging, you are on the right track.
7) If you struggled with coming up with phrases, try again, perhaps with a friend who you find to be caring and empathic. If you continue to struggle, it may be worthwhile to reach out to a therapist to explore what’s going on for you. We can all get there in time, we just might need to do some personal work first before we are able to do this for ourselves.
8) Once you have chosen your phrase, practice it over and over again (eyes closed, hand on heart, deep breaths). Do it before you start your next workout or your next practice.
9) Whenever you hear that inner critic starting up again, return to step 3 and then again to step 6. Repeat as often as necessary.
Watch Colette walk Tim through the process (Step 1 is at the 4 minute mark)
There are many other useful exercises available to help you develop a more compassionate way of speaking to yourself. I frequently recommend the work of Dr. Kristen Neff, who has outlined a number of helpful exercises on her website: self-compassion.org
Colette Mrazek is a Registered Clinical Counsellor who works with youth, adults, couples and families. She is passionate about helping people become more compassionate and accepting of themselves so they can embrace who they are and live a more peaceful and joyful life.