If you had a friend that you spent a lot of time with and they constantly criticized you, pointed out all of your shortcomings, called you worthless, and invalidated your efforts you would probably be making plans to exit that relationship.
You might even be wondering what was up with them that they had such a mean streak running through them. If you were being compassionate you would recognize that those same words are likely floating around in their head directed at them, every time they falter in life. What they were firing at you, was likely evidence that they were stuck in an inefficient pattern of thinking.
If you listen carefully, you probably will recognize that you do it to yourself as well. You have an inner voice that criticizes you for omissions, creates doubt that stops you from taking the plunge, and fears stepping into your strengths and truth. It feels crappy, right?
So, how did you get such a tough inner critic?
As a result of evolution, your nervous system developed to pay attention to threat and fear. Where humans used to be paying attention to life or death scenarios, scanning the land for predators, testing the new food for poison, remembering the waterhole that had crocodiles in it, now you are watching out for social blunders, trying to get ahead financially or worrying in general that you are not enough.
Various experiences through your life have impacted you and reinforced your inner critic’s behaviour. Unwittingly, media, education, coaches, friends and family socialize you into particular patterns of thinking.
Your critic is there to protect you
The critic evolves as a protective factor. The critic’s job is to remember times when you felt really vulnerable, unsafe and hurt. Then, when you are making choices that resemble that scenario in any way, the critic calls you out with a harsh reminder to not go there again.
When things have gone wrong or caught you off guard in life, you pay attention in a very focused way. When you thought your art project was beautiful and your favourite teacher told you to, “Stick to math class.”, when your older sibling called you an idiot in front of all their cool friends, that stuff was vulnerable. Your nervous system was paying attention and kept that stuff in top-secret inner critic files that are hard to delete and super easy to open.
Then in the ensuing circumstances of your life, those files are like pop up adds. The kind that keeps coming back even after you hit the little x icon. Your inner critic wants to ensure that you don’t have those experiences again so, it tells you not to try art, “You suck”, and don’t speak your mind, “You’re not smart enough.” The problem is, that every scenario, is not that time when you were a kid and, the critic kinda gets in the way of productivity.
Why did you buy into it?
You internalized certain messages because you valued and were attached to the people, or systems, that were attacking. Your nervous system focused on your fear of losing an attachment and started to play a preventative loop of the same negative messages. In turn, the messages make you cautious and, you miss out on corrective experiences that give you the confidence to put yourself out there and get stuff done.
Keep in mind this is not a conscious, cognitive process, it is the lower more primitive parts of your brain that are running this show. Often you don’t even hear the voice. You may simply feel the familiar sensations of the original experience, the drop in your gut, tension in your shoulders, things like that.
Your nervous system has lighting fast communication. The felt sense memory in your body conveys information throughout your autonomic nervous system, breathing, heart rate, digestion… The sensations do not have to enter the cognitive, conscious, thinking, parts of your brain in order to influence your reactions and deter you from venturing forth. Like the autonomic nervous system they are functioning in, your reactions do not require conscious thought. They are just something that you do, over and over.
Getting the Inner Critic on side with You
Here’s the good news, your nervous system can learn new behaviours and you can teach it new messages. Consequently, you strengthen thought patterns when you practice them. Nerves that program memories fire faster with repeated use, and over time, develop into a repetitive groove. If that groove is screaming heavy metal insults at you, you can change the playlist.
Dr Dan Siegel, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and head of the Mindsight Institute, says, “What fires together wires together.” This is good news. Knowing the way that thought patterns get wired into your brain, you can exert influence over them. Play nicer songs, over and over. Then, you will find yourself making choices that allow you to step out of fear and defence, and into action, capability and skill.
Change your playlist
Yogis practice Bhavana or creative contemplation, in order to change the thought patterns that are wired into the subconscious mind. You likely call this practice visualization. Visualization allows you to leap out of the familiar and into the unknown. Instead of running the same old playlist of self-doubt and rejection, you can switch to a whole new genre of listening and teach your nervous system new ways of responding to ideas.
Before long, you will have a more positive sense of your aspirations, and new motivation to begin doing the stuff you want to do but have been held back from out of fear.
5 Step Bhavana, or Visualization Practice
1. Begin with eyes closed and feeling your breath. Allow your breathing to become quiet and effortless. Then, start creating imagery that relates to a positive outcome you aspire to achieve. It is important to keep the focus positively oriented on what you do want vs. what you don’t want.
Imagine all the details of what it will be like for you once you have attained this goal. Where will you be in space and time? What wisdom will you have gained or acknowledged?
2. Increase the valence by amplifying the emotional content of the experience. Your nervous system responds to high levels of emotion. Emotion is noteworthy in detecting safety vs. danger. In Bhavana, you are feeding safety to your nervous system. Notice feelings of pride, ease or happiness. Pay attention to the positive sensations in your body, note where they are and allow yourself to linger and cultivate them.
3. Draw your senses into the visualization. Your senses will provide even more information for your nervous system to digest. You can start by imagining what you will hear when this goal is achieved. Then, include other senses like sound, sight or touch. What will people be saying to you? Can you imagine what you will be saying to yourself or others? Will you see a difference in your environment? How will the landscape of your life look different? Will there be physical adaptations? How will you know this new experience through your sense of touch?
4. Once you have a strong sense of the experience create an I am statement that acknowledges positive attributes, personality traits or skills that will play a factor in getting you to your goal.
5. Allow yourself to linger in the felt sense or sensations of the entire visualization experience. Then, repeat it as often as possible.
Focusing on what you do want to happen in life rather, than focusing on what you are afraid might happen, will
- give you a better experience in the moment
- increase the likelihood of focusing on the positive in the future
- reinforce positive motivations to get more of what you want in life and
- allow you to feel more assured so that you take the risk and get stuff done