It’s been a life journey, but after spending a week long retreat at the beautiful Holy Isle off the west coast of Scotland, I finally made peace with myself. It seemed miraculous and yet utterly natural at the same time that after years of battling with my own inner critic, I could finally say to the vulnerable and sometimes poorly behaved parts of myself, “I love you”.
During my journey through the first year of an MSc in Studies in Mindfulness, I have come to realise just how much I would criticise myself. Whilst this was nowhere near to the degree of many years before when I suffered from depression and anxiety, there was still a little voice in my head that berated me for getting angry or getting hung up on things. The inner critic still hasn’t completely departed, but it no longer has a stronghold within my experience of life. Instead, it has been replaced by a very caring and forgiving part of me.
When the inner critic had a stronghold
Throughout my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood, I was extremely critical of myself. I needed to be perfect at everything. I was so afraid of failing or being seen as inferior. When I didn’t score one of the highest marks in whatever class or course I was on, I would get extremely distressed. It was as if my self worth was linked to scores on a sheet of paper. I believed the horrid things that other people would say to me, about my appearance and my social awkwardness. Throughout my teenage years, the critic became stronger still and I returned home one day, extremely distressed after a peer who I barely knew had told me that the world would be a better place if I were dead. I began to listen to the inner critic, who was made up of my own strict expectations and other people’s voices.
Adolescence and early adulthood was perhaps my least favourite time of life. Anxiety turned into depression and insomnia and then into something altogether worse. When things got to the end of the line, I sought help from a counsellor. She asked me a rather strange question for someone who was so on edge. She asked, “Why are you still alive then?” I remember being unable to answer her question for a while, until I answered that I was alive for other people. I was alive to help them. She then asked, “What do you like about yourself?”. After thirty minutes of coming up with nothing more than “my hair” and being asked to name something else I liked about myself, I spent the next two weeks mulling over the question. I still couldn’t answer it. Not only was I listening to my inner critic, I was embodying it.
When mindfulness entered my life
The counsellor ended up introducing me to mindfulness. I remember mindfully eating a raisin, sat in her office. I didn’t know much about mindfulness back then. But for two wonderful months, I suddenly appeared to be cured. I was so in touch with every experience and sensation and even the beauty of walking. The experience was one of utter contentment. I felt like I was walking on clouds inside a dream. And then I did something that I would regret for a few years. I decided to find out more about mindfulness and bought a book (long since lost) about it.
With increased knowledge, some amount of ignorance was lost and the dreamy bubble of contentment burst. I began overanalysing. I had been observing what I had been doing, which brought the question, “then who is the ‘I’ that is observing” and then I began observing the observer, thinking “how can I observe what I am doing and also observe the part of me that is observing? Would I then observe the observer of the observer?” In short, I believe I may have been entering a bit of an identity crisis.
Developing a mindfulness and meditation practice
I decided to take meditation more seriously to try to answer some of my burning questions about my existence. I had meditated infrequently during my late teenage years but began to take it increasingly seriously throughout my twenties. I still remember the first time I tried to meditate, lasting no longer than five minutes. My mind was darting about everywhere and I could barely focus on the breath. Being obsessed with achieving, I declared to my meditation tutor a few weeks later how nothing was happening. He laughed and asked me if I expected the universe to give me answers after only a couple of weeks (and probably only 40 minutes of practice in total, although I didn’t mention that part to him).
As my practice progressed, I became astounded. Where my mind always had a running commentary darting through it continuously since as long as I could remember, there suddenly was a pause in the internal chatter. I found it to be a revelation. I didn’t even think it was possible to have whole moments where nothing was shouting loudly for my attention or judging something or making up a story of my day. The internal chatter decreased more and more.
Eventually, most of the stories my inner critic would spin ceased. I felt a lot of inner space. But I still didn’t like to act in ways I deemed ugly and had particular issues when I was angry. I had seen what anger did since a young age and I found it vulgar. My critical self was angry at being angry. No longer embodying the inner critic, I still felt as if it existed close by and sometimes could be highly critical of myself.
Facing the inner critic and saying “I love you”
My inner critic has been surprised by this past year. It used to love catching me in a web of awful tales. Through a more focused practice of metta (compassion) meditation, I have begun to accept my critic and have increasingly begun to embody a more compassionate side of myself. I have allowed myself to feel angry as a natural experience, rather than berating myself for not being a ‘better human’. I have noticed my inner critic in action as I go about my daily life. I have recognised how vulnerable this part of me is and how it just wants to be cared for, loved and understood. I used to want to push this critical nature away, as if I could cut away a part of myself. But now I see that it was born out of vulnerability and how it grew out of being turned away, shunned and uncared for. Instead of battling myself, I have embraced my critic and repeatedly have practised to listen to why I say terrible things to myself. What vulnerabilities have I been trying to push away that simply want to be cared for? Then I offer it love and care, thank this part of me for trying to protect me in its own strange way, and I say:
“I hear you, I understand you. I love you”.