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To Nurture Happiness, Starve Your Inner Critic

To Nurture Happiness, Starve Your Inner Critic 640 419 BodyWHealth

If you’re struggling with pain and failure, you need to address your inner critic. Happiness is in your own hands.

Whose voice do you hear first when you fall? Your own? Your father’s? Your spouse’s? And what does it say? It’s usually the first voice in our head that determines how you will respond to disappointment or pain.

Imagine something bad happening to you. Or, at least, imagine something that feels bad. Especially something that happens often. Perhaps you feel isolated from the conversation at work? Or you repeatedly fail to stick with a healthy diet? Each time you set out to eat better, it lasts for a few days. Then one little set-back, perhaps one little cookie, opens a barrage of ugly chatter in your head that has you diving into the refrigerator, tearing into the ice cream, gulping down big chunks of your favorite chocolate, and then washing it all down with a double-cream milkshake, or worse, alcohol!

And as you slide down the slippery slope of resolve, the voice keeps chanting in your head. “You’re weak! You’ve failed again! I told you so! You don’t deserve to be healthy, or happy!” Whose voice is this? Who damns you over-and-over again to misery and failure? These are the recurring taunts of your inner critic, and the sad truth is that they are horribly accurate. The minute these words start echoing in the corridors of your brain, they not only foretell the future, but they seem to welcome in misery with open arms.

Here’s the sad truth. If you listen very carefully, you will recognize the voice as your own. Perhaps it is disguised as the voice of a parent, or a school teacher, or your former spouse, but if you look it squarely in the eyes, you’ll recognize the voice as your own.

Here’s the happy truth. If you listen very carefully, you will recognize the voice as your own! More about this in a minute.

Where does this voice come from, and why does it have such a strong grip on your life?

It starts deep inside of your magnificent brain. At the base of your brain, the most primitive centers are responsible for your survival. They work to protect you from danger. Together, they form the chorus of caution and fear. They warn, persuade and bully us away from actions that may bring us in harm’s way. They tell us not to take risks, like reaching out to strangers, or starting adventurous journeys, or daring to strive for health and happiness. Our primitive brain tries to protect us from the pain of failure. So, when you break your diet, it admonishes you … “You’re weak! You’ve failed again! I warned you! You shouldn’t try to be healthy or happy, in case you fail, and that will be painful! I told you so!

Sadly, if you think back to your childhood, you will often find memories of similar words coming from somebody who loved you very much; a parent, or kind school teacher. Driven by the same good intentions, we parents often say things to protect our children. Nothing is more distressing for us than a child in pain, so we act, both consciously and subconsciously to avoid this pain. Too often, the first words that came out of my mouth when one of my children fell and hurt him- or herself were … “I told you not to ….”. What I forget is that my child would finish the speech in his or her mind. The words they added, in my voice, were … “you’re stupid, clumsy, forgetful, careless …” and a host of other painful accusations. In the end, my own words, either real or imagined, cause more pain to my beloved child than the initial accident. Worse still, my reproachful words probably linger in their heads today, doing enduring damage.

But now we must return to the good news. Because, although the voice in my head may have started as my father’s voice, or the words of my protective, primitive brain, today these painful words are my own. If I listen carefully, they are spoken in my own voice. Which means I have control over them!

With this knowledge, I can choose a better strategy, and a course of action that leads to happiness. Several deliberate steps help me to silence my inner critic.

  1. If I am filled with panic and fear, I am more likely to listen to my primitive brain’s negative barrage. It’s time to breathe. Yes, deep, healing breaths. When we are calm and peaceful our body winds down. Picture those tranquil moments before we fall into a deep, restorative sleep. Our pulse slows, our muscles relax, and our breathing is unhurried. The beauty about this physiology, is that we are able to reproduce it. When you feel anxious, focus on your breathing. Slow it down, deliberately. Take deep, healing breaths. The rest of your body listens, and will follow into a more relaxed, peaceful state. Your mind will now open up to hear other voices; good voices.
  2. Once you’re calm, it’s time to challenge those negative thoughts. Look your inner critic in the eye, and interrogate it. Ask questions. “Why do you say I’m weak? Why do you say I’m stupid? There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. I can show you many that I’ve been strong on many occasions, and there are many smart things that I do every day.” As you debate your inner critic, you will expose its argument for what it is: a well-intentioned effort to protect you from something that has very little chance of causing real harm, even if it happens.
  3. If challenge fails, and you’re still left hearing loud negative voices, then you can try distraction. Get busy with something else that requires your powerful cognitive brain to kick into action. This will fill your head with positive noise, often enough to drown the whining of your primitive brain.
  4. Regardless of which of the preceding steps you take, you are always able to engage your cognitive brain in deliberate positive commentary. Your cognitive brain is under your complete voluntary control. At any time, you can bring its voice into the conversation. Self-affirmation, the habit of saying kind and uplifting things about yourself, remains one of the most positive interventions you could ever make in your life.

Like any skill, this approach takes practice. With time and effort, you are able to change deeply ingrained mental patterns and pathways. You’re able to train your brain away from the undermining thoughts. You’re able to starve your inner critic, with far-reaching benefits. You replace shame, anger and helplessness with kindness, calm, and confidence.

Each of us is part parent and part child. Take charge of your parent voice. Speak to your inner child with kindness and love. Say good things, often. You’ll be amazed by the results!

Have fun,