Train Your Brain to Calm the Inner Critic
Our ability to be resonant with ourselves is a key for bringing healing into our life.
“Why am I so stupid?” “I am such a loser.” “Why can’t I do anything right?” These are just some of the questions that many people have running through their mind- sometimes without even realizing it. There is a way to heal this voice and cultivate more compassion for yourself.
We all have a deep desire to connect. As one of our basic human needs, we suffer when we are not connected to others, and—perhaps most importantly—to ourselves. When we feel attacked by ourselves, if our own inner self-talk is full of criticism and judgement, we can feel especially alienated and alone.
If you grew up in an environment where you were constantly criticized, or it was clear that nothing you did was ever quite enough, then you may have an inner dialogue that mirrors that experience. You may not know what it feels like to be welcomed with warmth and love, just for being who are—mistakes and all. Sarah Peyton, a specialist in Nonviolent Communication and neuroscience educator, teaches that the language we use, with others and with ourselves, plays a huge role in how we experience and interact with the world.
In Peyton’s book, Your Resonant Self, she describes resonance as “the experience of sensing that another being fully understands us and sees us with emotional warmth and generosity.” Resonance, unlike empathy, is something that is only possible when you are in direct relationship. Someone may feel empathy for you and you might never know, but with resonance, there is a clear connection and sense of warmth and appreciation. Peyton describes our ability to be resonant with ourselves as a key for bringing healing into our life. She writes, “to be resonant with yourself, you have to notice two different parts of yourself: your emotional self and your resonant self.” The emotional aspect is the part of you that notices how you are treating, and speaking, to yourself. With repeated practice, and activation of the reward centers of your brain, you can begin to rewire your brain so you are able to encourage and support yourself, rather than belittling and sabotaging your choices.
Peyton describes the inner critic as the default mode network (DMN). She suggests that if you have lived through trauma, or never felt a sense of resonance, than your DMN may have turned against you. The levels of criticism found in this voice varies depending on our experiences in the world. Peyton describes that our emotions are primarily right-hemisphere concepts, and that our left-hemisphere is responsible for taking “action based on what matters most to us, what we care most passionately about.” She describes nonviolent communication as a way to “awaken both hemispheres and help them work together.” In nonviolent communication, the needs that underlie feelings and behaviors are deeply examined and named.
To use this idea of NVC in relationship to the inner critic, Peyton offers a meditation that seeks to understand what need that voice is trying to meet with its criticism. She suggests starting with a statement or judgement that feels familiar—something you say to yourself often. She suggests starting with sitting with an awareness of your body in space. Notice how it is oriented, how it shifts and changes as you breathe. Return to your voice of your inner critic, and notice what happens in your body, what happens to your breath. Become aware of any sensations you feel in your body, any sense of numbness. Next, begin to gently ask questions of the inner critic, guesses as to what needs are behind that voice. Peyton offers these “guesses” as a starting point:
- Critic, do you feel discouraged, and do you love perfection?
- Critical self, do you feel distrustful, and do you want dependability and follow-through?
- Are you bored, and do you want originality and authentic self-expression?
- Do you feel angry, and do you want success?
- Is this inner critic despairing and just wanting to contribute?
These questions, especially the last one, offer a way to gain insight into the inner critic’s reasons for being harsh. Next, turn your attention to the aspect of yourself that receives the criticism. Notice where in your body you feel the critique. Offer that part of yourself some of the following guesses:
- Are you sad, and do you need to know that you are loved just as you are?
- Are you despairing and panicked, and do you need some solid ground to stand on?
- Are you lonely, needing belonging and love?
Finally, become aware of both parts of yourself and how they may have shifted after being acknowledged and recognized, both for their feelings and their needs. Return to your breath, and shift your perspective to being a witness, above your body, holding yourself with “warmth and acceptance.” Notice again the shape of your breath in your lungs, and slowly return your awareness to the outer world.
With repetition, this meditation can help you to understand the voice of the inner critic, and how to soothe its needs. You will understand yourself at a deeper level, and perhaps even move in a direction that feels more deeply congruent with your own desires. Peyton writes, “as we hear the voices of fear and disconnection and feel into the underlying roots of these experiences, we are starting to calm the brain and opening the way for integration of the best of the right hemisphere (empathy, warmth, resonance, understanding) with the best of the left (clarity, action, drive).”