We all want to feel safe. It’s important. When we feel safe, we feel confident and more willingly open ourselves to new experiences. In fact, feeling safe leads to the willingness to take risks – to risk being known, being seen, loving and feeling loved. As we encounter the world in all its various ways of showing us what being safe means, we learn to open and close our hearts (and minds) when we feel respected or rejected. Paul Gilbert¹, the developer of Compassion Focused Therapy, uses the term “safeness” to describe the experience of being safe. It’s different from “safety” or “safety-seeking” which tend to be what we do when we are engaged in the threat evaluation/response processes.
There are many things in our environment that we have learned are safe and many we have learned are unsafe. Hot stoves, fast-moving traffic, dark alleys and the like are easy to discern in terms of their safety. Emotion-cued environments are harder to figure out. Our childhood experiences are a fruitful ground where we learn many of our lessons about safeness and safety. Angry voices, certain words, patterns of relationships and other features of interpersonal relationships can become cues for safeness. We typically know the degree of safeness from the language and tone of the person speaking to or interacting with us. Safeness with respect to our inner dialogue is no different from our external experience.
Most people, when asked about their inner voice, smile sheepishly and confess it’s not a pleasant one. But almost immediately, they will begin to defend their not-so-silent partner. “It’s how I motivate myself.” “I’d never know how to avoid mistakes I make if I didn’t remind myself that I can screw up.” While all this is true, the sad fact is, our inner critical voice is often what keeps us from engaging with life. More than that, the inner critic leaves us feeling threatened rather than safe.
Like all relationships, our relationship with our inner critic is complicated. We suspect it’s trying to help but it sure doesn’t feel like it at times. We’d like to turn it off but we’re afraid without it we’d become a lazy lump on the couch. We want it gone forever but it’s a hard-wired part of who we are. We’d like to make peace with it but we’re not ready for that inner group hug. We think it just wants us to be careful and wise but it sounds like it’s telling us can’t do anything right, ever! And to add insult to injury, no one knows us better than that inner critic. It knows all the buttons to push to get us to start or stop. It knows our vulnerabilities and strengths, often over-emphasizing the former and diminishing the latter. It is like being inseparable from an unruly, impolite friend who has really good intentions to keep us safe but can’t create safeness. It is intimate with every aspect of who we are and that also makes it primed for self-compassion²‚³.
However, befriending a person like that is a challenge at the best of times; befriending ourselves in the worst of our times can be daunting. That’s why we need to take slow, quiet steps towards engaging with the inner critic.
Step 1. Mindfulness. It’s hard to be in the presence of harshness, so mindfulness practice helps us stay grounded and aware when the inner critic begins its monologue of dire warnings. Mindfulness of our emotions helps us stay connected with the impact of the words. It also tells us when we’ve had enough and need to get off that nasty train of thoughts.
Step 2. Acknowledge we heard its message. This sounds strange because it may feel like we’re agreeing with it. Notice we are saying, “I hear you,” and not “You’re right.” Everyone has a perspective and the point of view of the inner critic is just one perspective on our life. As we become more comfortable with acknowledging its voice, we can try to acknowledge its attempt to help. Eventually with practice, we may get to say “Thanks for alerting me. I’ve got this!” Remember we can’t fight the inner critic with brute strength; we have to soften around it.
Step 3. Strong back, soft front: respect the partnership. The inner critic is really our attempt at feeling solid in our life; that’s the strong back. We have opinions, ideas, feelings and a reality that is meaningful. We are also of a softer nature that is attentive and giving, accommodating and caring. We feel our vulnerability and openness in relationships. The balance between the strong back and soft front helps us be flexible and available emotionally.
1. Lovingkindness and compassion meditations help us develop less fear of being wounded. The inner critic tries to toughen us up against external criticisms and that subtly makes these criticisms seem more threatening than they are and the wounds deeper than they might be.
2. Giving and receiving compassion meditations can help to create space and calm between ourselves and our inner critic. Although the meditations are intended to give compassion to another person in our life who needs it, we could see the inner critic as an aspect of ourselves that needs compassion too.
3. Compassion Breaks and “Soften-Soothe-Allow” meditations help to develop presence in the face of the monologue we heard internally.
With notes from Glynn, Brittany, Mindful Self-Compassion 8-week program, Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic
¹Gilbert, Paul (2009). The Compassionate Mind: A new approach to life’s challenges. New Harbinger Publications: CA
²Germer, Christopher (2009). The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion:Freeing yourself from destructive thoughts and emotions. Guilford Press: NY
³Neff, Kristin (2011). Self-Compassion: Stop beating yourself up and leave insecurity behind. William Morrow: NY