Getting to know your inner critic can bring you more clarity regarding how it influences your life. Often this critic is a combination of a number of voices from your past that weave themselves together into a heavy coat of expectations about who you are supposed to be.
Sometimes this coat fits you well and you feel good about yourself, but more often it is layer of “shoulds” that covers over who you really are. Listening in to the commentary of the inner critic will illuminate what I call your “imaginary perfect self” – a made up idea of who you should be that has little relationship to who you actually are.
Your historical inheritance influencing the inner critic may include comments like the following: “Why can’t you be like so-and-so?” (meaning that you are not good enough the way you are), “Are you going out looking like that?” (meaning that your judgment is faulty), “You’ll never find a spouse if you are fat” (meaning that you are unattractive and unlovable), or “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” (meaning that your feelings are not valid or acceptable). You may have internalized these messages as a young person, continuing to be ruled by them as an adult through the voice of the inner critic.
Taking the time to listen to your self-talk and explore whether it is valid or supportive will help you along the road to health. Combining increased self-awareness and increased self-kindness will be especially helpful during times when you tend to use food to subdue negative feelings about yourself or to punish yourself.
For example, many people get into trouble because of “all or nothing” thinking. With this kind of attitude, if you’ve violated a rule you’ve set for yourself, such as eating food that was not on your meal plan, your internal response might be something like “I’ve blown it, so why not just eat the whole thing (bag of chips, pint of ice cream, or other unit of food).” In other words, since you have not been able to be perfect, you tell yourself that none of your efforts count, and there is no middle ground.
This is an example of your internal critic taking charge. This is where guilt and self-condemnation are in the driver’s seat, and they tend to intensify the problem rather than bring about a positive solution.
Bringing self-kindness into this situation would change it quite a bit. With self-kindness, you might find it possible to admit what has happened (“I ate the whole row of Oreos”), feel regret rather than engaging in harsh recrimination (“I had promised myself I wouldn’t do this and I’m sorry I did”), and offer yourself words of self-kindness (“Many people like myself are struggling with food issues. I have done something I hoped not to do, and I wonder why I was so vulnerable to my old habits in this situation. Is there something I can do to make it less likely to happen again?”)
Self-kindness not only helps you feel better about yourself, it also can enhance your capacity to feel a wide range of positive emotions, affect your physical well-being in a positive way, and reduce the negative consequences of shame and self-condemnation.
Excerpt from Eating with Fierce Kindness: A Mindful and Compassionate Guide to Losing Weight, by Sasha Loring, New Harbinger Press, 2010. Sasha has taught meditation for over 30 years and has created mindfulness programs for Duke Integrative Medicine. Find more information at www.sashaloring.com