Mindfulness: Relief from the Inner Critic
Updated: Apr 11, 2022
Mindfulness Meditation – the Basics.
Most of what we hear about mindfulness is in the context of yoga or certain meditation practices. We are told that by quieting our restless mind, we can reduce our stress levels and find greater peace. Standard instruction for a mindfulness meditation practice (sometimes referred to as Shamatha meditation) asks us to close our eyes, sit quietly, and focus attention on our breath without trying to change anything.
At some point, we will recognize that a thought arose, captured our attention, and that we are no longer focused on our breath. This point of recognition, when we realize our attention isn't on our breath but instead focused on our thoughts, is a moment of mindfulness. The purpose of mindfulness meditation, we are told, isn’t to stop ourselves from thinking . . . thinking is simply what the mind does. Instead, the goal is to recognize thoughts as they arise, release them without judgment, and return attention back to our breath.
While this mindfulness meditation instruction may sound simple, it’s not necessarily easy – which is why it’s referred to as a practice.
In meditation instruction, we might also hear about an “Observer” or “Watcher” within us . . . the aspect of us who can recognize when a thought arises and label that thought as “thinking.” This might sound straightforward at first: “Yes, of course, I can recognize when I have a thought.”
As we continue to sit with this idea, though, a question can begin to arise . . . “If I am the ‘me’ who is observing the thought, then who is the ‘me’ thinking the thought?”
Before that moment of mindfulness, when we recognize we are thinking, we are in a state of unawareness - lost in thought - on autopilot - checked out. Some might even call this state a mild form of dissociation.
The less able we are to observe or watch our thoughts, the more identified or blended we become with them. Blended thoughts become the filter of how we view life, and they can feel intensely real and powerful. If the thoughts we think are predominantly harsh, judgmental, or critical, we can feel stuck, disempowered, or overwhelmed. So as strange as it may sound, a goal of mindfulness meditation is to create some distance from our thoughts. “If I am the ‘me’ that can recognize and watch my thinking, then the thoughts I am thinking are not wholly ‘me.’”
The Inner Critic
One part of us that can be responsible for generating a lot of thoughts is our inner critic. Our critic is the inner voice or presence that finds fault in actions, thoughts, and feelings. The inner critic can be directed inward to produce shame . . . telling us we are not good enough, smart enough, or worthy enough. Or our critic can be directed outward with judgment and harshness towards others as blame. Some of us have a sense that our inner critic is active within us, but it may remain masked because it speaks to us in our own voice. Most of us won’t become fully aware of our inner critic’s pervasive impact on our lives until we slow down enough to recognize it. This is how mindfulness meditation can help. By recognizing our thoughts, we open to greater awareness of our inner critic.
The Watcher Moves Into Self-Leadership
In traditional mindfulness meditation practice, the Watcher observes the thoughts arising, can label the thoughts as thinking, and then returns our attention back to our breath. The thoughts that arise may be generated by our inner critic . . . or by some other part of us, but it doesn’t really matter. In this core mindfulness practice, the Watcher never engages with the thoughts, or the parts of us that are thinking.
In time, we become more skilled at distancing and dis-identifying ourselves from our thoughts and instead sit more often in the centered seat of consciousness - the Watcher. When this happens, our Watcher can take a more active leadership role in our inner world. Internal Family Systems (IFS) identifies the qualities of the Watcher (which it calls the Self) as compassion, curiosity, calm, clarity, courage, connectedness, confidence, and creativity. When we can access these qualities within us, our Watcher can effectively engage directly with the various parts of us that are doing all the thinking (like our inner critic).
Mindfulness in Everyday Life
Our formal mindfulness meditation practice – sitting for however many minutes we commit to – allows us to start setting boundaries with our thoughts. When thoughts arise, critical or otherwise, we don’t follow them or engage with them . . . we release them, and return to our breath. Outside our formal mindfulness practice and in everyday life, we can work with our inner critic in similar ways. When our Watcher recognizes critical thoughts coming up, it can take the lead and calmly, compassionately, and confidently say “No” to our inner critic.
Working with our inner critic in this way can be challenging at first. We may recognize just how persistent and unrelenting this part of us can be and how exhausting it is to keep setting limits. We may discover that our critic becomes especially active at certain times of the day, around specific people, or in particular circumstances. Some of the critic’s thoughts can be “sticky” . . . seemingly very important, or even seductive to our attention. Our critic may even cast doubt on our efforts, saying mindfulness practices are stupid and won’t make any difference. In time and with practice, however, we notice some shifts. We discover more breathing room in our lives as we begin to give ourselves and others a break.
Reparenting as a Mindfulness Practice
Reparenting is another modality that asks our central “Watcher” to take the lead in working with other parts of us, like our inner critic. Reparenting refers to the Watcher as an inner loving parent, embodying gentleness, love, and respect (much like the Self in IFS). Despite sometimes seeming very powerful and even parental, reparenting believes that the inner critic is a highly protective child-like part of us that naturally developed as a survival mechanism early in our lives. And again, we can use our mindfulness practice to recognize when this part is activated and gently put our inner critic in a timeout when needed.
Reparenting provides mindfulness-based tools for our inner loving parent (the Watcher) to engage with our inner critic, as well as our inner child and inner teen. By connecting into old wounds, reparenting can deepen our-self compassion to bring healing and a greater sense of inner harmony and peace to our lives today.
The Reparenting Check-in Practice is a four-part process that can allow us to:
1. Ground Ourselves – I can use mindfulness to anchor into my breath, dis-engage with my automated thoughts, and connect with my feelings in the present moment.
2. Determine “Who” – I can use mindfulness to identify which parts of me are activated and need my attention (like my inner critic).
3. Determine “What” – I can use mindfulness to recognize what person, place, or thing triggered me (or otherwise affected my state of being).
4. Tend to Ourselves – I can use mindfulness to compassionately identify what I need to do to take care of myself (tending to the parts of me that need attention).
We can start a formal mindfulness mediation practice by carving out as little as three minutes a day to sit quietly using the basic instructions provided in this article. That is the simple part.
We can benefit from a formal mindfulness practice by following through on our commitment to this practice each day and showing up for ourselves. Unfortunately, that is the part that’s not always easy.
Thankfully, each of us has the capacity to connect with our inner Watcher (true Self, inner loving parent) who provides the confidence, courage, and consistency that makes transformation and healing possible.
Lou Bardach is currently a life coach and student intern at Cypress Wellness Center, working toward LCSW licensure as a master’s in social work student at the University of Central Florida. He has also studied the Internal Family Systems psychotherapeutic model through the IFS Institute’s Online Circle program. He believes health and well-being are cultivated through self-care -- by learning to become one’s own compassionate caregiver. As a gay man experienced in working with LGBTQ+ adolescents and adults, Lou is particularly interested in helping others heal from the effects of homophobia, transphobia, and other types of social oppression. Contact him/them at Lou@CypressWellnessCenter.com