Befriending Your Own Critical Mind
by Amy Shouse
Recently, a friend was relaying a story about something he’d done that he regretted. He rattled on nervously, slipping into a dark vortex of self-condemnation about how disappointed in himself he was and how stupid he was.
The thought occurred to me: If I were in the same situation, what would he tell me in order to lift me up, to make me feel better? How would he characterize that person and that mistake, if he were speaking about someone he truly loved?
Such is the challenge of dealing with our own critical minds. How different would it be, if we were able to recognize and halt that constant negative chatter that so often sweeps us off? If only we could gently extract ourselves from the ongoing dialogue that crowds our inner life, and say to ourselves: “You’re doing the best you can.”
When the complicated monologue in your head begins to quiet, you can create space for a more loving, tender conversation with yourself.
The writer Anne Lamott once wrote that you should never wander around in your own mind alone, because it’s like taking a walk in a really bad neighborhood. Thinking about my own raucous self-talk, I have to agree with her. There have been countless times when I’ve caught myself lost in a storyline of self-blame, winding a wild tale of woe so extravagant that I lose track of where I am in the present.
Many years ago, after reading Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart, I took to heart her teachings on calming “monkey mind.” Her guidance is: Simply notice whenever you find yourself sailing away into the atmosphere on your own thoughts, obsessing and worrying about this or that.
Since then, whenever this happens, I’ve practiced just noticing, and then bringing my mind back to the present moment (without condemning myself for buying into my own disturbing storyline). I practice telling myself that I shouldn’t believe everything I think – especially if those thoughts about myself are negative or hostile.
When I did finally ask my friend how he’d talk about his situation if he were talking to someone he truly cared about, it stopped him in his tracks. “I guess I’d tell that person: You did the best you could,” he answered, “and to not be so hard on yourself, because you’re a great person.”
If you flip negative self-talk on its head and act as if your harsh judgments are aimed at someone you love, you may hear how unfair and hyperbolic you’re being. Eventually, it’s only a matter of time before the complicated monologue in your head begins to quiet. Then you can create space for a more loving and tender conversation with yourself, knowing that, as long as the nature of the mind is to think, you can at least rest and celebrate those moments of reassurance you’re able to conjur for yourself.
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