November is a time of year where many of us take stock in what we have to be grateful for. It’s a season when we’re invited to formally recognize people and opportunities that feed our spirit and enrich our lives. Research backs up this tradition. Scientists are finding that folks who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, more generous and feel more connected with others. My colleagues and I who work behind the scenes at 8 Limbs Yoga Centers experimented recently with this beneficial tradition by offering gratitude towards an unlikely benefactor, our inner critics.
But before I tell you what that looked like, let’s cover some background.
We all have an inner critic. Most of us in fact, myself included, have a number of them. Inner critics are those reactive and internal voices that shine a floodlight on aspects of ourselves we’re not entirely pleased with, areas where we lack confidence and qualities we flat out wish were not so. Referred to as monkey mind in some Buddhist traditions, our inner critic shows up during a variety of perfectly inopportune moments: when we take an embarrassing misstep, when we’re offered an opportunity that pushes our edges, when we simply don’t know what to do…the list goes on!
The more at stake, the greater likelihood our inner critic will make an appearance. The more we resist, the louder it gets. Kristin Neff, a Professor in Human Development at the University of Texas and prominent researcher on self-compassion, has studied the impact of our inner critics. Neff’s research shows that self-criticism engages the threat defense part of our brain. This, in turn, releases cortisol and adrenaline into our bodies, inhibiting our capacity for clear thinking. It’s a process that leads to what is commonly known as “fight, flight or freeze” states of being, states that diminish our ability to be responsive and productive. When we treat ourselves with kindness on the other hand, Neff’s research demonstrates quite a different chain reaction. In offering ourselves compassion, we engage our mammalian care giving system. This system releases oxytocin and opiates (feel good chemicals) into our bodies. Moreover, self-directed kindness is linked with things like well-being, productivity and creativity.
This growing body of research does indeed make a strong case for responding to ourselves with kindness over criticism. Joining these benefits with the perks of a gratitude practice gives it a nice boost. Intellectually grasping the value of thanking our inner critic, however, is not the same thing as being able to say thanks to these monkeys in the midst of their chatter and mean it. This is where the work of a man by the name of Marshall B. Rosenberg is helpful.
Rosenberg was a psychologist who created a communication model known as Nonviolent Communication. Underlying Nonviolent Communication is the intention to foster understanding and connection through compassionate and peaceful communication. Rosenberg posited that our actions and behaviors reflect attempts to meet core needs. When we react (that is, unleash our monkey mind) rather than respond (engage our inner wisdom) we’re essentially attempting to meet unmet needs. What are these needs? Things like the need to feel safe, to be seen, to make a contribution, to experience beauty, to have trust or to be accepted. In other words, as backhanded as our inner critics may be, in their own charmingly menacing way our critics are looking out for us. They are trying to re-establish a familiar equilibrium or assert our desires or make space for licking our wounds. It’s when we bring awareness to the deeper intention of our inner critic, cultivating empathy by recognizing the way it mirrors our higher aspirations, that we carve out space for genuine gratitude. And gratitude, unlike resistance, is quite effective at softening the edges of our critics and melting the hearts of our monkey minds, encouraging them to step aside.
What does this have to do with 8 Limbs? At 8 Limbs, we recognize that to foster the mission (a welcoming and inclusive environment for people to learn and grow) we need to make it a safe place to take risks, ourselves included. When we let our inner critics run amok, we’re much more likely to be reactive and expend energy in non-constructive ways, inhibiting our capacity to be responsive to our community and nurture the full spirit of our mission. So last week I guided the 8 Limbs Leadership team in a practice to thank our inner critics, to become more aware of how they operate and how we can acknowledge but not listen to them.
We’re still playing around with this practice (see Thanking Your Inner Critic, A Reflective Practice to try it out yourself) but we’ve already begun to experience it’s potential. Some of us experienced increased self-awareness. Some of us felt our critical edges softening and our inspiration strengthening. Some of us saw the potential positive impact having empathy for our inner critics might have in our non-working lives and relationships.
It is in this spirit that we invite you to get in touch with your inner critic, offering it heart-felt gratitude for its valiant persistence in trying to help you. But perhaps don’t stop there. We encourage you this holiday season to consider taking advantage of the quiet that emerges when we thank, rather than attempt to squelch, our monkey mind. We also suggest you say a big thank you to your inner wisdom––that discerning internal voice that understands you fortunately have other means for taking care of yourself, the voice that shines a bright light on why you do what you do and what you have to offer, the voice that feeds your resolve so that even in the midst of embarrassing missteps, challenging edges and drawing blanks… you can genuinely thrive.