Silencing the Inner Critic

6.5 mins read Happy Easter everybody! It’s a good time to slough off any stale self-limiting sense of self and arise as someone altogether more incredible. I hope this article helps with that. For starters, how much do you like yourself?! Someone told me she was dismayed recently to hear her 5-year old express self-doubt … Continue reading “Silencing the Inner Critic”

6.5 mins read

Happy Easter everybody! It’s a good time to slough off any stale self-limiting sense of self and arise as someone altogether more incredible. I hope this article helps with that.

low self-esteemFor starters, how much do you like yourself?!

Someone told me she was dismayed recently to hear her 5-year old express self-doubt and self-loathing. She was trying to figure out how he came to feel that way given that she is always trying to encourage him; but we agreed that these days self-doubt is prevalent and can be picked up anywhere, including by kids.

This young mother went onto say that she herself suffers from low self-esteem so he may be picking it up from her.

Do you ever feel overly self-critical? Do we all feel like that sometimes? Most of us are not immune to identifying with a painful, limited sense of self and experiencing a resultant self-loathing.

Where does it come from?

I am going to come up with a few theories here, numbered a-d. Please feel free to add to these in the comments.

 a. External conditions

Being overly self-critical can come from other people criticizing us a lot and us internalizing that feeling of unworthiness. It could have started in childhood with an influential adult in our life saying stuff like, “Shame on you! There’s something wrong with you! You’ll never amount to anything.” And, not knowing better, we then started to repeat those insults in the first person.shame on you child

It could arise from cultural or societal put downs, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia, where again we internalize these harsh voices and repeat these narratives to ourselves.

Self-criticism can also come from life events we find hard to deal with — for example, if we are fired we might feel unworthy and useless, letting our job (or lack of it) define us. If we are rejected we can feel unlovable because the person we love doesn’t love us back  and, internalizing this, we conclude it must be our fault.

b. Repetition

Whatever conditions encouraged it, self-criticism is negative self-talk that gets stronger with repetition.

In 2005, the National Science Foundation published research on the number of thoughts we have, concluding that the average human being has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. And, get this, they also concluded that about 80% of those thoughts are negative and 95% are exactly the same repetitive thoughts as the day before!

The person who pointed me to this statistic asked me whether training the mind in meditation meant that we switched out those 60,000 negative or uncontrolled thoughts with 60,000 positive thoughts. Pondering this, I would say that we don’t have that many thoughts once we start training in concentration and finding our happiness in peaceful, positive states of mind. For example, we can learn to stay focused on love all day. What do you think?overthinking

This as opposed to the young multitasker with the split-screen, thoughts flitting all over the place – “what number shall I put in this Sudoku box? Which email shall I reply to now? Do I even like this music? Who’s that texting me? Why did he say that to me? Will I ever get a job I like? I’m hungry” – amounting to surely tons of thoughts in even the short time I was covertly observing her. The number of thoughts we have, I would wager, is going up every year as our mind becomes more and more outward orientated, constantly seeking happiness in a multiple of things outside ourselves.

Buddha called an uncontrolled mind a “monkey mind” precisely because it’s jumping all over the place from one object to the next (as well as grabbing stuff or chucking it around). Our mind can only focus on one object at a time – so in multi-tasking the mind is simply moving rapidly from one object to the next and back again. Distractions and over-stimulations like these are literally the opposite of concentration, a single-pointedness in which we focus on one object at a time, eventually for as long as we like.

Add to all this the discovery that 9 out of 10 thoughts are reportedly out of our control and you can see why we have a problem on our hands. Is it any wonder that our uncontrolled, repetitive, negative, over-thinking monkey mind is causing us to feel bad, mad, or sad all day, and in life after life? Including all those repetitive self-bullying thoughts!

c. Anger directed inwards

Self-dislike or self-hatred is actually part of anger, anger directed inwards, which exaggerates our faults and edits out our good qualities. We are talking to ourselves about ourselves in ways and at a rate that we’d quite possibly never put up with from someone else. If someone was following us around all day telling us we were hopeless, we could at least lock ourselves in the bathroom for a few minutes respite. Not so much when we are doing it to ourselves.

In How to Solve our Human Problems, Geshe Kelsang gives the definition of anger:

Anger is a deluded mind that focuses on an animate or inanimate object, feels it to be unattractive, exaggerates its bad qualities, and wishes to harm it.

Then he explains how this works in terms of being directed toward someone else, giving the example of a partner; but I think it also works just as well with anger directed toward ourselves, so I’m going to use his words but switch out partner for ourself.

For example, when we are angry with ourself, at that moment we appear to us as unattractive or unpleasant. We then exaggerate our bad qualities by focusing only on those aspects that irritate us and ignoring all our good qualities and kindness, until we have built up a mental image of an intrinsically faulty person.

self-hatredThat self we are relating to is a mental image. That’s it. There is nothing actually there. There is nothing behind that image. It is a reflection of our thoughts. The sooner we realize we keep projecting mental images of a painful, limited self and believing they are solid, the sooner we will be free not just from self-anger but from all delusions and suffering.

We then wish to harm ourselves in some way, probably by criticizing or disparaging ourselves.

Naturally, if we have set our self up as the problem, the only way to get rid of our problem now is to somehow belittle or get rid of this dislikeable self. But how is that supposed to work?!

Self-dislike arises from inappropriate attention, which means that it is not relating to something or someone who actually exists, but to an hallucination, a projection. Anger edits out everything good about ourselves, leaving all redeemable qualities on the cutting room floor, because it can only sustain itself by focusing on faults. As Geshe Kelsang puts it:

Because it is based on an exaggeration, anger is an unrealistic mind – the intrinsically faulty person it focuses on does not in fact exist.

This is why we cannot solve the problem created by anger with anger itself. Anger only sees faults, so as soon as a solution or redeeming quality appears, “Oh, I’m not so bad! I’m quite nice really!”, anger starts to fade away.

 d. Ego-grasping

We can see from this that at root, self-criticism, like all anger and other delusions, grows from ego-grasping — projecting and then believing in a distorted sense of self, believing it is inherently existent or real. In this case the distortion is a sense of an intrinsically unworthy or dislikeable self, whom we consequently dislike and put down. Luckily, thanks to Buddha’s deep and eminently practical psychological and spiritual insights, this is something we can remedy.

Next installment is here.

Update: A quick request to those of you who are leaving great comments on this article on Facebook — please leave your feedback here as well so I can address it or use it in the next 4 articles 😃 (Yep, 4, already in the pipeline.)

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Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

21 thoughts on “Silencing the Inner Critic”

  1. Thank you for this, it’s probably one of the most important Dharma teachings I’ve read that goes to the root of my problems and written in a way that helps me understand the differences between self cherishing/ ego grasping and low self esteem/self hatred. The term itself ‘self cherishing’ to me used to be a difficult one to grasp, thinking I could never like myself enough to cherish anything I did or thought! (I understand all this much better now thanks to meditation classes )
    I love how you related our anger towards others as being the same anger that we direct at ourselves – this is a big game changer for me. I feel like I can recognise when this happens and do something about it.
    Thank you

  2. Thank you for your time and learned insight. Among the topics I have read on Buddhism and being through addiction rehab, hating myself was one of the biggest obstacles I have learned to deal with.

  3. Wonderfully expressed to the challenges faced by so many, including myself. Thank you for sharing. 🙏

  4. Hi Luna,

    I’m relatively a newer reader of your blog. This topic has struck a chord with me like no other. You have laid out excellent points (a-d) and touched on one of our biggest problems in today’s society — self doubt. The phrase “mental image of an inherently faulty person” resonates with me most when I am in self-doubt myself. Working on finding ways to reduce the impact of self-criticism and get on a path of a higher purpose.

    Looking forward to your next parts of this series. KP from Atlanta

  5. Thank you Luna. I found it very helpful the way you turned how Geshe’la describes seeing anger in the other person to applying that same logic to ourselves. It’s easy to see and get caught up in our own faults and then go down the path of discouragement, forgetting that there is no truly existence self (to beat up on). I also need to remind myself in those moments to rejoice in having found Dharma, because up until then there was no wisdom in my life, and no way out of the sufferings of a samsaric mind. Really looking forward to the next 4 parts!

  6. Thank you! I love all the points, especially the reminder to stop repetitious self-defeating thoughts. Love this article, please keep sharing your insights. Have a Happy Easter, too!

  7. One of the best articles you have written. So true we need to relate to our non-existent selves in order to shake off the downward spiral of a negative truly existent self, so liberating when we keep working on this and pulling ourselves into reality. Thank you, so wonderful to share with anyone.

    1. Thank you Barbara! I wouldn’t say we need to relate to our non-existent self, though, to shake off the downward spiral — more our existent self. It is only the truly existent self that is non-existent. There is more practical advice on the subject on its way 🙂

  8. Thank you for your constant encouragement luna. I feel I find it hard to really believe in myself because I have the wrong awareness that it’s self cherishing. I find it hard to distinguish between self cherishing and believing in myself. For example I find that if I start to think I can become a buddha, my mind tells me that’s unrealistic and stop thinking you’re so special. I should just think of others. Are you not supposed to think only of others good qualities and not your own?
    It fluctuates for me, sometimes I believe in my potential and other times not. Tbh I’m getting a bit bored of it 😂
    I guess I just don’t believe I could believe in my potential all the time.
    Thank you for any advice x

  9. Brilliant, clear teaching on something we all struggle with from time to time. Buddhas’ wisdom is the only place we can find this powerful encouragement. And your condensed article gives us just what we need to quickly stop that crazy inner critic. Thank you LK

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