I have a contentious complainer that lives inside my head, who is really good at pointing out everything that is “bad” about everything. When my inner critic is the only inner voice I listen to, I feel grumpy, reactive, stuck and judgmental.
It turns out that it’s normal and even adaptive to have a loud inner critic designed to get our attention. An inner critic is a part of the “negativity bias” that our human brains have evolved to help us stay out of harms way. We automatically scan for danger or stimuli deemed negative far more readily and easily than we take in good, positive, or even neutral events.
So while we have this very powerful ability to automatically scan and potentially ward off danger or negative stimuli, what to do when we’ve just had enough?
First, it’s important to realize that when the mind is spouting off the endless list of all that’s “bad,” it’s just doing its thing and doing it well! The mind thinks it’s keeping you safe by “catching” all the negative stimuli that could be potentially harmful. But for many of us, it’s the mind itself that is doing the harming by interpreting indiscriminately through the negative lens. As neuropsychologist Rick Hanson points out, it’s not keeping us safe, it’s keeping us stuck.
Second, it’s important to see this and develop the capacity to observe that negative thoughts are happening, rather than being caught up in them and believing them to be true. This is mindfulness in action.
Third, it’s important to contemplate that there really is no “good” or “bad.” It is our perceptions and interpretations that determine “good” or “bad,” in the form of our preferences and aversions. This point is tricky because ideas of inherent good and bad are so deeply ingrained in us that we have a hard time accepting that it is our own minds that judge whether something or someone is “good” or “bad.”
Let me explain.
“Bad” stuff happens all the time: weight is gained; jobs are lost; accidents happen; illnesses occur; marriages end in divorce; Donald Trump is elected president, and it’s easy to get caught up in the tragedy and fear of it all. We get angry, depressed, jealous, anxious, judgmental. We ruminate endlessly about all the stuff we deem “bad.” It’s easy to buy into the need to be in constant conflict with all the bad stuff going on. We must fight against “bad!”
But all this conflict doesn’t actually eliminate the “bad” thing, it just makes us miserable! So maybe the key to happiness isn’t about getting rid of the “bad” things in our lives that we fight against, maybe the key to happiness is about letting go of the conflict we have with everything we perceive as “bad” by letting it be good.
Seriously. Let it be good. Whatever “it, the bad thing” is; let it – allow it – to be good.
Try this exercise: take a minute right now to think of something about yourself or your life that you really struggle with. It could be your weight, your job, your relationship, your past, your teenager, Donald Trump. Think about this situation or person and how “bad” it is and how much better everything would be if it would change to your liking.
Now, just let it be good. Again, whatever “it” is; allow it – inside your own mind – to be good.
If you can actually make the shift from “bad” to “good,” you’ll notice that your relationship to the “bad” thing changes. After all, if something is “good,” is it still a problem? When something or someone ceases to be “bad” so goes the need to be in conflict with it. You may also notice now how deeply you want to insist on your view, how you want to defend the right to be in conflict with the “bad” thing! That’s fine, but now you can see that your own mind is keeping you stuck, and that’s empowering.
To let it be good doesn’t mean we passively roll over and become a doormat to our challenges, condone harmful behaviors, or “like” everything, but rather it frees us from automatic internal conflict that blinds us from clear seeing and wise choices.
Amazingly, we can engage with our inner and outer challenges much more effectively when we’re not so negatively reactive, but coming from a place of calm and skillful discernment. By seeing that we create “good” and “bad” in our minds, and by choosing to let it be good, we empower ourselves and we free ourselves. The “bad” thing doesn’t have power; we do.
Our amazing brains are incredibly fast and effective in scanning for negativity and danger. By letting it be good, we regulate the reactive anger, anxiety or sadness that automatically sets off inner conflict and begins to open up inner space for a new way of relating to ourselves, our experiences and to others. Best of all, we may even discover new and creative solutions we were blind to when embroiled in all that inner conflict to “bad.”
So what to do with that negative inner critic who only sees “bad?”