I strive to use mindfulness in all facets of my living and being. For me, the most beautiful and valuable gift that mindfulness offers is permission to receive, and to let go, repeatedly, particularly of my self-criticism. This helps me stay connected to the good, rather than the critical parts of myself. It helps me to experience my wholeness, and the wholeness of human nature, of which I am a part. This breeds contentment within, allowing me to be more authentic with self and others.
Many of us are conditioned to acquire, or be in constant pursuit of things, feelings or status. Often we feel less equipped to honor and navigate loss in our lives. Mindfulness creates a larger space for joy, making it easier to find in times of struggle.
As a therapist, it is clear to me that if hating ourselves into being better people was something that worked, it would have happened already. Teaching parenting for 20 years, I emphasize that our children, just like ourselves, need encouragement, not discouragement to make behavioral changes. I ask participants to recall a time they were physically, or emotionally hit, punched, slapped, kicked or shoved and share with the group what it triggered within them.
Most responses include: “I was so angry.” “I hated him or her.” “I wanted to get back at them.” “I should have known better.” “I hate myself.” Never is the response “thanks for pointing that out. I am so sorry, you were right, I feel so much better. I will never do that again.” Yes, even self-inflicted emotional abuse triggers fear and humiliation. It doesn’t offer us tools, and it keeps us stuck in surviving instead of thriving.
Neuroscience tells us we all have a “negativity bias” in our brain to keep us safe from both physical and psychological threats (Marano, 2013). However, if we live our life with this bias stuck in the on position as an effort to keep ourselves safe, it can have adverse effects on our quality of life. Neuroscience has proven that “what fires together wires together.” (Hubb,1949).
Positive or negative thoughts create positive or negative feelings. In essence, repeated positive or negative thoughts create neural pathways that become worn with repeated and frequent use. When self-criticism dominates in our mind, it is only those neural pathways that become worn and wide. This is when we have trouble seeing the positive neural pathways because weeds have grown over them. To uncover these paths we have to mow them down by firing up the positive neurochemicals in our brain through the use of daily mindfulness.
Creating healthier neural pathways
For at least two weeks, every other day, for at least three to five minutes, focus only on your breathing while in a comfortable position. Just notice your breath come in and out. It’s OK if your mind wanders. Keep bringing it back to your breath. You can even say, or think the words “in” and “out,” or “inhale” and “exhale” to anchor you to your breath. This will begin the reconnection with yourself and your senses.
If you do not experience slightly less self-criticism after these two weeks, pair gratitude with your breathing. Inhale through your nose as you say or think, “I am grateful for____,” and exhale through your mouth any worry. Do this for two weeks, every other day, for a minimum of three to five minutes.
If your inner critic is still chatty, identify one of your strengths or current efforts. For example, “I am a good friend, spouse, sibling, daughter, son, teammate.” “I am a good parent.” “I am a good provider for my family.” “I am kind to people.” “I earn good grades.” “I’m a good listener.” “I am learning to listen to all of me.” “I am choosing to learn and be curious.” “I am doing the best I can.” Inhale, “I am______” and exhale any self-doubt. Do this for two weeks, every other day, for a minimum of three to five minutes.
Hopefully you have silenced some members of the bad thinking committee, but there may be some very active, long-standing members. Examples might be: “I am wasting my life away.” I’m such a screwup.” “I will always be alone, no one would want to be with me.” “I am not smart enough.” “I am so stupid.” “I am ugly.” “I could never get that job.” “I’m a terrible parent.” “Everything is my fault.” “I am a failure.”
Try this. Pick the one insult that comes up most often. Inhale, “How are these words serving me or my life goals?” and exhale impatience. Repeat daily for a minimum of three to five minutes for two weeks and try to be patient for the answer.
Extending your time to a minimum of 15 minutes a day would be a healthy long-term self-care goal. Remember, there is no way to fail at this activity, as long as you return your attention to your breath over and over. The more consistent you are with your breathing and kindness practices, the easier it will be to let go of your critical voice, again and again. You have the ability and creativity to rebuild positivity and confidence within you, again and again.
“Our Brain’s Negative Bias.” By Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today Blog, June 20, 2013