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Make Peace With Your Mind
How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You From Your Inner Critic
By Mark Coleman
New World LibraryCopyright © 2016 Mark Coleman
All rights reserved.
CHANGE IS POSSIBLE
Neuroplasticity and the Power of Choice
It's not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life, it's what you whisper to yourself that has the most power.
— Robert T. Kiyosaki
When I first woke up to the fact that you can change your mind, I was blown away. And I don't just mean change your mind about a decision, but make a radical shift in how you think and feel. You can actually give your own mind a makeover.
I remember reading my journals from my late teens a while ago, and they read like a monologue of despair. I felt strangely sad and caring toward that teenager who was so lost in the negative swirls of his own mind. He did not know that change was possible; he felt lost in his negativity and cynicism. He was unaware that his pain would be the beginning of a search for answers, for tools and techniques that could lead him out of this pit of woe.
Luckily for him — for me — I stumbled on the pragmatic practice of mindfulness meditation. It seemed to offer a way out. Not an easy or quick path, but nevertheless a way through the dangerous jungle of my inner world.
Mindfulness practice, though it has been around for thousands of years, has at its root a principle that has only recently been discovered by neuroscience — neuroplasticity, or the capacity of the brain to change and grow depending on what it pays attention to and how its attention is focused. This is the good news of human development: Our brain is not a fixed machine. On the contrary, it is dynamic, responsive, and capable of shifting, growing, and developing healthy habits that support happiness.
I didn't know back in those tormented teen years that I had a choice. That the programming I had inherited and learned was just that — programming. I hadn't yet realized that I could rewrite the code. That fact that I could hack my own brain turned out to be nothing short of a miracle.
What gives us that ability is mindfulness — the self-awareness that helps us understand the inner workings of our own minds, our programming. Mindfulness returns to us the power of choice, particularly when it comes to our mental habits and choices.
It was the practice of mindfulness that made me aware of the tyrannical self-judgments that were making my life miserable. I could see with a newfound perspective how hard I was on myself. I saw what impossibly high standards I had set for my life.
I also saw how this habit of faultfinding didn't just apply to me. I held everyone else under the same negative microscope. So, naturally, I was quite obnoxious to be around as a young man! I was idealistic, but with my mental sword I would slay everyone who didn't live up to my impossibly high standards and expectations. It was no fun, for me or for them. (I'm still apologizing to my family for putting them through that.)
So how did I change these patterns? For one thing, I realized that, due to their sheer number, the judgments flying my way were not about to stop anytime soon. Anyone who has tried meditating will know it is impossible to stem the tide of thoughts. But I saw that I didn't need to give them the attention they were demanding. And I certainly didn't need to believe them. I needed to heed the advice from a bumper sticker I often see in San Francisco today: "Don't believe everything you think."
I also realized that we can choose to focus our awareness on any number of things at a given moment. I realized that I didn't need to keep feeding the judgments with my attention. That I could turn my gaze elsewhere at my own bidding — to my body, or breath, or the beautiful blue sky, or the sounds of birds, or even traffic — and it felt liberating.
Neuroscience tells us that what we pay attention to can change the structure of the brain. Neuroscientist Donald Hebb's discovery in 1948 that neurons that fire together wire together has become a foundational scientific principle that allows for inner transformation. If I continue to give negative thoughts attention, then of course they grow in importance. If I stop giving them the time of day, then they have less room to take root and grow.
And if I focus not on what is wrong, but on what is good, positive, or possible, then my experience, affected by what I pay attention to, changes. Next time you are in a public place — a café, train station, or street — spend five minutes looking at everyone's faults and notice what you feel. It will probably not be a sense of joy and expansion. Then for the next five minutes try looking at everyone's goodness, strengths, and positive attributes. Doing that, you'll probably feel more connected, more positive, maybe even appreciative — I personally would much rather reside in that state.
So this is precisely what I decided to do. Thanks to the gift of awareness that was developing through mindfulness practice, I was able to give less attention to the tirades of my inner critic and the gloom it created. Instead I began to turn my awareness to what was working well, to what I was doing that was kind, effective, and successful. I started noticing what was uplifting, beautiful, and inspiring. This wasn't a denial of the negativity in the slipstream of my mind or the problems of the world. It was just a conscious decision to not be dragged into the gravitational pull of the judgments.
This isn't the only thing mindfulness allows you to do. Perhaps more important, once something is seen clearly with mindful awareness, it doesn't have the impact it did before. So as I began to recognize my judging thoughts clearly, it was as if I were seeing them in relief or projected onto a screen, and I could hold them at more of a distance and be less affected by them.
The other groundbreaking shift occurred when I took up the meditation of loving-kindness, which is a method of cultivating friendliness and unconditional care. This practice asks you to regard yourself with kindness, as you would a loved one, and offer loving words and genuine wishes of kindness to yourself. Through this technique, I learned to turn toward myself with love — which seemed a radical act for me at the time.
If you are reading this book, the idea of being kind to yourself is probably not a very familiar one. You may have already figured out that doing such a thing is not in the repertoire of the critic, which often regards us as unworthy of such kindness. In fact, it is the opposite of what the critic does, and this is why lovingkindness practice is such an effective method. This practice allows you to retrain your brain, creating new neural pathways conducive to self-kindness rather than self-hatred and self-condemnation.
When I first tried this, I found it almost impossible. It was like trying to melt an iceberg in my heart. But over time, with persistence and patience, that iceberg slowly began to melt, and I began to catch occasional glimpses of the possibility of being kind to myself, even forgiving myself and accepting all my foibles.
These two wings of a bird, awareness and kindness, allowed the step-by-step work I did with the inner voices that had up to then made my life challenging and painful. I began to see that change was possible and that if I could do it, anyone could.
Looking on the Bright Side
Do this practice the next time you are in a public place. For the first five minutes, look around and focus on all the things you don't like, the things you think are wrong, bad, ugly. Look at the people around you and let your mind fixate on their faults or what could be improved upon. Notice what that negative, judgmental state of mind feels like.
Then for the following five minutes, notice all the things you like in the environment. Look at everything that is positive or uplifting or beautiful. At the same time observe the people around you and simply focus on what you like or appreciate in them, or on the positive attributes they possess. Again notice how you feel.
Can you see how shifting your attention to what is uplifting, good, and positive has a direct impact on your state of mind and heart?
Now do the same thing with yourself. Spend five to ten minutes thinking about all the things you like and appreciate about yourself. Reflect on your accomplishments, gifts, and positive qualities. Call to mind the kind or generous things you have done. Appreciate your body and all it does for you. Again notice how shifting your attention to what is good changes not only your mood, but also the way you feel about yourself.
Try to practice turning toward the positive in both yourself and others throughout your day, to train your mind's bias from the negative to the positive.CHAPTER 2
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
The Epidemic of Self-Judgment
I'm probably just as good a mother as the next repressed, obsessive-compulsive paranoiac.
— Anne Lamott
Have you noticed how many people give themselves a hard time? How friends and colleagues routinely put themselves down and happily confess all their faults and problems? It is culturally acceptable to talk about your faults and challenges, and of course to complain ad nauseam about the faults of others. As Lucy so eloquently put it in a Peanuts cartoon (speaking to Charlie Brown): "The problem with you, Charlie, is that you are you."
At the same time it is quite the norm not to talk about one's successes, strengths, and accomplishments. In some cultures, that is considered gauche and egotistical. Being raised in England, I was taught it was a faux pas to speak of your talents and gifts or celebrate your victories. It is as if you are rubbing other people's nose in the dirt by doing so. Yet it is fine to lead with one's inadequacies and problems.
In the United States the mental health statistics are alarming. One in ten Americans is on some form of antidepressant. One in five took some kind of behavioral medication in 2010. The number of suicides is equally staggering: forty thousand per year. And that's just the numbers that are reported. Though the numbers may be higher in the United States than elsewhere, many industrialized countries report similarly alarming statistics.
Based on the work I have done with people over the past fifteen years on six continents, I believe the inner critic is a significant cause of much of the depression, anxiety, and suicide prevalent today. When the critic's voices are loud, sharp, and rampant, it is hard to keep a sense of self-worth or feel there is a meaning or purpose in life.
Though the statistics are startling, there is one sad but reassuring fact among them: you are not alone. One of the biggest burdens we can carry when we are depressed, or just lost in a swamp of self-reproach, is the troubling thought that we are unusual to have such problems. We mistakenly believe that we are the only ones afflicted by nagging, negative stories about ourselves. It is bad enough to have such troubling thoughts, but the idea that you may be the only "loser" in the room who has them is doubly shaming, and harder to work with.
In workshops that I lead about the inner critic, one of the most healing outcomes is people's realization that they are not the only ones with a judging mind. Isolation and the belief that you're the odd one out, that everyone but you is having a merry old time, just compounds these mental challenges.
When I have people pair up at an inner-critic workshop and share their list of self-judgments, there is at first a sense of great apprehension and embarrassment, and a fear of the shame that may ensue. But when they actually do share their lists, a collective relief sweeps the room. The realization that we share similar self-judgments and negative mental habits brings this sense of relief. The thought that we can help each other if we share a similar burden also nurtures an important sense of camaraderie and social support.
Noticing the Critic Everywhere
As you go about your life — whether at home, at work, with friends, running errands, watching television — start paying attention to how you see the critic operating in other people. We can certainly observe it when hearing politicians and pundits barking on the radio or when movie critics are demolishing the latest film.
Also notice the inner critic in conversations, in the way people jokingly put themselves down: "Oh, you know me. I'm hopeless at math. Why don't you do the numbers?" "My hair looks terrible today." "I look awful in those photos." "I made a real mess of that meeting at work yesterday." These are all common parts of social conversation.
Observe what happens when you notice this behavior. Can you relate to others when they are putting themselves or others down? Does it feel familiar or even comfortable? Do you feel a sense of camaraderie? Can you see how ubiquitous this pattern is? Does it leave you feeling less alone, now that you can see you are not the only person with a sadistic inner voice? Similarly, do you feel compassion for others when they talk about themselves so negatively?
The more you can observe in this way, the more you will relieve yourself of the burdensome feeling that you are the only one with a problem, that you alone have a voice you should be ashamed of. Instead you may begin to feel a sense of connection with others, a feeling that you too are part of the shared human struggle, trying to find a way to be at peace amid all our conditioning and mental gyrations.CHAPTER 3
If They Really Knew Who I Am ...
I have written eleven books but each time I think, "Uh oh, they're going to find out now. I've run a game on everybody and they're going to find me out."
— Maya Angelou
A very common example of the ubiquitous nature of the critic is the phenomenon of "imposter syndrome" — the feeling that you don't deserve to be where you are in life. It's estimated that 70 percent of people have imposter syndrome. How many times have you been in front of a class, or asked to give a presentation as an authority on some issue, or invited to perform in a concert, or picked for the best sports team, and felt like a fake? Or what about those times when you have gone for an interview where you are supposed to present yourself as a specialist and felt like an imposter?
Imposter syndrome commonly appears as the voice that says, "Who do you think you are?" This voice of self-doubt and deprecation haunts multitudes. It even appeared to the Buddha on the night of his enlightenment. When I first heard that, I thought, "At least I'm in good company!" For a more contemporary example of how ubiquitous this pattern is, Meryl Streep, the most Academy Award–nominated actor in history, said in an interview, "Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don't know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?"
Sometimes that feeling of fraudulence comes when you actually get the job. Have you ever felt that if people only knew who you really are, you'd be found out, they'd be disappointed, or you'd be fired on the spot? Whether you are a janitor or CEO, you're susceptible to this feeling of being a fraud.
Toward the end of his life, Einstein admitted that he felt like "an involuntary swindler." Almost every renowned figure has had their own version. "I am not a writer. I've been fooling myself and other people," John Steinbeck wrote in his diary in 1938. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has said, "There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud." And, of course, if we listen to the whispers or taunts of the inner critic, we will firmly believe we ourselves are a fraud, that we don't deserve to be where we are.
Excerpted from Make Peace With Your Mind by Mark Coleman. Copyright © 2016 Mark Coleman. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Tara Brach xiii
Introduction: How I Discovered the Critic and Found a Way Out 1
Part 1 The Critic: The Big Picture
1 Change Is Possible: Neuroplasticity and the Power of Choice 13
Practice: Looking on the Bright Side 17
2 You Are Not Alone: The Epidemic of Self-Judgment 19
Practice: Noticing the Critic Everywhere 21
3 Imposter Syndrome: If They Really Knew Who I Am … 23
Practice: Recognizing Imposter Syndrome 25
4 Thief of Peace: The Critic as the Cause of Low Self-Esteem 27
Practice: Correcting the Inner Balance Sheet 30
5 You Ate Not Your Fault: Not Taking Your Thoughts Personally 33
Practice: Not Taking It Personally 37
6 How Did I Get Here? The Origin and Function of the Critic 39
Practice: Understanding the Origin of the Critic 43
7 In the Critic's Defense: Understanding the Critic's Point of View 45
Practice: Unearthing the Truth 50
8 From Judgment to Discernment: Mistaken Loyalty to the Critic 53
Practice: Replacing Judgment with Discernment 58
Part 2 Understanding Self-Judgment
9 It's about You, Stupid! How the Critic Attacks Your Innate Value 63
Practice: Connecting with Your Inherent Value 67
10 The Mantra of "Not Enough": Knowing When Enough Is Enough 71
Practice: Cultivating Gratitude 76
11 20/20 Hindsight: How the Critic Fuels Regret 79
Practice: Letting Go of Regrets 82
12 The Inner Boardroom: Understanding the Voices in Your Head 85
Practice: Identifying Your Inner Boardroom 89
13 The Critic's Revolving Door: What Goes Out Must Go In 91
Practice: Finding the Positive in Others 93
14 The Impact of the Critic: How Judgments Affect Us 95
Practice: Reducing the Impact of judgments 99
15 It's All Your Fault: Understanding the Critic in Relationships 101
Practice: Examining the Critic in Your Relationships 104
Part 3 How To Work Mindfully with the Critic
16 Mindfulness: The Power of Awareness 109
Practice: Cultivating Mindfulness 114
17 Hello Judgments: Realizing Judgments Are Just Thoughts 119
Practice: Recognizing Your Judging Thoughts 122
18 Teflon Mind: The Power of Nonidentification 125
Practice: Not Identifying with Your Judging Thoughts 128
19 Keep It in the Family: Recognizing the Origins of the Critic 131
Practice: Identifying the Critic's Voice 134
20 The Joke Is on You: Seeing the Funny Side of the Critic 137
Practice: Finding Humor in the Critic 140
21 Reality Check: Are Your Judgments Really True? 141
Practice: Questioning the Critic's Views 145
22 Sorry, I'm Not Interested: Living with Disinterest in the Critic 147
Practice: Cultivating Disinterest in the Critic 149
Part 4 The Power of Love
23 Befriending Yourself: You Are Not Your Enemy 153
Practice: Healing Your Inner Wounds 158
24 The Power of Vulnerability: The Hidden Strength of the Heart 161
Practice: Opening Yourself to Vulnerability 165
25 The Power of Love: Turning from Self-Hatred to Self-Kindness 167
Practice: Cultivating Self-Kindness 171
26 Transforming Pain: Moving from Self-Harm to Self-Compassion 173
Practice: Developing Self-Compassion 176
27 Giving Up Hope of a Better Past: From Self-Blame to Self-Forgiveness 179
Practice: Fostering Self-Forgiveness 183
Part 5 Beyond the Critic
28 Inclining toward Happiness: Paying Attention to the Good 189
Practice: Reassessing Your Self-Perception 193
29 Who Are You? Seeing the Good in Others 195
Practice: "Just Like Me" Meditation 198
30 Inner Peace: A Life beyond the Critic 201
Practice: Noticing the Peace between Thoughts 204
31 The Critic Toolbox: Defending Yourself against Judgments 207
About the Author 237