How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic

standing person wearing hoodie

Mindfulness enables us to feel our pain, and compassion is the heart’s response to that pain. Compassion wishes to help and to heal the suffering. Kindness and awareness, like the two wings of a bird, work together to release the force of compassion, which is essential to our work with the critic. – Mark Coleman

Inner peace, we’re all searching for it. But something else meets us standing in the way when we go to search within — the Inner Critic. Are you familiar with that noise? The harsh voice that speaks, “Who do you think you are?” or “You’re not good enough” or “You’re a failure,” and all the other disparaging remarks.

Based on personal experiences, Mark Coleman provides us with clear insights in this book about the nature of the inner critic.

He also shares stories of other people he encountered during his coaching and teaching classes, to which we can relate in one way or another.

He navigates the internal landscape of our minds and offers perspectives from all angles so we may be able to identify how the inner critic affects us.

What we can appreciate more in the book are the practical exercises provided at the end of each chapter. After describing what the inner critic does, Mark teaches us what we can do about it. And you can feel the lightness and friendliness in Mark’s approach with his teachings.

With love, compassion, and the practice of mindfulness, Mark guarantees that Inner Peace is attainable and not far from reach.

Good News!

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.

Neuroscience proves it. Neuroplasticity is the capacity of the brain to change and grow depending on what it pays attention to and how much attention is given.

This is where the practice of mindfulness comes into the picture. It gives us the ability to become aware of the inner workings of our brain so we can change it for the better. It returns to us the power of choice.

We become aware of the judgments being hurled at us by the inner critic. With this awareness, we can now choose to turn our attention away from those judgmental thoughts and shift toward something else — to our body, to the beautiful sky, or whatever we are experiencing at the moment.

As you can see, we are not directly changing our thoughts into positive ones. Nor are we doing any affirmation. We are simply putting our attention elsewhere.

Neuroscientist Donald Hebb discovered in 1948 that neurons that fire together wire together, creating new neural pathways. Therefore, by focusing on what’s good, positive, or possible, we lay the foundation for inner transformation. As our inner experience changes, so does the outer too.

mindfulness compassion

Person – Action

It is fine to point out the occasional errors we make, and offer some constructive criticism on how we can attend to details better in the future. It is a different order of magnitude when the critic attacks our basic goodness.

Educational psychologists have known for a long time how important it is, when giving criticism, to separate the person from the action. This is the important difference between person- and process-centered criticism or praise.

Person – Action. Being – Doing. It is so crucial to notice the distinction between the two. If we are not aware enough, we will be caught off guard when the inner critic attacks us.

We are prone victims to this. If we set a goal and do not achieve that goal, we (our inner critic) will be quick to judge ourselves (person), instead of the not-achieving-the-goal (action), as a failure. If a child forgets to do his school assignment, it doesn’t make him a bad child. We can praise him for his good acts. But don’t infer that when he does not do those things, he is no longer good.

Mark said that the doorway to transformation is learning not to associate the action, however bad, with the person so we can assess the judgment without demeaning ourselves. We can see clearly what happened, what was ok and what wasn’t, and take appropriate action to change our behavior rather than sinking into low self-esteem and diminished self-worth.

We are inherently awesome. It’s what we do, our actions that can get wrong or bad, which can always be corrected. It is from correcting our mistakes that we learn and grow.

mindfulness compassion

Not Enough

Such is the way of the critic. It’s never enough. No matter what we do, it always reminds us we could do more, be better, achieve something greater. It robs us of the satisfaction of our accomplishments.

Whew… Just typing “not enough” gets me feeling tired. Imagine putting all your effort, doing all the best you could, and still “not enough”? Then, you strive to work even harder to sort of fill up the not-enoughness.

When will enough be enough? Again, if we take a closer look, this is rooted in the being-doing-having paradigm. Because we (our being) do not feel enough, we try to compensate with what we do or have to complete our not-enoughness. However, no matter what and how much we do or have, we just can’t get enough. “I just can’t get enough.”

Mark observes that this is driven by a belief in scarcity, so we strive for more. We try to get more of anything. And this “not enough” applies to our bodies too, which evokes painful feelings — not pretty enough, not slim enough, not fit enough, not strong enough — you name it. This often leads to an endless pursuit of self-enhancement, which turns into addiction, eating disorders, workaholism, and obsession to name some.

We mistakenly think that once we get enough, we can also get approval and love from the world. And so the inner critic pushes us for more.

A key strategy, as Mark suggests, is to cultivate the practice of gratitude. For when we are feeling grateful, we can’t also be feeling deficient. Gratitude transforms the not-enoughness into a sense of fullness and appreciation for life and its blessings.

mindfulness compassion

20/20 Hindsight

Hindsight gives us the perspective we just don’t have when making a decision. And it is pointless, if not downright unfair, to blame ourselves in hindsight. Learning from past errors is, of course, necessary. But the blame-and-shame game is unnecessary and unhelpful.

You didn’t know any better when you made a bad decision in the past. You didn’t know what you know now. But the inner critic won’t let you forget that you “messed up.” It will make you think of what should have or haven’t been, leaving you with regret and guilt.

Mark reminds us that we try to do the best we can with the information and resources at hand. We have to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. There are so many other factors involved that are beyond our control. Understanding this will liberate us from the grip of the inner critic.

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The Revolving Door

For the most part, what goes out goes in; if someone is outwardly critical, they are most likely also turning the screw on themselves when there is no one else around to take aim at.

When we are not aware of our inner critic, our judgmental thoughts are projected onto others. The faults we find in others are faults we fail to see in ourselves.

Mark reminds us that it is important to understand our mental habits because the more we practice a habit, the more entrenched it becomes.

Have you noticed how we are inclined to find faults in behavior or flaws in the appearances of others? In effect, when we look at ourselves, we also find all the reasons why we cannot completely love and accept ourselves in spite of our human imperfections.

So how do we interrupt this habit? Our first line of defense, Mark writes, is simply to notice that it’s there. Once we have that awareness, we can discern it for what it is — judgments, opinions, or points of view. Then, we can shift our attention to the positive aspects we can see in others, as well as in ourselves.

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Be Present

So what exactly is mindfulness? The simplest definition is “clear awareness.” It is the capacity to be present, consciously knowing what is happening in your experience moment by moment. You can apply that attention to your mind, body, or environment. It is both a state of mind and a quality that you can develop through practice. Although we all have access to this quality, it takes patience and perseverance for it to become part of the fabric of who you are.

Question: What did you eat for dinner last night?

I’ll give you another minute. Hmmm… someone’s mind was wandering while having dinner last night. Mindfullness — You’ve had a mind-full of thoughts that distracted your attention from the eating experience.

This divided focus is called “constant partial attention.” It’s what our multitasking brain does, which is often counterproductive. Not only do we become less efficient, we also become absent-minded, not fully present in the moment.

There is a large study conducted by Harvard Medical School tracking several thousand people over a period of weeks and surprisingly discovered that participants were not present 46.9% of the day. Given our sleeping and waking times, we’ll realize how much time we’ve lost. That’s not an ideal way of living. However, due to unawareness of the masses, it has become the norm.

As simple as it may sound, mindfulness is not that easy and requires deliberate practice for it to become part of our nature. As Mark emphasized, it takes patience and perseverance.

Shall we start practicing tonight, dinnertime?  😉

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Teflon Mind

Mindful awareness is essential for learning to not identify ourselves with our thoughts. This nonidentification means we no longer believe the thoughts or take on board what they are saying about us. We see they are just conditioned processes that are no more objectively true than anything else. Nonidentification allows us to detach, disengage, and not get caught.

Mark said that normally, our mind is like Velcro. Everything sticks. One of the greatest gifts of mindfulness is transforming our mind into Teflon. It becomes non-sticky.

Mindful awareness creates a sense of space between our thinking mind and its thoughts. It is analogous to the sky, where thoughts are like clouds just passing through it. They don’t stick to it. They float and they move. We just watch.

When we are able to do that, we can now examine our thoughts and we can identify the noise of the inner critic. We can finally hear that still small voice within that provides guidance and wisdom.

Another benefit of nonidentification, having a Teflon mind, is it lessens our emotional reactivity. Thoughts trigger certain emotions. We become less reactive whenever we have differing opinions during a conversation. We have that inner space to step back and listen to what the other person has to say. Rather than defending our position, we take opinions as they are without taking them personally.

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Befriend Yourself

And that is the journey of descent, of journeying into the heart. We must be willing to be with whatever we discover there and hold it with love, acceptance, and tenderness.

Life encourages us to live with integrity, wholeness, and honesty. To live out of alignment with those things is inherently painful. It is reality’s way of making us live in harmony with its universal laws, because when we don’t, we suffer.

The only way out is by going in — into your heart. That requires courage and vulnerability. But not everyone will take a good look within themselves wherein you can see and feel the pain with openness.

Instead, we try to numb the pain, run away from it. So the inner critic shouts to us the ways we are hurting ourselves, only to fall on deaf ears. Those noises are a call for help. The critic, as it turns out was not an enemy, but a friend asking for help, calling for love.

Healing happens when we tend to our wounds. “The wound is the place where the light comes in,” as Rumi poetically said. Enlightenment is not an escape route, but an inward journey.

Mindfulness is a tool for the mind so we can bring in the light of awareness and see the dark places inside us not with fear and judgment, but with compassionate love, acceptance and tenderness.

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Loving-Kindness Meditation

One of the reasons the kindness meditation is so potent in counteracting the critic is that it uses language (words, phrases, and wishes), the same medium the judge uses. Instead of listing all the things that are wrong with us and all the things we have failed at, we examine our deepest aspiration for ourselves. Then we put that wish into words, in the form of phrases that express our kind intention.

Exercise time, friends! I found this to be another great addition to my personal critic toolbox. This practice is known as “metta,” which translates to “friendliness.” It refers to befriending ourselves and others with a welcoming, nonjudgmental attitude.

We replace the harsh words of the inner critic with kind words. Over time, this practice creates new neural pathways and new synaptic connections. We rewire our brain, rerouting it from judgment to acceptance, from fear to love.

We begin this practice by finding a place where we can be alone for at least ten minutes. We close our eyes and turn our attention to our heart area (I like putting my hand over my chest for more awesomeness feel). Take a few slow deep breaths, and then we say to ourselves:

  • “May I be safe and protected from harm.”
  • “May I be healthy.”
  • “May I be happy.”
  • “May I live with freedom and ease.”
  • “May I love and accept myself just as I am.”

Feel your heart opening up? Awesome!

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Two Wings of a Bird

This perspective changes everything. It takes us out of blame and into mercy. Compassion is the heart’s healing balm and has the power to alleviate and transform suffering. It can resolve the pain that causes the critic to arise in the first place.

Compassion is a direct antidote to that and is ultimately what heals the cycle of pain and judgment.

Compassion has been described as a quivering of the heart in response to pain. It is intimate with the pain and distress of another or ourselves.

Mindfulness is to the mind as compassion is to the heart. One brings awareness, the other offers kindness. Perfect combination!

Many of our experiences in life are painful enough already. Pain is an inevitable part of growth. It is the inner critic that causes us to needlessly suffer in dealing with the pain.

With mindfulness, compassion (“to suffer with”) allows us to be with our feelings from a loving perspective. We are no longer at war with ourselves. We are just there with a fierce, kind presence.

As we treat ourselves this way, we also start sharing that same compassion toward others. We begin to understand that they too are in pain and suffering. Hurt people are calling for help. They also want to heal their wounds but they don’t know how. We now see ourselves in them.

mindfulness compassion

Here’s what the book offers us so we can feel that connectedness and extend our healing to others. Wherever we are, whoever we are with, we can reflect on these phrases:

  • Just like me, this person wants to be happy.
  • Just like me, this person wishes to be free of pain and stress.
  • Just like me, this person has a body subject to aches, pains, and aging.
  • Just like me, this person has had many joys and successes.
  • Just like me, this person has felt sadness, loss, and pain.
  • Just like me, this person desires to love and be loved.
  • Just like me, this person aspires to do their best in life.
  • Just like me, this person wants peace and happiness

Know that you are not alone. We are in this together.

You are as vast as the sky. You have two wings — mindfulness and compassion — to set yourself free from your inner critic.

Now, fly!

Make Peace with Your Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion Can Free You from Your Inner Critic


MARK COLEMAN is a senior meditation rock teacher at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, an executive coach, and the founder of the Mindfulness Institute, which brings mindfulness training to organizations worldwide.

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