An Exercise to Counter Self-Criticism

Do you ever criticise yourself? Or let me put it differently. Do you ever give yourself a hard time for not feeling good, not being at your best, or for making mistakes or errors of judgment?

You’re not alone if you do. 

Nearly everyone I know tends to be self-critical at times. 

Granted, some have it down to a fine art and if there was an Olympic sport in it, we’d be right up there as medal contenders.

But regardless of whether you’re a little time self-critic or a big-time practitioner, here’s an exercise that should prove to be quite helpful. It helps to shift self-criticism towards self-compassion.

It relies on the fact that self-criticism is a learned habit. We’re not born as self-critics. Sometimes it’s learned from parents, siblings, friends, teachers at school, and sometimes just through feeling worn down by circumstances of life. But whatever the source, it’s a habit that we learn.

But if it can be learned, then it can also be unlearned. We’ve just learned a habit of listening to a critical portion of ourselves. Another part of us, deep down, knows that what we tell ourselves in critical moments simply isn’t true.

The key to the following technique is to learn to listen to this deeper portion of yourself. I call the technique the Inner Buddha technique, but you’ll find variations of it online under different names.

How to practice the Inner Buddha technique

Here’s how to practice the technique. Take three pens of different colours.

Let one colour represent the words of your inner critic, let another colour represent the part of you that feels hurt or wounded by the critic and by the situation, and let the third colour represent your Inner Buddha – the voice of your highest, wisest, most compassionate self.

Allow all three portions of yourself to have their say, starting with the inner critic, responding with the wounded portion, and ending with your Inner Buddha, switching the pen each time. You can allow the ‘conversation’ to go for as long or as short a time as needed. Some people write half a page, some write several. How much you write will be unique to you.

You can use this exercise at a time when you are being harsh or judgmental of yourself, or you can simply do it at a quieter time where you recall how you tend to feel and the kinds of things you say to yourself when you’re self-criticizing.

Here’s how it works:

Starting with the inner critic, you choose a colour of pen that you want to represent the inner critic and write down what it would say.

Write as if your inner critic was addressing You. Use words you tend to use when you’re criticising yourself. Don’t hold back. If you speak to yourself in unfriendly or colourful language, then let rip on the page.

It can help to think of the inner critic as a character. You can even give it a voice. Some people make it a funny voice or even a character from TV because making it sound different can help to make it sound less like who you really are.

When you’re done, swap the pen for the colour that represents the part of you that feels wounded by the critic.

Using that pen, allow this portion to respond. You might say how you feel, or how you’re doing your best, or that you feel hurt by what the critic is saying, for example.

You can then either introduce your Inner Buddha or alternate between the critic and the wounded as many times as you want, like they were having a dialogue, before you bring in your Inner Buddha.

Whenever you feel is the right moment, swap the pen for the colour that represents your Inner Buddha, and let it have its say.

Again, you can let it be a character from TV. I have pretended that mine was God from the film, ‘Bruce Almighty’, and even imagined it in the voice of Morgan Freeman. 

Or you can simply think of it as your highest Self, your deepest, wisest self. Have a play and find which you prefer.

You might then allow either, or both, of the other portions to respond, like it’s a real three-way conversation. Continue the dialogue between the portions for as long as you wish until you feel better. 

Make sure your Inner Buddha gets the last word!!

Here’s an example of some dialogue

This example has been condensed for simplicity and to keep this blog short. I’ve written it as if I was doing the exercise myself, so insert your own name where I use mine and use your own dialogue. 

[Critic]: I knew you were going to screw it up. You always say the wrong thing. You’re such an idiot.

[Wounded]: It really hurts me when you say that. I try my best, but I just can’t help it sometimes. I know I’m not perfect.

[Critic]: You’re right there! You’re definitely not perfect; far from it. Look at your friends. They are all doing so well. You’re a complete screw-up. If only they knew. You’re an imposter.

[Wounded]: I’m trying my best. I’m only human, after all. Everybody screws up. They just don’t all talk about it.

[Inner Buddha]: (addressing the Critic) I know you mean well, Critic. I know that you’re saying this because you truly want David [your name] to be the best he can be. He does have great potential.

[Critic]: Well, I suppose I am. But I just wish he wouldn’t screw up so often.

[Inner Buddha]: (addressing the Critic) We all screw up from time to time. A baby falls several times before it learns to walk but we don’t punish it. We let it learn and grow. Maybe you can lighten up a wee bit. Let’s see how that goes for a while.

[Inner Buddha]: (addressing the Wounded) David, it must be so hard for you. I can understand how you are feeling. I know you are trying your best. Please know this: I’m here for you, always. And you know what? Even though you don’t see it, everybody struggles, everybody fails. It’s called ‘being human’. The thing is, you’ve never really failed because everything you do is just a learning experience, and I love you just the way you are.

This is a shortened example, just to give you an idea of the kinds of ways the different portions might communicate. My dialogue has gone for several pages in the past. Allow yours to be as long or as short as it needs to be until you get some resolution or until you feel better.

You can allow your Wisest self to be a true sage if you want, a spiritual master, or the voice of a very wise old person, or even a representation of how you think you’d be in your elderly years. Try to imagine how a being of such wisdom would communicate.

The power of this exercise comes from realising that your inner critic is simply one portion of yourself that you’ve learned to listen to. And now you can learn to listen to your much wiser self.

In time, rather than defaulting to your inner critic, you’ll find yourself automatically feeling your Inner Buddha. Instead of being self-critical, you’ll find yourself being self-compassionate, patient and understanding with yourself.

So take a few sheets of paper, or get out a journal, and begin your dialogue for something you’ve been criticizing yourself about.

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