Don't Let Mindfulness Unleash Your Inner Critic
Mindfulness practice is a useful psychological tool, but it needs an element of self-compassion
Therapist Julia Bueno shares some information on the topic
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Many years ago, I did what increasing numbers of people are doing – I turned to mindfulness meditation in an attempt to get my psychological health back on track.
Back then it wasn't endorsed by the NHS or written about in lifestyle magazines, nor were there iPhones, let alone apps, around to help with its instruction. But despite a few cagey responses from friends and family, at long last I felt I'd found something I could 'do' that would help lift my mood and dampen down anxieties. And it worked. For a bit. What I hadn't known then though is that mindfulness often works best alongside other profound psychological work, and I 'flew solo' in my practice way too early. Mindfulness done 'effectively', I learned, is neither a soft option nor a quick fix.
“The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment" is how Jon Kabat Zinn, a key figure in the movement, defines mindfulness. This awareness doesn't come easily of course, and much of the practice aims to cultivate this skill, which can be a strange new one for the most of us. We spend a lot of our time 'unaware' of what's really going on in our inner world, with our mind so often steeped in the past or in the future – worrying about what happened or what may happen.
Downside of mindfulness
But cultivating this awareness isn't the only tricky part of the practice – many of us can acquire this skill relatively easily (ignoring the pesky wandering mind part which plagues us all). It's the mind's material we then become aware of that may be deeply unpleasant or unsettling. Tuning into our momentary experiences may well make space for previously ignored negative ones, fuelled by negative thoughts and ideas or feelings. Then, not responding with dislike or shame or annoyance to all of this, as the practice asks of us, can be monumentally difficult. It's far from uncommon for things to get tough before they get easier when you start a practice of mindfulness.
I'm not a mindfulness instructor, but I encourage many of my clients to pursue a practice alongside therapy if they are interested. Sometimes difficulties in meditation form a very valuable part of our psychological work – they are always related to how we relate to ourselves after all. In the beginnings of a practice, I see many stumble across a number of ideas and beliefs that are very difficult to sit with, let alone learn of their existence. I certainly did, and like many others, beliefs such as 'I'm useless' or 'I'm truly incapable' cunningly tucked themselves behind the more effervescent 'I'm invincible' or 'I don't get hurt'.
So responding to these emerging negative thoughts, beliefs and worries without feeling negative about myself became too challenging. Kabat-Zinn's 'non-judgemental' bit felt pie in the sky. My inner critic loomed large (indeed I'd become more aware of her), and while it may not have had a clear voice, as many people's do, it created such a climate of hostility that there was very little chance it would be kind to what I was discovering. No wonder I felt worse, and without a therapist or mentor or experienced meditator around to support me, I bailed on my new 'Holy Grail' of psychological work.
Be kind to yourself
Years later, my mindfulness practice has eased up. I've worked hard, in therapy and elsewhere, on developing a kinder self-to-self relationship. In more concrete terms, this means I'm better able to respond to my negative experiences with care and concern and compassion rather than the 'double whammy' of disliking myself for disliking myself. It seems that my old practice of mindfulness was guided by an idea that if I 'feel my suffering, it will change', while now my practice aims for something else: 'be kind to yourself in the midst of suffering and it will change.' The kindness is therefore a resource from which I can approach the tough stuff.
Chris Germer is a clinical psychologist in the USA devoted to mindful self-compassion work who told me, “I think that interest in self-compassion is following at the heels of mindfulness. Mindfulness is primarily a healthy way of relating to moment-to-moment experience, while self-compassion is a healthy relationship to the experiencer. When emotions are so strong or disturbing that they engulf our sense of self, as they often do in patients who come to therapy, then we need to rescue the "self" before we can get to moment-to-moment awareness. Together, mindfulness and self-compassion are a powerful combination for dealing with difficult emotions. Some people say that self-compassion is already in mindfulness. I would agree with that when mindfulness is in full bloom, but when we're under stress, our mindfulness tends to be mixed with fear and loses its natural warmth."
I worry that much of what I read about mindfulness these days misses out on emphasising the essential role of this inner 'warmth' – it seems to get lost in the endless enthusiasm for the end goals (relief from depression or pain or anxiety or presentation nerves....). Ensuring you have an experienced instructor or emotional support may be one way your practice may not get derailed like mine. Another is to immerse yourself in the very challenging self-compassion training soon to make its way to our shores.