It’s a new year, which means… well, whatever we want it to mean. For some of us, it means new beginnings, for others it’s continuing on a particular trajectory or slightly changing course. For others still, it’s just another day, but with an infuriating new digit to mess up on checks and forms.
Let’s pretend, however, that you’re not completely happy with something, and you’d like to make some changes. Maybe you make it a formal resolution, or maybe you just hope that you’ll conduct yourself a bit differently this year. I was taking a mental inventory just now, and I was hoping to eat better, exercise more, and… then I stopped.
Those are both worthy goals, to be sure, but I noticed a parallel line of thought: “I’ve got to stop putting so much garbage in my body. How am I going to reach my goal weight if I keep having 1000 calories of popcorn after dinner?” and “I’ve got to get back to the gym, I need some muscle.”
If you become good at observing yourself (what can I say, I’m my favorite subject), you’ll notice that these thoughts tend to come with a jeering commentary that can be broadly thought of as “self-judgment.” These tend to be less coherent thoughts, and more just negative feelings and labels. As I thought of the late-night snack, my mind inserted a feeling of self-disgust. Looking back at my sedentary life over the past few months, my mind threw out some fun ideas about me being flabby and unloveable.
“Gross. How will anyone ever love that?”
I’ve got a new resolution, and it has nothing to do with what goes into my mouth, or what I do with my body. I resolve to change my mind.
Negative Internal Commentary (NIC) and You
Do you ever notice that? Next time you find yourself reviewing the past, or thinking about the future, listen for the subtle, powerful voice of your inner critic. Just as we turn little mishaps into catastrophes, there’s an evil little imp in our brains that pipes up whenever we think back on our less-than-perfect habits, or whenever we catch a glimpse of stretchmarks in the mirror, or when we say something a little boneheaded in a conversation. This is no wise sage, gently correcting us when we mess up; it’s a cruel little thing, sneering at us for things that we can’t help. We’ll call it NIC.
Make no mistake, NIC is part of us. It’s probably a product of social conditioning, reflecting all of the pressures that society, our parents, and the media puts on us. Even though it’s fed by external stuff, however, NIC is still our voice, even if it is a vicious little bastard.
That’s step one, by the way. Accept that this negative commentary exists, and don’t fight it. You know how that ends up: You argue with your internal critic, and it gains power. It ramps up its rhetoric, making you feel even shittier, until you temporarily shut it out. What if you simply acknowledged it, noticed what it has to say, and allowed it to pass on by?
By simply viewing the negative internal commentary impassively (or even compassionately!), you’re stealing some of its power. You’re supposed to react with shame, or with horror. Nah, not this time. Consider NIC just another voice at the round table in your head, no more or less important than your compassion, your pride, your caution, etc. You can have pride without acting pridefully; you can have NIC without judging yourself. Let NIC throw its little tantrum, then move on with your life.
Step two is reprogramming the imp. This is the part where you can be active in taking away its power, rather than just passively letting it talk. Here’s what you don’t do: You don’t try to kick NIC’s chair away from the table and remove its voice. It’ll just jump on the table and start throwing feces and rolling in the mashed potatoes and generally making a nuisance of itself.
No, NIC is a part of you, and you can’t get rid of it any more than you could your conscience. Realize that we only have negative commentary because of existing programming. We’ve been programmed by TV and magazines, harsh comments from our parents, that group of kids in middle school who never left you alone, as well as thousands of little microaggressions that we’ve internalized over the years. What if we could get NIC to be less harsh, and maybe be a voice of acceptance and compassion?
I don’t think this is entirely possible, but we can definitely reprogram our internal critic a bit, and see if we can get it to be less harsh when we’re just trying to fix our hair in the mirror. You’ve already taken some of its power by accepting the little imp and not judging it. What if you made a concerted effort, a resolution even, to accept everyone in the same way, including yourself?
Acceptance as Antidote
NIC can be cruel, but it’s a reflection of us, of who we are and who we’ve been. It’s a manifestation of all of the cruelties that have been perpetrated against us, and of the judgment that we direct toward others. We can’t snuff the imp out (I hope that you’re actually feeling a little compassion for the little guy by now), but we can provide it with a new script.
This will be a new habit, which means a bit of effort at first, followed by mindfulness. It’s not easy to change the way you think, to change your mind, so expect this to take a while, and expect setbacks.
First, notice automatic negative commentary, whether it’s self-directed or directed at others. As above, view it without judgment, and don’t argue with it. Allow it to pass on through.
Second, use this as a cue. When your critic pipes up, step back and see if you can view things from a position of acceptance. This weird nipple hair is a part of me. That jackass who just cut me off in traffic might be having a bad day. My bosses are probably under a lot of pressure. This bank teller may have a mole shaped like Arkansas and breath like a septic tank, but he’s probably an okay dude.
Third, cultivate acceptance even when your internal critic hasn’t piped up. What beauty can you find in imperfect or unpleasant things? When you disagree with someone philosophically or morally, can you still see them as a worthy human being?
Warning: Don’t Overdo It
Don’t make this a compulsion. Don’t stifle your inner critic, or your own unique voice, by shouting yourself down. That’s not what this is about. This idea of cultivating acceptance means adding a touch of love to the normal behaviors of your brain. Directing some nonjudgmental compassion toward your cellulite, even as it bugs you. We’re not shutting off the negative parts of our brain, we’re waking up the compassionate and curious parts.
“The human mind should be a playground, not a military camp.” – PZ Meyers
It’s okay to get mad at jerks. It’s fine to hold a grudge when someone’s done something shitty to you. You can still have your normal human measure of pettiness, greed, and malice. This is about finding that voice of nonjudgment and acceptance, and letting that have a seat at the table as well. If you cultivate it, sometimes NIC becomes less of a jerk, and you may have those ugly self-directed thoughts less often.
That’s it for now. Let me know what you think in the comments below, and look for a new guided meditation on self-acceptance today. Or tomorrow. Or sometime. (Edit: Here it is!)
As always, be kind to yourself.
Photo credit: Camilla Soares