Clients often ask me how to know when it is the inner critic and when it is your own inner truth. This struggle can be especially problematic with academics, whom are trained to over use their brains. An inner critic voice often has some of these properties: mean, harsh, stuck in binaries, judging and demeaning, repetitive, persistent, draws on previous failures, sounds like critical people from your past, creates feelings of anxiety and worry, and/or sounds like perfectionism.

We can know our inner critic is spinning when we can’t stop the thought in our minds. The struggle is to stop the replay “tapes in our heads”—to review difficult moments in our lives over and over, as if doing so will change the outcome, or allow us to say the “right” thing this time.Known as rumination, we can obsess over these struggles and stay stuck in the past. We can never change what happened. Rumination just keeps us feeling miserable. Ongoing rumination raises anxiety, which interferes with problem solution.

Sometimes the warning of inner critics were important for former times of our life but are no longer valid. Perhaps we lived in times of physical or emotional danger. We carry with us alarm bells into newer, safer situations. Thank these alarm bells when you notice them. Acknowledge their purpose in your life and also intentionally notice the skills and the supports that you now have that no longer make them needed.

The most central query when unsure is to ask if that voice and that message is lifting you up and giving you energy, or tearing you down. Our inner nature is never to destroy ourselves. An inner critic voice tends to feel harsh, mean, negative, binary, and focuses on “not enough,”

Another tactic is to tap into our bodies, which possess innate ways of knowing.Tapping into knowledge below our chins can be a great way of discerning what is our deeper truth. The truth within ourselves is much bigger than our minds. In fact, our bodies give us great insights all of the time that we tend to take for granted. Consider how different parts of our bodies help us to know truth. Our hands may be shaking during an important conversation.

We know something is true from a “gut feeling.” Our throat constricts when we feel silenced. These sensations are driven by the stimulation of the vagus nerve. The largest organ in the autonomic nervous system.  that communicates with the threat, lungs, heart, stomach, liver, pancreas,  and gut. Called the “soul nerve” , the vagus nerve informs our consciousness the ways we are just beginning to understand. It also is part of the process that tells the body when to fight, flight or freeze. Much of these signals are out of conscious awareness. Yet, with practice, attending to our gut feelings can help us to discern  messages our body are sending to us, as well as to intentionally calm messages to reduce stress response.

We can step away from rumination by reconnecting below the neck–through drawing our attention back to our bodies and the emotional reactions within them. Tara Brach refers to the process as RAIN—Recognizing the emotion, Allow its Presence. Investigate with curiosity, Nurture with Compassion.  The process acknowledges the feeling but meets it with compassion rather than rejection. If we catch ourselves repeating a thought or problem without resolution, our first step is to notice it. It does not help to berate ourselves for that as well. Instead, we can just notice, “There it is again.”

Our next step is to exit the “negative memory network” in which negativity feeds upon itself and grows. Rumination tends to be triggered by mood. We can recall positive times when we faced similar struggles and ask our support network to help us to remember times when we succeeded.   To pull ourselves away from our tapes, it helps to take in the present moment.

Mel Robbinshttps://melrobbins.com/five-elements-5-second-rule/ suggests a similar pattern of disruption by counting backwards from 5. It has to be backwards, she says, and by 1, we are in the present moment and the tape is cut off. We are conscious and able to make our own choices of what we choose to think in that moment. We can then choose a positive image or concept to replace the negative one.

Written by Dr. Dana Mitra

I am a life coach at Coaching By Dana and tenured academic professor at Penn State.

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