As a yoga teacher and licensed therapist, I tap into both the science of yoga and the science of the mind. In truth, many of the philosophical teachings of yoga are in alignment with things psychology has uncovered. Many important theories and interventions in mental health draw from Eastern philosophies.
One such philosophy I want to take some time to look at in today’s blog: the ego. There has been a lot of misinterpretation of Hindu scripture and yoga sutras that tell us that the ego is in the way, something bad, something to be put aside. The ego is an important function that wears many hats. One of the roles that the ego plays is that of the inner critic.
Most of us have an inner critic that issues a stream of internal dialog that is usually laden with our negative judgments. This critic forms during our early development and is intertwined with our perception of our Self.
There are a lot of books (both yoga books and self-help books) that tell us to hide away from the inner critic, to avoid listening to it or buying into the things that the inner critic throws at us. I take a different approach to this. Patanjali wrote in the yoga sutras, “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional” and goes on to say that suffering is a result of both attachment and aversion. Attachment and aversion are at the opposite sides of the spectrum.
Reasonable deduction and study of the sutras demonstrates that the perception of separation is the at the root of suffering. Suffering is thought to come from separateness from one another, from past relationships, or in our relationship to God (or whatever higher power we believe in). In therapy, a thing that is often the largest piece of the healing puzzle is the ability of the therapist and client to establish a therapeutic alliance – a relationship that creates a sense of connectedness that we heal in as clients.
Much science at present shows us the importance of connection with one another – indeed entire systems of the body are turning out to be designed for connection. (Hint – the vagus nerve, for starters.)
Back to the ego! A healthier approach to handling the inner critic section of our ego – rather than separating from it, trying to seal it off and run away from it – is to befriend it. Looking at the inner critic and recognizing her for what she is; a part of ourselves born of projections from the perceptions and verbalizations of others (parents, teachers, friends, aunts, uncles, clergy members, etc.). Basically, our inner critic is a psychological patchwork quilt of other people’s perceptions and verbalizations about how the world should be, and how we should be in that ideal world.
In the yoga sutras, perceptions and verbalizations aren’t true and are usually judgments, which are nothing more than our personal opinions about the world and opinions aren’t truth; they’re attachments to a perceived reality that is constructed only in the mind. In that light, our inner critic is a collection of misunderstanding. The work becomes not boxing up and putting away the inner critic or somehow walling it off and beating it into submission, but rather understanding that critic and its role.
You see - that inner critic was constructed to help us navigate this world, to protect us. She’s made up of lessons we learned from others and their perceptions and judgments, compiled to help us avoid hurt and pain. She tells us how awful we look so we’ll wear the sweats out in public to avoid people noticing us too much and therefore garnering judgment. She tells us how what we write isn’t great and will garner criticism from others and how much that will hurt, so we stay quiet, we don’t write, we hide.
Your own inner critic performs this same way, is constructed this same way. Befriending her is a way of showing yourself compassion. When the inner critic speaks, we have the option of acknowledging the lessons she learned, the place she’s operating from, and her purpose and then offering her compassion rather than more judgment heaped on the inner critic and us (since we house that critic!) by trying to obliterate it. The inner critic was just doing its job – it was keeping me separate, which was buying me protection via fear and avoidance.
Get to know your inner critic. Befriend them. What things does it say? What are its feelings and thoughts? What is it protecting you from? Where did it learn the things it tries to convince you of? Offer it some comfort, some peace. Honor it for trying so hard to protect you and remind it that you also have some helpful lessons to draw on, some successes, etc.
Happy Inner Critic befriending!