Don’t Let the Inner Critic Hijack Your Mindfulness Practice

If 2014 was the year of the “Mindful Revolution”, 2016 was the year that ended in mindfulness backlash.

“Actually, let’s not be in the moment,” author Ruth Whippman protested in an op-ed, calling mindfulness a “special circle of self-improvement hell, striving not just for a Pinterest-worthy home, but a Pinterest-worthy mind.” She echoed previous commentary from Professor Adam Grant who pleaded, after encountering elitist attitudes among certain mindful social circles, “Can we end the meditation madness?”

While I myself am a practitioner as well as a former researcher of mindfulness, I know these critics are making an important point. Somewhere in its translation into popular culture, mindfulness has developed the very veneer of judgment it is meant to reduce. And because it is often promoted in ways that make sense to a goal-oriented audience – as a stress reduction technique, a performance enhancer, a low-cost and non-invasive way to get happier – it has landed on a list of “life hacks” we are supposed to master, with the implication that our life just isn’t good enough yet.

The modern mind is a glutton for punishment. Aren’t we all familiar with that voice, the one that tells us we’re almost there but not quite; that we could be a little smarter, more successful, more attractive? During his explorations into the Western psyche Freud named it the “over-I”, later translated to “super-ego” and rebranded as the “inner critic” in more contemporary parlance. It’s the hovering, moralizing internalized cloud of ideals that are always just out of reach. At its root is self-rejection.

Two Faces of the Inner Critic

The inner critic is the force that shames us when we make a mistake or don’t perform as well as we think we should. It compares us mercilessly to other people as well as our past selves. It’s a voice that does not help, even when it’s right. “You didn’t exercise yesterday,” it chides. This may be accurate, and something to look at from a place of conscience. But is there any use in beating ourselves up about it?

Less obvious is the toxicity of the inner critic’s praise. “Wow, you had a great meditation today. You are on top of things,” it says. We start to feel just a little smug, a little bit better than other people, picturing ourselves in that airbrushed photo of yoga on the beach. When our friend comes to us broken and bruised, instead of our heart opening in real vulnerability, we find ourselves cloaked in a thin layer of judgment. “You should really start meditating,” we think to ourselves. Or maybe we say it out loud, hurting our friend and annoying a New York Times contributor in the process.

Learning to Disengage

If we are to reclaim real mindfulness practice from the grips of the inner critic, we must learn to identify and disengage from its influence. This is a simple process but not an easy one, detailed in books such as Soul Without Shame by Byron Brown. I can say from personal experience that disengagement is a practice we must repeat over and over, long after we think we should be done with it.

But it’s an incredibly important practice. If we don’t see this part of ourselves for what it is, we may become “mindful”, but in a way that is rigidly policed by our own subconscious judgments, making us more automaton than human.

The world doesn’t need our self-criticism, our highfalutin ideas of meditation practice, our judgments of each other, or our mindfulness evangelizing. It does need us here, now, for real. It needs our self-awareness as well as our engaged action. In fact I think the world needs us, and we need each other, more than ever.