Sally Armstrong began practicing vipassana meditation in India in 1981 and started teaching in 1996. She is a member of the Spirit Rock Teacher’s Council and has served as a co-guiding teacher at Spirit Rock. She developed and led Spirit Rock’s Dedicated Practitioners Program and Advanced Practitioner Program. She has a keen interest in supporting students who want to deepen their practice and understanding. She regularly teaches retreats on themes such as metta or concentration, as well as the multi-week retreats at Spirit Rock and IMS.
In this dharma talk, given as part of IMS’s Three-Month Retreat, Sally reflects on our inner critic, how it came into being, the ways in which it serves us, and how it impedes our path to freedom.
What Darkness Taught Me
Light was still within me, even when I couldn’t see it.
Life was still a blessing, even when I didn’t realize it.
Love was still around me, even when I wouldn’t let it in.
And I could somehow find my way, even when I felt most lost.
The habits of judging, fixing, and comparing are a common thread for most of us. These patterns of thinking are usually running in our everyday lives, but we’re so used to them, we don’t notice that it’s happening.
Most of us have a running commentary on our experience. “Now I’m doing this.” “Now it’s time to do that.” “Did that ok.” “That wasn’t very good.” It’s an endless obsession.
There’s a cartoon of two people on a first date. One is saying to the other, “Well, that’s enough about me. Tell me, what do you think about me?” That’s a lot of what we care about—our own judgments of ourselves. And this fear that everyone is doing the same to us.
We start to see that this commenting and narrating isn’t neutral. It tends to be critical. And it’s constantly assessing how we’re doing against our ideals, our projections, the past, what we think should be happening, and what we think is happening.
Noticing the inner critic
In his book, Soul without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within, Byron Brown writes, “Judgment is a central element of your inner dialogue, the way you talk to yourself. From that point of view, it is second nature to you, so close to you, that it is hard even to become aware of its existence. It’s the lens through which we look at the world. Often, however, there is good reason to isolate this part of your inner process. Self-judgment is perhaps the greatest source of inner suffering and discontent. More than that, or because of that, it is one of the major barriers to change, growth, expansion, and transformation.”
Working with this inner critic is one of the ways in which mindfulness practice can be so transformative and healing, because we get to work directly with this tendency. The thrust of this practice is so much about acceptance and kindness. And this kind of thinking is the opposite of that.
As we deepen in this capacity, we begin to accept the present moment and ourselves—how our body and minds are—and come into some degree of relaxation, kindness, or ease. We see more clearly the pain of this kind of thinking and judgment. We feel it physically, for example, the heart can feel like a fist or a rock in the center of the chest.
And it’s important to realize it’s optional. We create this suffering. It’s not coming from outside in any direct way.
Developing self-acceptance and self-love is essential on this path. It’s necessary for healing the wounds and trauma that we’ve experienced: the loss, grief, and pain. If we want to deepen in wisdom and compassion, this thinking will limit us because it’s always pulling the rug out from under our resilience and capacities.
As we practice, it’s natural for old memories to come up. This isn’t bad or wrong. Unless these memories or patterning comes up, we can’t begin the deep work of transformation. We look at the ways our minds and hearts have been shaped and where we’ve learned to be self-critical. Cartoonist Jules Feiffer said, “I grew up to have my father’s looks, my father’s speech patterns, my father’s posture, my father’s opinions, and my mother’s contempt for my father.”
We’ve been shaped by these systems and messages we’ve had, but in that shaping, many of us learned a dislike for who we actually are. We internalize these messages about how we are or how we look—things that we don’t have much control over. Someone said something once and it just cut through us. And we’ve been self-conscious and vulnerable about that aspect of ourselves. We feel shy about seeing the endeavors that we’ve tried when we felt criticized, sent to the back, not chosen, not appreciated. This can happen, especially when we’re young, but it doesn’t stop there. We can even take on the belief that being self-critical is an appropriate attitude.
Once this thinking is solidified, it can harden into a belief that there is something wrong with us. We don’t deserve to be here. And that can lead to a deep feeling of shame, which is disempowering. It doesn’t let us take our seat at the table. We’re always hiding away, not feeling worthy or accepted.
Beginning to recognize and work with these messages is essential, but we need to see them first. It can be helpful to have a sense of how these messages got formed. Understanding that allowed me to see that they weren’t some inherent part of who I was. I had learned to relate to myself this way. If we don’t bring them into the light of mindfulness, they will continue to diminish our capacity to experience freedom and happiness.
How the judging voice comes into being
Byron Brown writes, “As children, we had to learn social norms to get along, develop a conscience. As this procedure becomes internalized, it can become overactive or overcritical. This voice becomes the judge, the critic of everything we experience. We can come to see now from a place of more wisdom, that this voice is not so helpful because it limits us and controls us. And the basic message of the judging voice is, ‘I’m not good enough. And people won’t like me just as I am.’”
We hide parts of ourselves to try and be lovable. Brown writes that it’s followed by, “And you’ll never change, you haven’t got what it takes.” This disempowerment can lead to a feeling of helplessness if we believe this voice.
I think many of us can relate to that internalized voice that’s always criticizing and commenting on what we’re doing. We need to find a different way to access the wisdom that we think the judge is providing.
How the judging voice serves us
It’s revealing to see the ways the judging voice serves us—why we continue to give it space in our minds and hearts. Habits get formed because they serve us. They give us a quick response to any choice we might have to make.
There can be a pleasantness to the judging, a hook that catches us. It can be as simple as we feel we know what’s right and even if I am terrible, at least I know that. “Those people are so hopeless, they don’t even know how hopeless they are. But I know how hopeless I am!” Even in that, there’s the thought: “I’m that smart. I might be terrible, but I know that much.”
It can offer a sense of safety or control. We know we won’t get too wild because there’s this voice saying, “Be careful. Don’t do that, someone might not like you or approve of what you’re doing, or you might bring trouble on yourself.”
When we have a view of ourselves as being unworthy and we agree with it, there’s a resignation that brings some ease. “Yeah, that’s just how I am.” There’s a hopelessness or giving up that can be reassuring.
We see ways that we’ve internalized these messages. If I’m like this or that, I’m not lovable. So, I keep contorting myself to fit some idea I have of what’s lovable and repressing aspects of myself that I think other people won’t like.
With judging others negatively, it’s easier to see what the hook might be—a sense of superiority. We might still be judging ourselves, but we think, “At least I’m not like those people.” And even sitting in our self-judgment, we can still feel superior or different. When we judge others negatively, we don’t have to look at places where we feel inadequate.
When we judge others as being better than us, there is a sense of safety in our own diminishment. “I don’t have to try.” “Someone else is in charge.” “They are so much better than me.” It gives us permission not to try or expose ourselves to failure. It can validate feelings we have of disparity, unfairness, envy, jealousy, or victimhood. “Oh, they’ve got so much more than me, it’s not fair.” And we can create a sense of self about that.
There’s lots of subtle layers, and unless we bring them into the light of awareness, this constant narration flavored by negativity is often there. It’s the soup we’re swimming in a lot of the time. We’re not even aware that it’s happening and so we don’t feel its impact. We don’t feel how it’s shaping our minds and hearts. Because as we’re having those kinds of thoughts—what we think are rational observations—we don’t see them as conditioned judgments that we’re making that don’t have a real basis in reality. And we really need to understand this: just because we think or feel something doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true.
This isn’t about denying feelings or emotions. They do have a reality to them. But what they’re based on can be distorted.
We need to be aware of how we’re relating to these thoughts in the mind that we’re taking to be true. “I know what’s right.” “I know what’s wrong.” “This is good.” “This is bad.” In another cartoon, a couple are arguing, and one says to the other, “If it doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong, why don’t I be right, and you be wrong?”
We’re so convinced that what we’re thinking and feeling is the truth, and if only we could convince people to see things our way, the world would be a much better place. We begin to see the distortion that can be happening in our own minds and hearts shaped by this tendency to judgment and criticism.
Look for the hook
When exploring this tendency to self-criticism, look for the hook or the pleasant, unpleasant, or neither pleasant nor unpleasant that’s with every moment of experience. With judging thoughts—even when they feel painful—there’s a hook in them. In some way, this negative self-view makes sense to us, or it served us in some way in the past. We know it doesn’t serve us now, but it keeps coming up.
We can internalize this message that’s come from outside as we were being shaped or formed as children, young adults, or whatever age. We often didn’t have the capacity to see clearly that this was not the truth or skillful or in our best interest, but we took it in, because that was the way we could survive. Otherwise, we’d be going against our authority figures, and that was too dangerous. We take it in as a protection.
With mindfulness and caring, continuous attention to the heart and mind, the way we’ve been shaped can begin to come to the surface. And the possibility of transforming this patterning is powerful. Only by bringing it into the light of mindfulness can we begin the journey of transformation.
What do you want to believe? The story of yourself as being deficient, unworthy, and unlovable? Where does that get you? Or the story that you have inherent goodness, kindness, warmth, and compassion?
We can see the lure of going down that path of self-criticism and say “no,” but we have to be willing to feel the pain of that, not just repress it. Truly feeling the pain and suffering is the doorway to compassion, not to more self-hatred—if we feel it with wisdom and compassion.
Thoughts in the mind
An important fact to remember is that judging thoughts are just thoughts in the mind. They have the same weight as “what’s for dinner?”—if we can see them that way. If we believe them, then everything is solid. But when you notice, “Oh, just thinking.” In that moment, with this clear recognition, the thought can literally evaporate without a trace. The thoughts of judging you had yesterday, where are they today?
These thoughts are also the result of different causes and conditions. And when those conditions change, those thoughts will change. If we don’t continue to feed them, they will starve.
We can learn to open to old memories. Not rejecting them, but also not solidifying around them. Here they are: pain, loss, fear, memory. Hold them with spaciousness, kindness, and acceptance. Whatever happened in these old memories, you did the best you could with the tools and resources that you had at the time. Beating yourself up doesn’t help. You can’t change the past, but if you change how you relate to the past, it gets transformed—if you have an attitude of forgiveness, acceptance, or compassion about your experience.
Working with the judging mind
When working with the judging mind, it’s helpful to use humor because it can be painful to see the extent of this form of thinking. IMS Co-founder Jack Kornfield says, “Start counting your judgments. By the time you get to 463, you realize they’re just happening. You’re not doing it. You’re not choosing to do it. It’s a conditioned habit of the mind.”
Develop a way to talk back to your judging voice, “Thanks for your opinion, but I’m doing okay. I got this.”
And it’s helpful to see the layers of the judging. It’s fueled by doubt, restlessness, aversion, wanting—all the ways in which we compare ourselves with the past, present, future, others.
Feel it in the body. For me, whenever there’s judging, I feel tension in my body. When I notice constrictions, I think, “Oh, judging happening.” Drop into the body so you don’t get so caught up in the content and start to believe it. Notice, “Here’s this habit pattern.” When you drop into the body and feel the suffering, then you aren’t so caught in identifying with the thinking. When we start to pay attention like this, we start to see the automatic nature of judging.
Remember that we are creating this form of suffering. No one is doing it to you. I’m not saying it’s easy, you can’t just say to yourself, “Don’t do it!” We could all go home if that worked.
Play with it. Be kind to yourself. Whatever works.
To hear the whole talk, click here.