Self-Criticism and Distress

Remember—Everything is Impermanent

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Self-criticism and self-praise are two sides of the same egoic coin that creates identity. What happens when you remove the “self” from the process? The feelings associated with criticism and praise eventually move on without a trace, like passing clouds across a clear sky. Whatever you’re thinking, feeling, or sensing is impermanent. It’s easy to forget that when you’re feeling buoyant and joyful. The trick is to remember impermanence when you’re suffering or in distress, but not as a “trick” to avoid those feelings—avoidance is impermanent too, and creates conditions for a return of storm clouds in one form or another.

Here are two basic ways of dropping the identification associated with self-criticism and distress of any kind: 

Name it for what it is: “Criticism”, without referencing the “self”; the moment you catch your mind looping into self-criticism, silently state, “Criticism is here”. With openness, curiosity, and friendliness, greet it as a visitor and have a relationship with it that doesn’t involve more criticism. Lean into it without analysis, sense its physicality, and stay in contact with whatever elements characterize the experience—cognitive (e.g., thoughts and images), emotional, or physical. This can also be applied to being critical and judgmental of others. In naming the criticism or judgment as such, without analyzing it, you create an objective relationship with it—relinquishing the identity that often gets created when the mind fuses with the story it generates. This creates space between you and your thoughts; it’s analogous to being like the spacious blue sky instead of the gathering storm clouds that obscure the sky. 

The above process can be used with any distressing experience, and is particularly useful with powerful emotions. For example, instead of telling yourself, “I’m angry”, reframe the experience as “Anger is here.” Taking the “I” out of the process softens your identification with the emotion without denying the reality of the emotional experience.

Here is another way of working with distress—this time, without involving the cognitive process of naming it:

Drop any narrative attached to the distress: Drop the stories associated with your upset, which can take the forms of blaming self and others or indulging a narrative that empowers the distress. Focus on your body and breath, moving your attention directly into the sensations within your body. If the sensations are exceeding your ability to be with them, focus your attention outwardly upon an external object (e.g., a sight or sound within your immediate environment) or connect to a place within your body that helps you to stay grounded and connected to your experience (e.g., belly, feet). When you feel sufficiently grounded, return attention to your entire body in a more open, spacious way.  Relax. This body-oriented way of moving through distress can be useful when cognitive labels are elusive or the challenging experience is familiar to you.

The essential steps for this process are:

  1. Drop the story
  2. Focus upon the sensations within your body
  3. Relax

And if you can’t relax, just let yourself be connected to your bodily experience without struggling or trying to change it. If you detach from your story while staying connected to your body, the sensations will eventually change. The paradox is that trying to change what you’re experiencing is likely to interfere with the change that is always naturally occurring. Remember—everything is impermanent. 

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