Ten Percent Weekly
August 12, 2020
by Dr. Susan Pollak
In these uncertain times our lives have become much quieter, but people tell me that their inner critics are blaring at full volume on loudspeaker. "As if things aren't hard enough, the critical voices in my head seem more virulent," Anna told me. "I'm constantly thinking that I’m an imposter and a disorganized mess. All my friends seem to be able to handle quarantine, work, and homeschooling with ease. If I see another post of a perfect sourdough bread I’ll scream. And I do scream, but it is mostly at myself. It seems that everyone else’s kids do all their homework, as well as the art and music projects without protest. And they don’t disrespect their teacher."
It seems that the more isolated we are, the more we demand of ourselves, somehow thinking that the pandemic should spur productivity. "I don’t have a job anymore. By now the closets should be organized, all the clutter should be gone, I should have learned to cook, and at least gotten traction on my novel. Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Macbeth during a plague. I feel like such a failure," Molly lamented.
Why do we feel that the most stressful situation of our lives should make us more productive? It is the illusion that we have more time? Many of us have lost jobs, lost loved ones and are emotionally isolated. With so much emotional turmoil and grief, this is not the time to change your diet, give up cookies, lose weight, start a new exercise regime and develop a "six-pack." It is however, a time to practice some self-compassion for all that we have lost and all that we can't control.
I have compiled three effective techniques from meditation teachers and therapists to help the inner critic chill out and take a vacation, rather than living rent-free in your mind.
Start by asking your critic to step back and give you some space—10, 20 or 30 percent will help. You need some breathing room here. Take a deep breath and expel some tension. Sigh. Stretch. You can invite your critic to take a break, have some tea, put his or her feet up. It turns out that many inner critics work 24/7. Time for a break. Try thanking your critic for working so hard to help you, but this is time for a rest.
Bring in Some Humor
Arguing with your critic just makes things worse. Don’t add fuel to the fire. And don’t get behind the critic. Try giving your critic a name. I call mine Mildred. How about a costume? Try something outrageous that will make you laugh. I like to imagine Mildred in a corseted gown out of Charles Dickens, maybe Great Expectations? The more absurd the better.
Turn it into a Game
Try counting the judgements of the critic—1, 3, 5, 15, 375, 4,580, Infinity. Yup, it can seem endless and they are endless.
See where the critic is located in your body. Where is the loudspeaker broadcasting from? From your heart? From a pit of sadness? From a part that feels not good enough, or worthy enough? Put a hand on this vulnerable place. Take a few breaths. Extend some kindness to this hurt part. If possible, can you try being playful? Imagine the critical voice coming out of your armpit, the top of your head like a cartoon bubble, even your butt. Hard to take the words so seriously, isn't it?
Give the criticism a soundtrack. Hate opera? Great. Imagine a soprano singing an aria about what a disaster you are because your apartment isn't clean and your kids are fighting. Lonely? Trying to manage a long-distance romance when you can’t cross state lines? Is it all feeling impossible? Sing the blues.
These exercises will help you smile, get some perspective and hopefully develop some compassion for yourself. Being hard on oneself increases with social isolation. The support and feedback that we get from others is missing. We think that because we have time we should do more, but this misses the emotional strain, and the financial strain that we are all under. Don't equate your self-worth with how well you are coping. One of my colleagues who was trying to juggle way too much confided in me, "This is unsustainable. It's breaking me." It is OK not to be OK.
Try doing less. Don't even think about perfection. Bring in compassion. This is Really, really hard. Don't add to it, or as the Buddhists would say, shoot yourself with a second arrow. The pandemic is enough. Try some compassion phrases, "May I recognize this uncertainty." "May I be with this pain." "Let me be kind to myself and to all the others who are struggling." Stay in the moment letting yourself feel what you are feeling rather that projecting out all that you should be doing. Let yourself rest, let yourself be quiet. It’s ok to turn down the volume of the inner critic.