Little girl eating yogurtSome people call it “The Voice”; others in the eating disorder world call it “Ed”; Jan Chozen Bays, MD, pediatrician and Zen teacher in Oregon, calls it the “Inner Critic”. However you name it, everyone has one. Last week, Dr. Bays gave a teleconference on the Inner Critic’s role in creating out-of-balance eating to members of The Center for Mindful Eating. I’m grateful for her permission to present to you the highlights of her helpful teleconference here.

What exactly is the Inner Critic? Dr. Bays says it’s an energy, developed early in life, which we perceive as sensations, emotions, thoughts, and as a “voice”. The Inner Critic actually comes from a place of good intention—primarily as a misguided effort to keep us safe and loved. Unchecked, it creates pervasive “fear and anxiety, disrupts our ability to think clearly, saps our energy and undermines our self-confidence. It can destroy our innate ability to enjoy eating and to maintain natural balance in what and how much we eat.” Not helpful.

Here are a few examples of what the Inner Critic might sound like:
“I can’t believe you ate that. You have no self-control. You’ll be fat forever.”
“You’ve blown it. You might as well eat the whole box and disappear.”
“Your thighs are so disgusting.”
“You’re so stupid. No dinner for you tonight.”
“You don’t deserve to eat.”

What does your Inner Critic sound like?

Despite its good intentions (to keep us safe), it’s easy to see that the Inner Critic often leads to self-sabotage. But Dr. Bays says it doesn’t have to. With some mindfulness-based tools, the energy of the Inner Critic can be transformed into something quietly powerful and incredibly beneficial. Anyone can do this. Below are Dr. Jan Chozen Bays’ six ways for working with your Inner Critic:

  1. Recognize as early as possible that the Inner Critic is speaking. Also recognize that this is not the voice of Truth. How to recognize the Inner Critic?Listen for its favorite words: “you are TOO ___ “, “you ALWAYS ___”, “you NEVER ___ ”, “ You are SO ____”, “ you SHOULD ____, “ you SHOULDN’T _____.”
    More than the words, the tone: derisive, angry, skeptical, sarcastic, hurtful, bitter, righteous.

    It helps to separate from the Inner Critic to ask if what it is saying is something that would be good for a mother to say to a child. Or would it be heard as abusive language?

  2. Step back by switching your attention to mindful awareness. At first this awareness is directed to body sensations. Sit down and feel the body – the heart beating, the breath flowing in and out, the pressure of the seat, the floor beneath our feet. Next, attend to emotions – loneliness, sadness. Stepping back from thoughts, focus on what you know to be true right here, right now. The sounds in this room, the sensations of a body that sits, this one breath.We rest in the present moment. In the present moment the Inner Critic has nothing to grab onto.
  3. Be curious about what is happening. (e.g. “I really want some cake but it’s not on my diet. My Inner Critic is really upset, but what does my inner Good Mother or Wise Advisor say?”) Separate out what is objectively true (“I ate some cake and now I feel very full.”) from the erroneous conclusions that the Inner Critic is adding (“Therefore I am a failure/stupid/ etc.”).
  4. If you choose to eat, serve yourself a single portion of the “forbidden” food and eat it slowly, with full attention.
  5. Find another way to nourish yourself that does not involve eating. Take a walk, or a shower. Garden. Play with a child or pet. Listen to music. Call a friend or someone you love. Self-care practices automatically turns down the volume of the Inner Critic.
  6. If the Inner Critic is very persistent, you can redirect its energy to a wholesome practice, such as a mantra or loving-kindness practice. Say one phrase on each out breath, “May I be free from fear and anxiety”…“ May I be at ease”…“May I be happy.”The goal is to personally experience the words of the loving-kindness meditation.

To learn more from Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, check out her book Mindful Eating: A Guide to Rediscovering a Healthy and Joyful Relationship with Food, which includes a 75-minute audio CD containing guided exercises.