Do you know Mara? No, I don't mean a famous actress, or your next door neighbour. She's a real dangerous presence. Some say she's a killer. Some say she's a beater. The scary thing is that she doesn't live next door, she lives WITHIN me. And she shows up every single freaking day to heckle me, harass me, put me down, evaluate me, compare me, and measure me against impossible ideals. She constantly finds me lacking and deficient. She kills my confidence and makes me feel small.
You see, Mara is the Buddhist term for our inner critical voice (for me it's definitely a she – a demanding bitch always avid for validation and perfection). Hence the not-so-flattering pseudonyms of killer and beater. 'Cause let's face it – it ain't pretty self-flagellating like that. Plus you and I and the Pope have been doing it (I'm guessing the Pope in the literal as well as figurative sense) since a very young age – some say it's in place from the age of 6 or 7.
Before we start criticising the criticiser, let's get a couple of things clear. The first one is that an internal critical voice is a necessary part of healthy psychological development. So, you're not a weirdo or a loser for having an overactive inner critic. We all do. It comes as a standard specification of the human psyche. The second point is that there really is no personal freedom until we deal with it. No matter how many courses you take, how many books you read, how many gurus you travel half-way around the world to listen to, how many hours you meditate, or how much spiritual bypassing you try to sneak past yourself.... any personal development gains will keep coming up against this super-ego, this critical structure within. And, believe me, it's got deep and steely foundations.
Holy Mara, so what do we do? Here I propose 4 strategies to deal with it (based on my own steep learning curve and on Martin Aylward's work):
1. The first one is to become aware of it. Really. Sounds easy and straightforward? Let me ask you some questions:
- Whose voice is it? Or whose voice is it based on? Your mum's? Your dad's? Your year 2 teacher? Your bully of a sister? Maybe it's a mixture?
- How does it show up? Is it a voice that talks to you in moments of embarrassment or awkwardness? Or maybe it's an image? Or maybe just a vague sensation or a mood change? Is it a little nagging voice chewing at your ear? Or a loud looming voice over your head?
- What tone does it use? Annoying, irritated, relentless, dismissive?
- How do you react to it? How does it make you feel? Deflated, shamed, blamed?
2. Have compassion and understand the positive intention behind it. This is the most effective way to deal with it, yet also the most difficult to put into practice. Hell, it asks that you have a high level of self-awareness so you can catch it before it sucks you in. It also requires that you deeply understand that there is always a positive intention behind your own self-criticism. As little ones, we come to associate love with evaluation (good girl, bad girl, etc): when the people who love us most criticise us it must be for our own good. This is very primal and deep conditioning. So we do the same for ourselves as we grow up.
3. Let it speak but stand away from it. Observe it. Let it rant. Isolate it. You could caricature it if it helps. Or give it full rein, but without listening to the content of what it's saying. This almost works by default – the more you let it be, but without engaging with it, the more it loses its power. It's like air bubbles trapped in water, as you let them come to the surface they simply pop off and disappear.
4. Tell it to fuck off. Simple. Effective. But be wary of any negotiations. This is about reclaiming your own authority, your own felt sense of being. You go ahead and tell this Mara character that you know best and that her views are no longer helpful to you.
A really key point of clarification is that although our critical voice is an internalised version of the voice of authority from our early childhood (mum, dad, siblings, or a mixture), dealing with it does not mean dealing with any issues you may have with your parents (although knock yourself out if you feel cocky enough to do both). It's not about blaming parents or whomever provided you with evaluation, guidance, encouragement or criticism when you were growing up. They were trying their best with their own crap, for the most part. We are working with an internalised, imprinted memory that their voice left in us and that we made OURS. Parents can't help offering their views to their children (even when they are all grown up!). Children can't help creating and recreating an internal critical scaffolding around them. So let's get off the blaming merry-go-round, people! ;-)
One last point for all those hard-core perfectionists like me. Yes, there is always room for improvement and the critical voice can sometimes be helpful to get our arse in gear. Plus the honest truth is that we cannot completely eliminate it/her from our lives. But improvement will come when you can stand up with presence and awareness where you are RIGHT NOW. Have aspirations for growth, by all means, but don't strive for perfection... 'cause it doesn't exist. And it's the fuel that feeds your little critical monster.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with me. Say it aloud. Repeat. Believe it. Live by it.