I asked him to tell me what his critic was saying. He said it was saying things like, “How could you ever deserve love? You’re despicable.” Rather than trying to argue with this voice or ignore it, we did exactly what this type of meditation traditionally recommends in cases like this: we made the inner critic the object of Joseph’s love and compassion. This tactic is a departure from how many therapists have been trained to deal with self-criticism, but I believe that it can be an incredibly useful tool.
In Buddhism, it’s said that true compassion and true love are impossible without understanding, so when I help a client shift the focus of compassion to an inner critic, I always start by asking the critic a few questions to create a foundation for the compassion. With Joseph, I said, “I want to understand that self-critical part of you more deeply, so I’ll be asking it some questions. I’d like for you to just listen to how it responds and tell me.”
In most styles of Buddhist meditation, connecting with the body is important for connecting with feelings. To transform a feeling, we start by bringing it up and sensing it in the body. Once it’s present in our awareness, we begin to inquire into its nature. There are many ways to do this, but with therapy clients, I’ve found that asking questions or offering sentence completions can be highly effective. The skill of asking the right question or offering the right sentence completion takes a great deal of practice, but from a Buddhist perspective, the most important thing about the exploration process is that you’re coming from a place of compassion toward that feeling.
I started with the question, “Is there anywhere in your body that you feel that inner critic?”
Joseph said he felt it in his chest.
Once he was present with his feeling, I said, “Now, I’d like you to ask that part of you, that critical voice in your chest, ‘How are you trying to help me?’”
Joseph was quiet for a moment, and then reported, “It says, ‘I’m protecting you from Mom.’”
I praised him and prompted him to ask it, “How do you protect me from Mom?” He answered, “If I feel good about myself, Mom will attack me. If I hate myself, I’ll be safe.”
Asking questions that assume the feeling has a positive purpose is part of inquiring with compassion. Before this, I’d learned that Joseph’s mother had been diagnosed bipolar and had been highly emotionally unstable; however, I didn’t fully understand exactly how that fit together with his self-criticism. I asked Joseph if there were any specific memories coming up for him, and he told me about a time when he was 5 or 6 years old, when he’d proudly showed his mother a good report card, and had been ridiculed by her. His mother said he thought he was better than everyone else. I empathized with Joseph, and we then spent some time just sitting with all of the feelings coming up in him.
Once he felt ready to move on, I asked him to get back in touch with the self-critical voice in his chest. When he said he could feel it, I asked him to try saying, “Thank you for trying to keep me safe from Mom. I know you’re trying to help me.” He immediately started crying, and said he felt a huge relief. He talked about feeling reunited with a part of himself that had been cut off. I suggested that, between sessions, every time he noticed the self-critical voice, he express this kind of gratitude for its desire to protect him.
As we continued therapy, we’d spend time each week with this practice. He’d begin sending love to his niece, and then shift to himself. When his inner critic flared up, he’d say, “Thank you for wanting to protect me from Mom,” and after just a few minutes of repeating this phrase and listening for any response, it would fade. Then he’d return to sending love to himself. Over time, he became adept at using compassion to disarm his inner critic, and had a much easier time loving himself.
Metta practice is an important and helpful part of the way I work with clients. Observing its potential to help clients move through problems that had appeared intractable has convinced me that the practice of offering love and compassion to problematic inner parts could be a significant contribution to the way we conduct therapy, both for our clients and ourselves.
Tim Desmond, L.M.F.T., is a Buddhist scholar, a therapist in private practice, and the director of a mental health day-treatment center for children. He was ordained into the Order of Interbeing by Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh in 2005, and offers training and consultation to therapists around the world. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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