Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Three Stooges of the Mind

If you sit still and try to clear your mind, as in meditation, one of the first things you’ll notice is how quickly you start judging your experience and yourself. This is boring. My back hurts. I must not be doing this right. Meditation isn’t for me. This is the voice of your judging mind, your Inner Critic. All of us have one. The voice is a product of stress, of the need we feel to classify our experiences quickly into simple categories without experiencing them too deeply—so we can quickly move on to the next thing stressing us. When we’re scared or anxious, that Critic is most active, putting down your friends and loved ones, your accomplishments, and yourself. It’s the voice that gives you a disproportionate share of the blame when things go wrong. It’s the voice that makes mountains out of molehills. What’s wrong with you? There’s nothing to be scared of, don’t be such a baby! Why haven’t you started exercising yet? You can’t stick to anything! Sound familiar? It’s something most of us hear whenever we’re feeling stressed. Automatic judging like this your frontal lobe, the “higher” mental center, trying desperately to hold on to control, while you’re trying to clear your mind. Most of us, when we’re unhappy, are caught between that Inner Critic and another part of the self that is busy defending ourselves. I call it the Timid Defender. It wants to silence the Critic, but it can’t, because it uses the usual habits of the mind—denial, rationalization, dissociation. Alcohol and drugs. Shopping and overeating. It has us trying to escape or forget about the Critic, but that only works for a little while, because while we’re escaping or forgetting, we’re giving the Critic more ammunition. You idiot, pretending to be something you're not. Trying to drown your sorrows. You can’t get rid of me that easily! The critic and the defender are both sealed up together in the same little tuna fish can, and they’re not even trying to get out, they’re so preoccupied with each other. When we’re bouncing around between the Inner Critic and the Timid Defender, who’s at the controls? Who’s running our lives, making our decisions? It’s like we have the Three Stooges up in our heads. Moe the brutal sadist, torturing us while the ineffectual Larry whines pathetic excuses. Curly, the id in this metaphor, full of appetites and drives, causes all the trouble in the first place. Nobody’s in charge of our lives, and the plane is yawing and swooping all over the sky, never getting anywhere and always in danger of crashing. And this is how unhappiness persists. We blame ourselves far too much, and make ourselves more miserable. Then we defend ourselves ineffectively, and perpetuate a vicious circle. We have to try something radically different. That’s what therapy does. I don’t turn off the Inner Critic and I don’t strengthen that Defender for my patients; instead, I help people detach from this struggle. That’s what mindfulness does too. A good friend of mine uses the phrase compassionate curiosity to describe the ideal therapist’s attitude toward the patient. We begin therapy with a much more compassionate, kind, understanding stance toward the patient and his problems than the patient has himself. And we are curious, in a calm, unafraid way—we want to understand how things got to be so bad, and we assume that by fearlessly facing reality we will help the patient find relief from his distress. Compassionate curiosity is the attitude most of us, depressed or not, need to apply to ourselves as well. What a change that would be for almost everyone I know! That battle between the Inner Critic and the Timid Defender is much like the way inconsistent parents treat their children. When the Defender is in charge we indulge and spoil ourselves; we let ourselves off the moral hook, we make promises to ourselves we know we won't keep. But that Inner Critic is still there, waiting for our defenses to slip—as they always do—ready to condemn us, always finding that we don't measure up. We vacillate between spoiling ourselves and punishing ourselves. And, as with children who are raised that way, we end up frightened and traumatized, with no self-esteem and a lot of self-hate. Compassion replaces all that with patience, gentleness, love, grace, mercy, concern. It suggests giving up judging and replacing it with empathy, a willingness to face the truth and all your feelings about it, without fear but with confident strength. Curiosity suggests a little cool detachment from the emotional heat, a desire to understand objectively why we feel what we feel, why we do what we do—especially when it’s troublesome or self-defeating. Why did I get angry just then? What’s making me so blue today? We look at ourselves, not to torture ourselves, not to give ammunition to the Critic, not with desperation for a quick fix, but with compassion, sincere interest, and the belief that there are answers that make sense. No matter how nonsensical our behavior, no matter how odd our feelings, there are always reasons—and knowing the truth will help set us free. We look a little deeper than usual, with more objectivity, and we don’t just slap ourselves on the wrist and make an empty promise to do better next time. Why? What’s bothering me? Why am I afraid to look? We understand that our feelings are just human; they won’t destroy us or drive us crazy. Most likely, they are tapping on our shoulder, trying to tell us something important.