In my previous blog post, I wrote a bit about perfectionism in the context of my career as a teacher/conductor. I recalled conducting a concert and mentioned that as I was conducting this performance, an inner voice was assessing the concert in real time. As I reflected on this, I realized that this voice was with me for most of my career. Often referred to as “the inner critic”, this voice can be omnipresent in our personal and professional lives. Different than an inner voice that may simply be a distraction, or one that encourages us to be cautious, the inner critic is a judgmental manifestation of our insecurities, real or perceived flaws, and is the source of most, if not all, of our negative self-talk. The particular voice and tone of the inner critic is unique to each person. It can be a parent, a teacher, our peers, or societal expectations. We develop an inner critic when we internalize these external voices, and, in time, we lose the ability to differentiate between our inner critics and the source of these negative ideas. To be clear, not everyone has an inner critic, but for those of us that do, learning to relate to this voice can be an important life skill to acquire.
Most meditation teachers encourage us to “relate to” rather than “tame” or “conquer” our inner critics. In this spirit, I’ve invited my inner critic to co-write this blog with me: my thoughts will be in plain text, and my inner critic’s commentary will be in italics. Let’s meet the inner critic. Thank you, it’s nice to be here. Actually, I’m lying, it’s not at all nice to be here, this is a dumb idea. My inner critic tells me that if I’m not perfect then I’m obviously a failure, yup, that I’m defined by my mistakes, remember that time a student’s phone rang during a concert?, that no one likes me, well, obviously, and that I’ve gained weight since college, I have photographic proof of this, I mean, have you seen your profile picture?. There are, however, several ways to defuse the inner critic, and lessen its influence in our lives.
First, give your inner critic a name or title. This will remind you that your inner critic is not “you” and allow you have a little bit of fun at its expense. This is not funny, I AM you, I’ve been with you for your entire life! I call my inner critic “the professor.” When not trying to be the Dean of my life, my inner critic offers well-reasoned and detailed explanations about why the thing I want to do absolutely won’t work, and therefore, why I should not try to do it. Why, yes, you’ve failed before, so the chances are you’ll fail again. In meditation we learn that we are not our thoughts (or feelings, or emotions), and we are certainly not our inner critics. With that, I hereby dismiss my inner critic from the rest of this conversation. Bye, loser.
Next, learn to balance self-acceptance and self-improvement. When I first started meditating it felt like a chore. I was already keeping track of my exercise, diet, hydration, sleep – not to mention work and family life, and it just felt like another thing I needed to worry about and to “do correctly.” I was looking forward to the time where I didn’t have to work so hard and could just be “good enough.” As I continued to practice, I realized that I already was good enough, and began to savor small victories every day. Eventually, these activities turned into habits, and I developed a balanced self-care routine. Sometimes self-care is a run, other times it’s a nap.
Third, with all of the focus we put on ourselves, it’s important to find a way to serve others. While we technically serve our singers and students, try to find a way to serve that is outside of your everyday role as a teacher/conductor. Remind yourself that you are both a very important person and not the center of the universe.
Finally, try metta or loving-kindness meditation. During metta we recite several phrases that extend the feelings of peace, ease, and happiness (among others), starting with ourselves, then flowing outward to our circle of family, friends, and acquaintances (including people we may not necessarily like), to the entire world.
Here’s a short metta meditation by renowned meditation teacher and author Sharon Salzberg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-TeW9CI0bc
May you be safe, may you be happy, may you live with ease.
Steve Grives, D.M.A., is a choral conductor and certified meditation teacher currently living in Lincoln, Nebraska. He can be reached with questions or comments through his email, . For an expanded version of the topics covered in the blog, listen to “Midweek Meditation” on “The Steve Grives Podcast” each Wednesday. The podcast is available on your preferred podcast platform or at https://anchor.fm/steve-grives