Don’t Feed the Pigeons
by Christopher Joseph
Irrespective of whether you like pigeons or not, one thing is true – if you feed them then they quickly multiply! Just go to Trafalgar square and pull out a loaf of bread and you’ll see what I mean! The pigeon in the context of this article is of course our negative thoughts, our internal critical voice. So often in this context we ‘feed the pigeons’ by ‘beating ourselves up’ with unkind, harsh and critical comments: “Look what I’ve done now”; “Why did I do that?… you silly fool!”; “They’re going to think I’m a right idiot now!”; “Look at the state of me!”; “Oh come on – sort it out”; “I’ll never amount to anything!” etc. etc.
The severity of the internal critic is different for different people, and varies over time for any one person, but the net effect to whatever degree is one of undermining our sense of self worth and confidence. Moreover, constant negative talk puts us in the ‘threat/defence’ mode which increases the stress hormone cortisol in our body. It is often said that if we were to speak to a friend as we speak to ourselves then they wouldn’t remain a friend for long!
But we wouldn’t speak to a friend (at least not consistently!) like this because the process of vocalising our thoughts by default brings greater awareness, care and mindfulness to what we’re saying. Therein lies the first clue as to how we can begin to change the quality of our internal voice from a cold and critical one to a kind and compassionate one – i.e. how we can stop feeding the pigeons. I’ve called this the ABC of compassionate thinking.
The inner critic is not something we set out to develop – it’s a habit. And, as with all habits often we run the pattern quite unconsciously, and we’re normally not even aware that we’ve been talking to ourselves in a negative way until we suddenly feel depressed, stressed or angry.
The first step to breaking any habit is awareness – awareness of the patterns that we’re currently running. Mindfulness, first and foremost, is about developing awareness, slowing down a little and coming off the ‘autopilot’ mode that we can so often live our lives on.
A short 10 minute meditation at the start and end of each day or a few 3 minute ‘breathing spaces’ practiced throughout the day can make a huge difference to our levels of self-awareness and our ability to pick up on any negative internal chatter that we might have going on!
Through developing awareness in this simple way we may begin to pick up on not only what we’re saying to ourselves internally, but the tone in which we’re saying it. Many people think that they’re internal voice is that of their mother’s, father’s or a teacher. Whilst it’s true that many people have grown up with critical teachers, parents or other family members the voice that’s currently inside our head is none other than our own! This is a good thing because it means that we’re in control – we can change it.
Breaking the pattern with kindness.
If, instead of having someone criticise us when things are hard and we’re struggling, there was someone who cares about you, understands your difficulties, and encourages you with warm nourishing words, how does that feel? When someone is kind and understanding, supportive and encouraging towards us, the hormone oxytocin is stimulated and we feel soothed and calmed.
We can also stimulate the soothing – contentment system by learning to be kind and supportive to ourselves. If we send ourselves helpful messages when things are hard for us we are more likely to stimulate those parts of the brain that respond to kindness. This will help us cope with stress and set-backs because we are rebalancing the emotional systems in our brain, and there is a growing body of research that shows that this is the case.
It’s worth noting that for many people who are self-critical, the idea of self-kindness can seem like a weakness or an indulgence. After all isn’t it the self-critic that keeps them on their game? Wouldn’t they simply make more mistakes, behave badly and lose motivation if it wasn’t for the self-critical voice? Isn’t it the ‘self-critic’ that keeps our lives from going down the pan!? The simple answer is NO!
It’s true that we need a moral compass, a sense of what’s right and wrong and the ability to constructively evaluate the results of our actions and to implement changes if needed – but this is very different to the derisive internal voice that extrapolates any mistakes that we might make into a slow and painful character assassination! It’s generally agreed that children respond best when there is support, love, encouragement and an acceptance of the inevitable process of making mistakes that being a human being involves. As adults, we’re no different. Self-kindness, rather than leading to selfishness and self-indulgence actually nourishes and motivates us to be at our best.
If we go for a walk on the mountain then the easiest path to follow is the one that’s already been well worn, but it might not take us to where we wish to go! If we want to go in a different direction then we might have to create a new path. We might have to walk through some ferns. It might feel a little uncomfortable and strange at first but we make it. The next time we take the walk then the new path becomes a little easier to follow. If we repeat the walk consistently then the new path becomes well worn and familiar, just like an old friend. The old path in turn becomes overgrown and less familiar to us.
Developing new habits is much like taking this walk on the mountain. Self-kindness is a skill and as with any skill, if practiced consistently, it can become a positive habit. Self-kindness meditation is the way in which we learn and practice this skill, so that when we go about our daily lives the habit of kindness follows us like a shadow or a friend.
In summary, the ABC of compassionate thinking consists of developing an Awareness of the pattern we’re currently running, Breaking the pattern with kindness, and doing this Consistently. Learning and practicing mindfulness allows us to develop this effective approach to overcoming our ‘inner critic’.
Our brains have been designed by evolution to need and respond positively to kindness. Practicing the habit of self-kindness through meditation is no more self-indulgent than training your body to be fit and healthy is self-indulgent. And, just as our body needs certain vitamins, minerals and a balanced diet to operate at its optimum then our brain also needs to be nourished. Self-kindness, therefore, is simply a question of treating our mind wisely and nourishing it with the food is so desperately needs.
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