Dealing with your Inner Critic

In my work with people on how to stop complaining, we always get to a point where they ask, “I get how to control what I say, but how do I stop complaining about myself? How do I shut up this voice in my head?”

Just about everyone I know struggles with an inner critic, no matter how “enlightened” or “growth-oriented” they are. Often, this voice is the meanest one that we’ll put up with, the one that speaks and reinforces our core fears and insecurities, the one that makes us feel small, inadequate, and unworthy. If a person talked with us like the inner critic does, we’d get infuriated and stand up for ourselves, maybe even haul off and punch them in the face. But since it’s inside of us, we don’t stand up, we collapse.

I’m sorry to say that I have no secret that will swiftly and permanently silence that inner critic. But I can offer some tools that I’ve learned to help disempower mine, making it less able to hurt me, enabling me to recover more quickly.

The first and most important tool I learned was to think of that voice as separate from me so that I can start to respond to it. It’s a technique that I know many others use and is foundational for everything else I’ll talk about here. Some people do this by picturing their inner critic sitting in a chair across from them. Others create a mental picture of their brain or body and find the location of the source of the voice somewhere in or around it. Others name the critic. Choose whatever works for you to get a little distance on your inner critic. This is also something that often works best when you have help, such as working with a coach, therapist, or someone like that.

Next step is to respond when the critic shows up. The nature of that response varies greatly, based on your own levels of emotions and what the critic is saying.

Some take a strong protective stance. They get stern and loud, yelling “Shut Up! No one talks to me like that!” Sometimes this can feel necessary, particularly the first time you talk back at it when it’s shaming you and hurting you deeply. It can be very cathartic, finally standing up to a bully that’s been tearing you down your entire life.

That technique feels great for me to stop a heated attack from my inner critic, but it doesn’t work as well in a lasting way to get it to stop showing up in the first place. For that, I’ve learned to become understanding of what my inner critic is trying to do, and grateful for the love it’s showing me. I know that sounds weird, but I’ve learned that mine is often trying to protect me from getting hurt. It’s afraid that I’ll get ostracized or criticized and it’s trying to stop that from happening. It’s carrying the memory of childhood times when I felt like an outsider and was hurt by it. My inner critic hates to see me cry. I can feel so much love coming from it in those moments. I have conversations with it where I thank it for loving me enough to protect me – and I make sure that I feel that thanks, not just say it. Then I gently remind it that those are old memories and old hurts and I point out that I’m all grown up now. I tell it that I’m stronger and that I have to take some risks in order to grow even more, that I know I’m likely to get hurt and I’m ok with that. I ask it to trust me, to believe I’ll figure out a way to recover. I also tell it that I don’t like that language, that I no longer respond to someone tearing me down, that I won’t listen to it if it’s mean. I know that I once believed things more if they were mean, but I no longer tolerate it.

Lastly, I thank my inner critic for holding out a dream for me. I can hear frustration and disappointment underneath the words – and I know that it wouldn’t feel these things if it had no expectations or hopes for me. It’s only because of those expectations that it can feel disappointment.

My shorthand reminder:

Every time you beat yourself up for not being the person you want to be, take a moment and thank yourself for having the ability to dream of a greater future for yourself.

I hope that this helps, and I’d love to hear your own techniques for dealing with your inner critic. Leave me a comment or a question and let me know your thoughts. Let’s all face down our inner critics and start engaging with the love and dreams we carry around inside us instead!

Cianna P. Stewart is Founder of the No Complaining Project and a resilience coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also spends a lot of time producing events and dancing. Connect with Cianna on Google+.

5 Modes of Interacting

I’m fascinated by how we all learn how to be with each other. I’ve spent a good portion of the past few years reading books on psychology, neurology, self-development, behavioral economics, sociology, and philosophy. I’ve also been taking classes, doing a lot of coaching, and learning interpersonal meditation.

Through all of this, I’ve developed an understanding of what I call the “5 Modes of Interacting.” These are not “stages” because it’s not a progression from one mode to another. Also, as you’ll see, different situations can send us into different modes.

In Reactive Mode, we receive an external stimulus and react immediately, without thought. We wear our emotions on our sleeves and lack any kind any kind of social filter. We are all like this when we are babies, feeling cold and immediately crying, seeing sunlight and laughing without inhibition. As adults, we can drop into Reactive Mode when we are in a state of reduced cognitive ability, such as when we are hungry, exhausted, stressed, furious, or drunk.

We are in Responsive Mode when we have a sense of self and of social norms, but are still greatly affected by external stimuli. We know what is expected of us and have established our own personalities, filtering our actions and thoughts through these as we make our way through the world. How we express ourselves about things like taking a new job, seeing a sad movie, or having our home team win the big game depends both on our feelings and on our sense of who we are and how we want to be perceived. Even as we are being ourselves, we may still be Responding, meaning we are primarily motivated by the situations presented to us externally.

For many people, there comes a point when we start to question who we are and why we are here. This is the Reflective Mode. In Reflective, we examine ourselves internally, questioning the truth of how we have been behaving, what we believe, and whether or not we agree with what the world has been expecting of us. We encounter external stimulus and don’t react right away, taking time to pause and consider what we really want. We start to develop a more long-term vision for our lives. We may even start to question our personality and whether or not it is fixed or if it could be changed. This is often the time when we seek out help in the form of mentors, therapy, or spiritual guidance. While reflection happens often to varying degrees, being deep in Reflective Mode is often triggered by major life events such as the birth of a child, the death of someone close to us, graduation, an accident, terminal illness, or new love. In the popular mindset the extreme form of this is often referred to as a crisis of some kind, such as a “mid-life crisis,” a “crisis of conscience,” a “post-college slump,” a “Saturn return,” or some other term for radical-break-from-what-has-been. We may sell everything and travel the world, do a walkabout, hole up in a remote cabin, or take some other extreme action to “get away and find ourselves.” There are also less extreme ways of being in Reflective Mode, such as meditation, prayer, hiking, or another way of setting aside time for contemplation without abandoning everything.

I believe that most people live the vast majority of their lives in a combination of Responsive and Reactive. It can feel like a luxury to take time for the Reflective Mode, and sometimes that time feels justified only when we start to feel acute strain or pain from living our lives primarily in response to what we are offered.

When we have a good sense of who we are and why we are here, we are able to live a Realized Life, to be in the Realized Mode. This can come directly out of being in Reflective Mode. We have a vision for our lives, often one that goes beyond ourselves. In this mode we know what we want to offer to the world and we start creating a life that fulfills the soul. We may give up everything we were doing before Reflection, or we may just have a shift in our mindset, our approach to everyday life, finding ourselves filled with renewed wonder and joy without making any external changes. Instead of primarily reacting to external situations, we are internally motivated, creating and generating what we send out into the world. We touch this whenever we experience a state of flow, being fully absorbed in the task at hand, feeling inspired, and forgetting time. In a fully Realized state, we are engaged with external situations but they do not change our sense of who we are. This means that even if we change our actions in response to another’s request, we do so only in alignment with our internal compass, never leaving the path to our life’s vision. There’s plenty of room for play, but there’s little chance of forgetting.

Once we know who we are and how we want to be in the world, we are able to fully Relate with another person, to interact and share while maintaining that sense of self. When two people are Relating while both are in Realized Mode, they are fully themselves at the same time that they are with each other. Anything that they decide to do together will support each person’s vision for their lives. They are authentic, open, honest, and true. They operate from a  place of curiosity, ready to discover the other person in every moment. They leave the interaction feeling even more alive.

While our understanding of each Mode builds on the foundation of the previous one, the Modes are not linear, nor is “progression” through them fixed. All kinds of triggers can send us from one mode to another. For example:

  • Encountering something (or someone) new is often a trigger for dropping into Reactive or Responsive mode
  • Extreme states of emotion (fear, anger, giddiness, grief) inhibit our ability to be Reflective
  • When one person is in a Realized state, they may drop out of it when encountering a Responsive person – or they may help move someone Responsive into a state of Reflection
  • Two people may be Relating, but then one or the other may find themselves unable to hold their sense of self in the face of the situation
  • Without taking the time to be Reflective, it is difficult if not impossible to develop and sustain the Realized Mode
  • It is possible to get stuck in Reflective Mode, unable to take action and live a Realized life
  • A person can be in different Modes in different circumstances, e.g., Realized in their career, but Responsive in romantic relationships

These 5 Modes are useful as tools for understanding and discussing how we are interacting with the world. They are not fixed, just as we are not static beings. I find them particularly useful for understanding why I feel more myself or not in certain situations, what it is that is solid or lacking in my ability to be in the world the way that I would like to be. I also find them inspirational in terms of why I am doing all this reading and this work, helping me focus on what I want to do next.

I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on the 5 Modes. Do they make sense to you? What do they make you think of?

Cianna P. Stewart is Founder of the No Complaining Project and a resilience coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also spends a lot of time producing events and dancing. Connect with Cianna on Google+.

2012 Themes

It’s the start of 2012 and in addition to resolutions, I’m thinking about two themes for what I want to get out of this year.

In keeping with the sentence stem that I’m using to start all my resolutions (“I resolve to express love for myself by ____”), I’m declaring that a theme for me for this year is to place a focus on self-care. (I have no doubt some of you are going to be happy to hear that.)

The other theme feels hard to admit to myself and also feels important to say out loud: I’m working on accepting the fact that I inspire people. I have it that I always hope I inspire, that it’s a goal of mine. The difference is for me to recognize that it’s already happening. Or (more true) to recognize that it’s been happening for years now.

Why put this focus on accepting it? Because I think that this will open up other possibilities for me, and because I think that it’s necessary in order to step into some of the work that I intend to do this year. I need to own my voice and my impact, and not expend much (or any) energy trying to prove it. Once I take it as a given, then I can move on to what I can do with that influence.

In so many ways it seems obvious yet I have had a hard time accepting it. Maybe that’s because I would then have to deal with the responsibility of my impact, maybe it’s because truly I’m most afraid of already being the person I hope to become. No matter what the cause it’s not really serving what I want to accomplish.

Even more, it’s not realistic for me to shy away from believing that I have, do, and will continue to influence and inspire others with my thoughts and actions. Thank you all for being persistent about continuing to tell me that over and over. It’s taken a while for it to get through. I might still forget, but at least it’s my intention to let it sink in this year.


Yes, I am thinking of this most famous quote from Marianne Williamson as I consider my theme:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Resolutions Coming From Love

Today I’m thinking about New Years Resolutions. I’ve also been thinking about how often in the past I made resolutions out of a sense that I “should” be doing something, that I was imperfect and wrong, that I had to be better.

One of my resolutions is to show myself more love, to be kinder and more forgiving when I make a mistake or fall short of the (admittedly high) bar I set for myself. To treat myself with the same caring and understanding that I want others to treat me, in line with how I strive to treat others. This may be the underlying resolution for the whole year.

So in keeping with this I am going to start each of New Years Resolutions with the sentence stem: “I resolve to express love for myself by…”

For instance: I have been feeling heavy, out of shape, unhealthy. So I started out making my usual kind of resolution, about my weight, exercise, etc., one that felt like an order. After reconsidering how I’m thinking, these are my resolutions around that:

I resolve to express love for myself by caring for my body.

I resolve to express love for myself by taking steps to ensure that I have enough energy and stamina to get out in the world and do the things that bring me joy.

Those feel so much more inspiring to me. Yes, I have yet to see if I can keep them in mind – and I imagine that if I can, I’ll experience far more than weight loss.

How would you finish that sentence?

“I resolve to express love for myself by…”


This post written with many thanks to Brene Brown and her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, for helping lead me to this understanding.

The No Complaining Ride

In my first 12 hours in NYC I went through quite a little challenge to myself in the realm of “no complaining” so I thought I’d share it all of you.

Last night I arrived in New York just in time to catch up with friends who were going out dancing to celebrate a birthday. We went to an upscale nightclub in Manhattan. Beautiful place. Our group was dancing and drinking and goofing around. I’ve rarely laughed so much out in club like that.

I was using my iPhone to snap photos and stashed it in the front pocket of my jeans. At some point it started to annoy me, feeling like it was in the way of my dancing so I switched it to my back pocket. We were all dancing as a group and I had my back to the main part of the room. Suddenly I felt my iPhone lift out of my pocket in a quick smooth motion. I immediately knew someone swiped it. I turned quickly but the crowd was too dense and I couldn’t see the phone. I caught a waiter who was passing by and told him my phone was stolen. We looked around the floor just in case it fell instead of getting stolen, but no such luck. He then called over a security guard and the manager so I could report it. That was about all that could be done. I turned so I could return to my group, but I was in no mood to just jump back in to the dancing and laughing.

I started to wonder what I should do. I was upset and angry but also couldn’t do anything more. The phone was gone and I didn’t want to dwell in my upset – the night had been so much fun. I also didn’t want to damper the group on a birthday night. I vented to one friend who asked what we had been looking for and felt better that someone knew, but it felt kind of incomplete because I didn’t fully release any anger and I was grappling with the realization that I still couldn’t actually change the situation. I could hear my own teachings in my head and didn’t want to start telling the story over and over again but it also felt fake to just ignore it. I decided to get away from the group for a moment and just be quiet.

I got centered and started to think my way through the situation bit by bit. I wanted to enjoy the evening. I couldn’t make the phone be un-stolen. In the morning I could go get a new iPhone (an upgrade!). I didn’t have to reach anyone that night. I had backed up before I got on the plane so there was no data loss. The phone was locked and I could erase it remotely so I wasn’t really at risk of having my identity or passwords stolen.

In short, there was nothing to do until the morning. I took a deep breath and gave myself permission to wait until the morning to think about it. I returned to the group and pretty quickly was feeling playful and laughing again.

At the end of the evening I told my other friends what had happened and also that I was ok, I’d get a new phone in the morning. I still wasn’t all the way through my upset but I was feeling settled.

In the morning, I woke up thinking about it again. I also wanted to be fully done with the negative feelings so I wouldn’t keep thinking about them. I replayed everything and then suddenly it struck me: Buying a new iPhone was an option! I was flooded with feelings of gratitude. Not long ago I would have not have had enough money to be able to just walk into an Apple store and buy a phone. I had been struggling financially, cutting every expense down to the bone. I had to carefully plan out how to pay for all meals, even choosing some days not to have three in order to make my cash last. And today I had enough money saved to go get a phone. It was an amazing feeling.

As soon as this thought hit me, I felt completely released from the upset and anger of the night before. I was clear that if I had my preference, none of this would have happened. But none of the feelings associated with the theft had any power over me any more. I felt lighter, grateful for all the things that have happened in the last few months to turn my finances around, and appreciating myself for what I did to make them stick.

It was quite a ride – and I’m glad I held on until the end.

Movements Then and Now

Last night I gave a talk about my history in activism. I started with a description of coming out as bisexual back in 1985 and what it was like to try to organize a national network in 1990.

I was presenting at Stanford and I felt the need to point out to the young people in the room that this was all before the Web. I painted a picture of standing in room with people from all over the country and feeling the pressure to get a decision out of them before everyone boarded their planes that evening because once they were gone they were gone.

I talked about becoming a pointperson for the movement because I was the one left holding the literal key – the one that unlocked our P.O. Box where letters written by hand would start to pour in from around the country. I spent the next two years writing back (also by hand) to people coming out in rural towns, suburbs, and cities, to reassure them that yes, there were others out there.

It’s hard to remember sometimes what it was like before we all used the Internet. Back then, I had never met or even heard the story of a bisexual before I came out. The people I wrote to hadn’t seen any videos reassuring them it was going to get better. None of us had seen comments on articles written by people like us that let us know others were thinking about similar things.

Nearly all means of mass communication were still in the hands of large companies. Communication between individuals was largely invisible to the wider universe. I used the phone and mail to collect articles from around the country for a newsletter I assembled and then photocopied to mail out. Finding out who was talking about what and how to reach each other was a difficult and somewhat random process.

It was not a better world. It was not a worse world. It was just the world as it was and it’s a different world now.

I am thinking about this as I read what is happening in the Occupy movements. I get updates and see photos within minutes from people who are there and read commentary from around the world. I read the stories and send my support to other activists in all corners of the globe and their updates come to me in real time via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs.

We are just learning how to use these tools effectively. The power is clear and has already been realized in more than one situation. It’s exciting and wonderful to see how these tools are used to get information out and to coordinate actions online and off.

As Occupy encampments are getting cleared out around this country, I maintain hope that they have sparked a dialogue that is still gaining momentum. I hope that the energy becomes simply relocated, not stalled.

In the past it was hard to gain momentum because communication tools were slow. This time the momentum picked up swiftly and has been reacted to just as fast, but it’s not clear what’s happening next. Even the challenge of this question and the confusion of responses is happening quickly.

Past movements had only physical presence to convey a message. The current movements have that plus online tools that can weave us together and involve many more than those who are able and willing to put their bodies on the line.

This has been called a leaderless movement. I beg to differ. It strikes me as a movement that calls on each of us to bring out our own leadership and creativity to create a world that believes in the rights of individuals and the collective good. If everyone does a part, there will be no limit to what we can achieve.

I Get Creative

Last night I did something I haven’t done for years: I shared a piece of my creative writing. While I do a lot of writing just about every day, I had taken a loooong break from writing the poetry and experimental short fiction that once flowed freely out of my pen.

But it was a friend’s birthday, a friend who was quite pivotal at a particular moment of my journey exploring identity, self, and creativity. In his honor I decided to resurrect this piece and rework it. I read it aloud at his celebration.

And now I present it to you.

This is dedicated to all the mixed-race, alt-sexual, gender blurry people, & everyone else who finds that “check only one box” doesn’t work for them.


After years of dichotomous choices
leading into an adulthood surrounded by pairs,
I begin to identify with the square root of 2. 

Beyond the visible
Between what is whole
On stone tablets and papyrus
it arises 

A secret so unsettling it warrants murder

it is irrational

frankly: unwelcome


My own
demands for proof

My own

only fully encompassed by the square root of 2
more than 1
a numerical quirk
which multiplied unto itself is the perfect sum of my parents’ love.

On my own:
a conundrum which cannot be entered into a census’ computer
fouling up the simple and harmonious duality of an endless
0 1 0 1 0 1 on off yes no either or black white
make a decision
declare yourself

my self tumbling along the square root of 2’s digital extensions
ever changing and ever endless
slipping like a ribbon between whole numbers
elusive but flirtatious enough to maintain interest
a mathematician’s dark-haired mistress 

I am at home in the space between integers
an orienteer given a compass of genetic codes with endless variation
following the decimal point of my birth
without discernible patterns
coyly evading resolution.

Now I see I will never be fully content or at peace.

No, that’s not it. 

I will never be done.

the square root of 2
and I
will hold a place in the rational world nonetheless.


If you want to know more about the history of the square root of two, read the Wikipedia entry

Complaints Choirs

Recently I learned about Complaints Choirs. The first was a choir in Birmingham, England, created by two artists who wanted to “transform the huge energy that people put into complaining into something else… something powerful.”

They were inspired by a Finnish expression “complaints choir,” a group of people complaining simultaneously. (Sidebar: I love this expression and think I’m going to start using it.)

I don’t know how I feel about these choirs, whether they’re elevating or transforming or helping to eliminate complaining. But whatever the effect, it’s pretty striking to listen to a performance of commonly heard daily complaints.