We all have an inner critic filling our heads with a negative commentary about our own behavior and worth.
The mean-spirited voice in your head can make you feel like your own worst enemy.
I wrote last time about how I lived with a toxic family member who frequently criticized, rejected, and called me names while I was growing up.
I learned the language of the critical voice early and often. Due in part to these experiences, I have struggled greatly with my own negative self-talk.
However, individuals who have had loving, supportive upbringings will find that they too still have a critical voice of varying degrees living inside of them.
We’ve been taking in these negative messages all our lives from all around us – family, friends, bullies, teachers, coworkers, movies, TV shows, advertisements, magazines, and more.
“Big surprise! I have screwed up again.”
“I am a complete fraud.”
“What is the matter with me?”
“I will never be able to do this.”
“No one could love me.”
Constantly being berated by the critical voice in your head can lead to low self-esteem. Low self-esteem then leads to a myriad of potential mental health and wellness challenges.
Some of these include:
- hypersensitivity to having feelings hurt
- issues in romantic relationships
- isolation and loneliness
- fear and anxiety
- mood swings
- decreased job performance
- impaired career development
- drug and alcohol abuse
The critical voice will also try to persuade us to make self-destructive choices.
It comes from a place of fear — fear that we are not smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough.
Since we will never be “anything” enough, it tells us that we should just give up. Stop trying. Hide away. Don’t do that.
Additionally, the inner critic often contributes to feelings of shame. Some people, intentionally or not, use shame as a motivator for changing behavior. In truth, this is not healthy or effective.
Guilt allows us to recognize that we have done something bad, while shame tells us that we are a bad person.
Author and researcher Dr. Brené Brown, who has spent years studying vulnerability and worthiness, says, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” The critical voice is not your conscience.
With some awareness, we can begin to recognize when the critical voice rises up with fear, shame, or other hurtful thoughts, and then we will be able to deal with it accordingly.
The first act in doing so is fostering the ability to identify that inner critic.
The critical voice will often come up in one of these 10 unhelpful thinking styles:
1. Personalization: Blaming yourself for something that was out of your control . For example, “If I'd been a better parent my daughter wouldn't have failed that test.”
2. Labeling: Assigning a label to yourself based on a single or limited experience. “I didn’t do the laundry today. I am such a lazy person.”
3. Shoulding: Making statements with “should” or “must” which utilize guilt as a motivator . “I should be eating vegetables instead of this popcorn.”
4. Emotional Reasoning: Believing that because you feel something it must be true . “I feel unlovable, so I'm sure no one loves me.”
5. Catastrophizing and minimalizing: Making a big deal out of something small, and diminishing the importance of something big — “I made a mistake on the report. Now I’m going to get fired, have no money, and lose my house.”
6. Jumping to conclusions: Predicting the future and making assumptions about what others are thinking . “I'm sure those people are laughing at me.”
7. Disqualifying the positive: Discounting positive experiences or good things that you have done . “He was only complimenting me to be polite. He didn’t actually mean it.”
8. Mental Filter: Only noticing negative evidence while ignoring positive experiences . “I received one ‘Needs Improvement’ on my evaluation. I’m so bad at my job.”
9. Overgeneralizing: Creating a pattern based on one or two events and being overly broad in drawing conclusions . “This is so typical. Nothing good ever happens to me.”
10. All or nothing: Categorizing yourself or events as either/or without any middle ground — “If this project isn’t perfect, then I have failed.”
Everyone experiences all of the 10 types of unhelpful thinking styles at some time or another in their life.
Generally, though, we each struggle the most with a specific few. I know for myself that labeling and “shoulding” are the big challenges for me.
Unfortunately, we are biologically wired by something called the “negativity bias” to hear negative comments louder than positives ones. This is an evolutionary trait left over from when humans were dealing with more immediate life-or-death circumstances.
In relationships and even the business world, research has shown that we need to hear about five positive comments for every one negative comment to maintain a healthy balance.
Thinking about your own self-talk, are you matching this ratio?
If not, here is a 5-step process to change your inner voice:
Step 1 – Be Aware
The first step is simply becoming aware of these thoughts without judgement.
Right now your negative thoughts are just your automatic thought response because that’s the neural pathway in your brain that is being used most often.
Can you identify which styles you experience most often?
As you go on throughout your day, keep these unhelpful thinking styles in mind. Just notice which style your critical voice is using in any given situation as conflict or challenges arise.
This process is especially effective when you keep a thought record on paper or even on your phone.
Step 2 – Separate
It is often helpful to get our thoughts outside of our own heads.
Thoughts have a tendency to get out of hand in there, whereas writing them down or speaking them can make them become clearer.
While reviewing your critical thoughts, change them from first person into second person. For example, “You didn’t do the laundry today. You are such a lazy person.”
Pretend that someone else is talking to you and saying this negative remark. What do you notice and feel about the statements?
You may find them to be judgmental, hurtful, or completely unwarranted.
Notice how hearing this in the second person makes you feel. They may be harder to hear and make you more uncomfortable.
Step 3 – Interrupt
Once you are paying attention, you can begin to regularly shift your focus away from your critical voice and toward your loving voice.
Over time this will start to break the habit of these unhelpful thinking styles.
When you recognize your critical voice in the moment, speak up against it. Interrupt that thought by literally thinking or saying, “No.”
Then move on to implementing step 4 right away. Once you have stopped this critical voice in its tracks, you can flip it on its head.
Step 4 – Challenge
Your thought is only that: a thought. Just because you think something doesn’t make it true. It’s time to challenge the critical voice with that of a loving voice.
For each of the critical thoughts, write or say an alternative.
These will be back in the first person. Your alternative thought or statement should channel that of an unbiased observer or friend.
It can also be helpful to think of how you would lovingly talk to a friend or family member.
Using the above remark, “You didn’t do the laundry today. You are such a lazy person,” as an example, the alternative could be something like, “Just because the laundry didn’t get done, doesn’t mean I’m lazy. I didn’t do the laundry today because I spent my time in other worthwhile activities.”
Step 5 – Transform
Thanks to our brain’s ability to create new neural pathways, change is always possible.
The neural pathways in the brain transmit messages, and the more often a certain pathway is used, the more likely it is to be used in the future as an initial response.
By turning away from your critical voice and toward your loving voice, you are literally building up new neural pathways in the brain.
The more they are reinforced, the easier this process will become.
Once you begin putting this into practice regularly, your loving voice will become the dominant voice and eventually even your automatic response.
We all experience moments of self-defeat, but the inner critic does not have to rule our minds. Each one of us can take away its power by learning to filter out our critical voice and find our loving voice.
As you become aware of your inner critic, separate yourself from it, interrupt, and challenge it, you will see a transformation in your mind and your mood. Instead of living in a place of fear or shame, you will grow in confidence and self-esteem.
Soon you will find you have a renewed sense of strength and energy for life.
Your inner voice will become a source of support and encouragement. Work toward your goals. Try new things. Be vulnerable with other people. You have the power, and you can tell yourself so.
Grace is a writer and blogger at Heartful Habits. Heartful Habits is a place of inspiration for what Grace calls living mindfully and heartfully. She loves learning and sharing about wellness tips, natural remedies, beauty DIYs, green cleaners, healthy recipes, social issues, and more.