Compassion Matters

How to save a life

The Critical Inner Voice that Causes Depression

Conquer the self-critical thought processes that lead to depression.

Fighting depression is a matter of taking real action, but when feeling depressed, forcing ourselves to engage in even enjoyable activities can feel like dragging ourselves through quicksand. Depression is one of the most devious disorders, as the symptoms it induces make it all the more difficult to take the actions that fight it. But with one out of five Americans suffering from depression in their lifetime, learning the tools to fight depression is more important than ever.

On October 7, free depression screenings will be offered nationwide as part of National Depression Screening Day. Recognizing that we suffer from depression is an important step to getting the help we need. Once someone identifies that they are depressed, they can take the actions to combat their depression. Yet when someone is in a depressed state, the hopelessness they feel seems to cloud the lens through which they see the world, and in no case is this lens as harsh as when it is turned on themselves.

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As poet Sylvia Plath described it: "I could not sleep, although tired. And lay feeling my nerves shaved to pain and the groaning inner voice: oh, you can't teach, can't do anything. Can't write, can't think...I have a good self, that loves skies, hills, ideas, tasty meals, bright colors. My demon would murder this self by demanding that it be a paragon, and saying it should run away if it is anything less."

To battle depression means taking on the self-critical thought process that lures us into new lows then beats us when we're down. This internalized enemy that can be conceptualized as the "critical inner voice." On October 5, I will be conducting the CE webinar "Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice" and on October 19, I will be conducting a free webinar for the public, both which explore where the critical inner voice comes from and how people can overcome it. By identifying the self-defeating instructions and self-hating commentary of this "groaning inner voice," we can start to act against its direction and challenge the roots of our depression.

The frequency and intensity with which someone experiences critical inner voices correlates with their level of depression. For whatever reason, whether because of overwhelming frustration, a deep sense of loss or even a positive event beyond their level of emotional tolerance, people who are depressed turn more against themselves than for themselves. They start to accept distorted beliefs about themselves, even though other people find these beliefs to be inaccurate or overly harsh. In other words, people who feel seriously depressed have come to believe the hostile statements of their critical inner voice.

"When you're depressed, it's as though this committee has taken over your mind, leaving you one depressing thought after the other," said actor Rod Steiger, who struggled with depression for eight years after undergoing heart surgery. "Part of the depression is as though you're punishing yourself for something...Your sense of self, your appreciation for yourself, your respect for yourself, disappears completely. It certainly isn't that your mind goes blank. On the contrary, when you're depressed, your mind beats you to death with thoughts. It never stops."

Indeed, there are innumerable events that occur during our lifetimes that cause us real grief, sadness, and anxiety: the death of a loved one or close friend; loss of a job or income; a seemingly impossible work situation; rejection by a close friend, lover or mate; a physical illness or disability. Though life is filled with real situations that would make anyone feel bad, angry, sad or anxious, it is the way we think about and make sense of these experiences that determines both the immediate and ongoing effect they will have on us.

The most powerful weapon in our arsenal for fighting against depression under any circumstances is to first become aware of the negative thoughts and self-critical attitudes that contribute to our feeling this way. Very often, we follow the directives of the critical inner voice without even noticing we are doing so. It's there when we have a bad day at work: "See? There you go messing up again. You'll never get that promotion!"

It's there when we argue with a loved one: "No one will ever love you. They don't want you around anyway."

It's there to criticize us when we falter and to doubt us when we experience success. As the manifestation of the "anti-self," the critical inner voice can even sound friendly or soothing, as it lures us to take self-harming actions, and then punishes us for failing to live up to our goals: "Go ahead. Have that second piece of cake. You've been doing so well on your diet" or "Just stay home and be by yourself. You're perfectly fine on your own." But when we heed their advice, they turn and become harsh and punishing: "You're such a pig. You never follow through! or "You'll never meet anybody. You'll just wind up alone."

The critical inner voice is a point of view we internalize early in life based on childhood experiences. It can represent the way we were seen by an influential parental figure, particularly in times of stress when that person was at their worst and was mis-attuned to us in some way. As we grow up, we take on these negative views as our own and the inner voice starts to function like a disciplinary parent holding us back and keeping us in our place. By the time we reach adulthood, we perceive the negative views of us and the critical inner voice as part of our self-perception.

The more we surrender our own point of view and listen to the dictates of the inner voice, the more powerful this voice becomes. The more we indulge in feeling like a bad person and engaging in behaviors that support this belief, the more entrenched the voice becomes, and the more difficult it is to separate from its point of view.

We should not listen to these attacks when they tell us not to pursue our goals or to forego an activity we enjoy. Instead, we must identify the critical inner voices that influence acts of self-denial and giving up and identify the critical inner voices that influence us to be alone and isolated. These circumstances are a breeding ground for the self-critical thinking that leads to depression.

Once someone experiences depression, they can be sure that they have reached a stage where the point of view represented by the voice has actually become their own viewpoint. They are now aligned more against themselves than for themselves and wholeheartedly believe everything their voice tells them. As a result, they no longer have contact with their real self and may feel hopelessly alienated from the people closest to them as well. So how can they challenge the voice that leads to depression?

There are three important steps to conquering your internal enemy or anti-self:

1. Identify the negative thoughts and beliefs you experience as early in the self-destructive cycle as you can.

2. Try writing these thoughts down in the second person as if someone is talking to you (i.e. Instead of writing "I am different from everyone else," write "You are different from everyone else.") This will help you see the voice as an external enemy as oppose to your own point of view.

3. Respond rationally to these statements using the more realistic tone of a compassionate friend. (i.e. You are unique in many positive ways and people appreciate you.")

4. Talk to a close friend who tends to have a more optimistic outlook. Talking to someone who is also down or cynical about life can actually make you feel worse.

5. Force yourself to engage in activities that you have found pleasurable in the past. Even if they don't seem appealing right now, they will help you start to overcome the apathy, indifference, and lack of energy that are major symptoms of depression.

When we take these steps to counter our attacks, we must be aware that like the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz, these voices will put up quite a fight, even as they melt away. Acting against this internal enemy will make it even louder for a while. When we feel good, it will warn us of impending failure or tempt us into falling off the tracks, but the more we ignore it, the more it will shrink. As people combat this inner critic, they shed themselves of its dark rule and take the first steps into the light and out of their depression.

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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