I was once doing a radio show about our (my and my father Dr. Robert Firestone’s) work on the "critical inner voice." The host started the show by talking about all the media attention on terrorism and the fear we, as a nation, were feeling following the attacks of 9/11. She ended her introduction by saying, “But what if the worst enemy we face is the one residing inside ourselves, the critical inner voice?” I found her statements compelling. Throughout our lives, we often act as our own worst enemy, sabotaging our success, undoing our relationships, hurting the people closest to us, and not really living our lives based on the things that really matter to us and that would give our lives meaning.
The critical inner voice is an insidious force. Sometimes we are aware that we are critiquing ourselves, talking ourselves out of taking positive risks and really going for the things we want in life. However, we are less often fully cognizant of how we are sabotaging ourselves with self-protective thoughts, thoughts luring us into bad behavior, thoughts that sound friendly, like “have an extra piece of cake; it won’t matter,” or thoughts enticing us to feel anger over how we’ve been “wronged.” Yet both self-critical and self-soothing/self-protective thoughts make up the critical inner voice. While not all of these thoughts are critical, they are all self-destructive and sabotage our real goals and wants, while preventing us from finding meaning in life.
Identifying these critical inner voices and developing a realistic, compassionate point of view toward ourselves and others is the first step in the process of differentiation, which is outlined in our new book, The Self Under Siege. In the book, my co-authors, Dr. Robert Firestone and Joyce Catlett, and I outline a four-step process for differentiating yourself from negative influences from your past and from society at large, in order to become the person you have the potential to be, “your real self.”
To be able to recognize and separate from destructive voices, you must first recognize that many thoughts you regard as your own point of view may not really be representative of your true self. For example, I was working with a woman the other day who is currently in the most fulfilling relationship of her life. She is with a man who really loves her, respects her as a separate, independent person, and who loves sharing life with her and her family. She began the session by saying she was bored with him and had lost her sexual desire in their relationship. She earnestly believed this to be her genuine point of view. I asked her to state these thoughts in the second person, as though another person was imparting this information on her.
This method of getting a degree of separation from destructive voices was developed by my father Dr. Robert Firestone in his treatment approach Voice Therapy. As she began to say these thoughts in this manner, she started with the thoughts she had originally stated but soon went on to reveal a whole point of view that was critical of herself and her partner. Her tone became superior and degrading. After allowing time to fully express these thoughts, I asked her where she thought these thoughts had originated. Whose point of view was this? Asking these types of questions is the second step in Voice Therapy. She quickly responded that she felt it was her mother’s voice talking to her. She revealed that her mother had often expressed critical superior attitudes toward men. She recognized that this incorporated point of view of her mother’s was sabotaging her relationship, a relationship that is precious to her.
She then answered back to that voice, the third step in Voice Therapy. She revealed her real point of view about her partner; she spoke of how she really loves him, that she finds him attractive, and enjoys sharing life with him. Next, she looked at how this voice was affecting her relationship, enticing her to pull away from her current partner and to look for other men. She decided that instead of distancing herself, she would take actions to show him how much she cares for him and to get closer to him, thus completing the last two steps in Voice Therapy.
Leaving this session, she was surprised by how different she felt from when she walked in, the shift in her point of view amazed her. Prior to the session, she felt that her superior, rejecting attitude toward her partner was her real point of view. She now recognized that she had come perilously close to taking actions that would have sabotaged her relationship, one that was providing her with much happiness and satisfaction.
Recognizing how the voice operates as the agent of self-sabotage is the first step in breaking free from an identity that is not really you and beginning to pursue the things you want in life without undermining your chances of success. Starting to separate from these critical inner voices and taking actions that go against their prescriptions is key to differentiating yourself. Separating from the negative aspects of your early caretakers, which you have incorporated into yourself and that act as an overlay on your personality in the form of an anti-self, allows you to start to gain a sense of your real self. Strengthening your real self involves pursuing the people, activities, and experiences that light you up and make you feel more yourself, the things that give meaning to your life. Breaking the patterns of self-sabotage that we engage in gives us the best chance of achieving the things we really want in life.