"I'm sooo fat," said a small voice from the corner of my bedroom. I peeked my head out from behind my closet door to see who was responsible for the self-deprecating comment. My eyes lowered to behold the frail figure of my 5-year-old niece staring solemnly into my full-length mirror. Comments like these, although draining, have become sadly second-nature coming from adult friends and relatives but coming from a thin, young child, the words were much more unsettling. Surely, no one had ever told her she was fat. So why was she internalizing such mean, not to mention distorted, thoughts?
Though we'd all like to think of childhood as a time in which we are blissfully free of self-consciousness and self-deprecation, this is never the case. Ask any child if he or she ever thinks bad thoughts about him or herself and, I assure you, you'll be shocked to hear the response.
"I'm so ugly. My hair makes me ugly; it's so frizzy and big," a friend's 6-year-old daughter stuttered through giant sobs.
"I'm scared I'm not going to get the answers fast enough. I'm not as smart as the other kids," another friend of mine's 10-year-old son confided in me.
Disturbing as it is to hear our children utter such cruel statements toward themselves, how can we not feel slightly guilty for the example we have set for them? It's painful to recognize how oblivious we can be to our own self-critical attitudes. And our inner critic can be especially cruel when it comes to goals we set for ourselves, habits we want to break, or ways we want to change. As the holiday season and new year approaches, it is invaluable to take the time to look at why we are so self-deprecating and what we can do to rid ourselves of our own distorted self-perceptions. By doing so, we give ourselves the opportunity to differentiate from negative influences from our own pasts and childhoods and to live free from imagined limitations.
Step One: Identifying Our Critical Inner Voices
In my blog "Evicting the Obnoxious Roommate Living in Your Head" I introduced the concept of the critical inner voice, an internalized critic that comments on our every action. These comments are not usually experienced as an actual voice speaking to us but rather as a thought process that casually yet ruthlessly puts us down and sabotages our successes. For example, a person trying to lose weight may hear attacks like, "You're so fat. You'll never lose weight. You should just give up." A person trying to build up the courage to ask someone to go out on a date may hear voices like, "You're such a loser. He/She would never go out with you. Don't even ask; you'll just embarrass yourself."
For 30 years my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, and I have studied the critical inner voice and have been amazed at how prevalent it is in people's lives. Most everyone I've encountered has related to the concept of the inner voice and been able to identify how it has interfered with a specific area of their lives.
In order to combat this inner critic, it is essential that you identify it. In what situations does it arise? What actions make it louder? What is your voice telling you about yourself? Your relationships? Your children? Your job?
Does your voice sound mean and angry, directly attacking you like: You're not like other people. You're unattractive. You're stupid. No one will ever really care about you?
Does your voice sound gentle and self-soothing, tricking you with: Don't worry; you're just fine on your own. See? You don't need anybody. Have that second piece of cake. You deserve it. One more drink will make you feel so much better?
The voice can be brutal and obvious but it can also be deceptive and difficult to recognize, as it entices you to act against your goals. But when you do, it then punishes you for the very actions it encouraged you to take.
Think about the situations that provoke your voices. What are the specific things they are telling you at those times? What negative result do these thoughts seem to desire? As you identify these voices, it is helpful to write them down. First, write them in the first person, as "I" statements. For example, you may have thoughts like:
I am never going to get that promotion.
She's going to leave me.
I'm a terrible mother.
Then, write these same statements in the second person ("You" statements) as if someone is talking to you. For example, you would write:
You are never going to get that promotion.
She's going to leave you.
You're a terrible mother.
This exercise will help you see the voice for what it is, a sadistic enemy, and you can stop regarding these attacks as true statements about who you really are.
Step Two: Countering Our Critical Inner Voice
Once you identify your critical inner voice, you will be better able to combat it. After writing your voices as "you" statements, you can then respond to them from a more realistic and compassionate point of view. For example, you may respond to the above statements by writing things like:
I may make mistakes once in a while, but I'm working hard and doing a good job.
I'm not perfect, but I care about my relationship, and I'm a good choice.
I have a lot of positive qualities as a mother, and I can work on changing anything about myself that I don't like.
The intention of this exercise is not to build yourself up or boost your ego. Rather, it is intended to place you in a more realistic mindset and separate you from the distorted attitudes of your inner critic. In our book, Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, my father and I explain how these voices specifically interfere with various areas of people's lives and present further exercises to help combat these destructive thought processes.
The most powerful way to combat your critical inner voice is with your actions. Try as it may to influence you, you can defeat the voice because you have the ultimate control of your actions. By not heeding its advice and ignoring what it is telling you about yourself and other people, you are evicting your obnoxious roommate and removing it from your life. By taking actions like taking care of yourself, looking your best, staying vulnerable in your close relationships or going after career success you will counter your critical inner voice.
As you make these changes, be wary of the fact that challenging this thought process will initially make the thoughts more powerful. A good way to think of this is to imagine these thoughts as a monster. The more you feed it, the bigger and stronger it becomes. However, if you starve it, the monster at first will become even angrier and will put up a struggle. However, if you continue to ignore and "starve" the monster, gradually it will fade away. The same goes for self-critical thought processes. The more you ignore them, the louder they will roar, but if you stand up to them, eventually they will be defeated.
To read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone on the critical inner voice visit PsychAlive.org