The biggest challenge to anyone looking to achieve a personal goal or make a change frequently comes from within. Every one of us is split between our true self, what we seek to be, and a threatening “anti-self” that distorts our very sense of who we are. Most of us can relate to hearing the voice of this internal enemy at one point or another. Whether it is dispensing self-criticism, or building us up as "special,” it creates a false sense of who we really are. Yet, most of us fail to recognize just how much this “voice” is shaping our sense of identity and, consequently, the way we live our lives.
From our earliest days, our experiences start to weave our sense of identity. Countless things inform this perspective. Ever since the moment we’re born, we’re learning about relationships, what we have to do and how we have to behave in order to get our needs met and feel secure. We learn how we are perceived by our parents and caretakers, not just through what they say to us, but through their expressions and micro-expressions, their tone, their availability or lack thereof. We witness how our parents treat themselves and others, internalizing more than we can consciously imagine.
Our personalities emerge not just by mirroring what we see but from reacting to it. Our brains are designed to remember the painful and frightening experiences, the large and small traumas that taught us the lessons of who we needed to be to survive. We form psychological defenses in response to our environment. These defenses can go on to become impositions on our truest self, influencing us to act and engage in dynamics that can hurt and limit us later in our lives.
All of these influences patch together, creating a sense of self-identity. We come into the world with our own unique genetics and temperament, the potential to develop an independent sense of our own identity, based on the things that “light us up and give our life meaning. Our positive interpersonal experiences can help us develop kind attitudes toward ourselves and others. However, our negative experiences form a foundation for our “critical inner voice.” Like an internal coach, criticizing and luring us further from our authentic selves, this inner voice is our true enemy.
Over and over again, throughout our lives, this “voice” is there to define us, tell us what we can and can’t do, how we need to behave. It is the unwelcome bully who thinks it knows us better than anyone else. It’s that echoing chant in the back of our heads that’s saying, “You’re too needy/selfish/ ugly/ stupid/ stubborn to have what you want.” It coaches us to stick with our defenses. “Don’t ask for anything. Take care of yourself first. Never let him too close. Make sure she won’t reject you. Be self-sufficient. Act like you don’t care. Don’t be vulnerable. Never give up control. You're special; you deserve better.”
It’s easy to see how this voice can heavily influence our behavior and the way we relate to people in our lives. The destructive beliefs and misguided instructions it directs at us can distort our natural reactions. We may start to act in ways that either reflect or compensate for these distorted ideas about ourselves. We may back away from pursuing a romantic partner or indulge insecurities that keep us quiet or removed. We may project our “voices” onto others, perceiving them as criticizing us in ways our inner voice attacks us. We then react defensively or lash out destructively. In each of these cases, we aren’t truly being ourselves. We are siding with our anti-self and accepting a prescription for our identity that was written by our past – not by the reality of our present.
So, how can we separate from this identity? Together with my father Dr. Robert Firestone, who developed Voice Therapy, we’ve collectively written and produced dozens of books, blogs, films, articles, Webinars, workshops, and studies, discussing what works in relation to overcoming this inner critic. Recently, when talking to my father about the critical inner voice and identity, he brought up an important component to continuously resist the influence of our anti-self, and that is to cultivate a compassionate companion within ourselves.
In his recent blog, “How to Befriend Yourself,” my father wrote, “People can utilize their personal power and actively contribute to their own growth and development, in essence becoming their own ally. In this regard it is most important to become aware of the enemy within, the negative thoughts and attitudes that play a significantly destructive part in your life.” How do we make fundamental decisions that enhance and reflect who we are when we are so turned against ourselves? How do we counter the vicious thought process that feels like a part of who we are?
One way is to imagine having a real friend in ourselves: an internal presence who tells us real stories about ourselves in a compassionate way. This friendly presence isn’t there to offer false build up but to counter our inner critic with the kind, empathetic tone of a trusted friend. It encourages us to be social, outward, healthy, to formulate our own goals and gently take the steps that move us closer to our real selves. Unlike the critical inner voice, which disturbs our sense of peace, this “companion” helps us find more peace through the practice of self-compassion.
Dr. Kristin Neff, a lead researcher in this field has written of three elements that make up self-compassion: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity. Self-kindness helps us to stop all the self-evaluation and assessment and instead, be curious, open, and loving when it comes to how we regard ourselves. Mindfulness allows us to sit with our thoughts and feelings without over-identifying or becoming inextricably linked and bogged down by our critical inner voices. Finally, common humanity teaches us that suffering and mistakes are a part of being human. We are not singled out as the most or least, best or worst of anything. Realizing this allows us to be more centered and objective about who we are in the world and how we choose to be.
Many of us are lucky enough to have that friend who offers us this kind of perspective. We know a person who lifts us up, who’s on our team, who sees us from a compassionate, realistic perspective We often offer this kind perspective to our friends as well, but we also need to cultivate this attitude toward ourselves . What would it look like to walk through life with this presence inside us? How different would this be from the constant chatter of our distorted and critical inner voice? The more we choose to engage and tap into the voice of this friend within, the stronger we will become in knowing who we really are. Even when mean, self-attacks arise, our identity will not be threatened, as we remember that we can face our limitations with the kindness and patience we’d show someone we care for. We can, therefore, approach the process of change from a whole new perspective, one less colored by our past and more positive toward our future.
Read more from Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org