Using Journaling to Mute the Critical Tape in Your Head
Done right, writing can help build an unloved daughter's sense of self-worth.
Posted Jan 06, 2021
Studies such as those by James Pennebaker show that journaling can help us deal with issues in ways that simply thinking about them doesn’t and, of all the behaviors that bedevil adult daughters whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood, the critical tape is perhaps the hardest default position to deal with. Often, this critical tape—that one that tells you are worthless, stupid, lazy, or simply unlovable—is a faithful transcription of what you heard from a parent or parents in your family of origin. Even in your adulthood that critical tape can have enough staying power to co-exist with real-world achievements; it’s one reason so many daughters suffer from the Imposter Syndrome. The critical tape is also enabled by the habit of self-criticism which kicks in when things don’t go as planned or you outright fail at something that was important to you.
Understanding self-blame and self-criticism
It’s been suggested by various studies that when a child is ignored, marginalized, or mistreated, it is safer for her to assume that she’s unlovable rather than consider the genuinely terrifying thought that the very person, your mother, who is supposed to love and protect you, won’t. Thinking about yourself as unlovable or flawed in some way also allows you to think that maybe you can somehow change into the girl she would find lovable and that gives you hope that you can somehow fix what’s wrong with you. (I tried my best not to be the “difficult” and “too sensitive” child my mother described but I am sad to say that my efforts at cuteness never worked.)
Self-criticism is the habit of mind—again, aided and abetted by the internalized critical tape—that ascribes setbacks or failures to deep-seated and unfixable flaws in your essential character. Again, this default position can absolutely co-exist with worldly success in many areas including relationships and undercuts your access to self-compassion in times of stress.
How to approach journaling or beef up your efforts
The single most important thing to get right about journaling is make sure you are using “cool” recall or processing; if you are using journaling to recreate scenes from your childhood—recalling moments of great pain in detail—the chances are good that your efforts will set you back. It is very important that you not “hot process”—recalling what was said and what you felt—because that makes you relive the moment. (If you do that in a therapist’s office, you have an expert to help you navigate out of it. Bad idea otherwise.) Instead, you want to use your journal to explore why you felt as you did as if you were seeing it from a third-party perspective. Rather than summon up your parent’s words, focus on the reaction you had as a child and take a long look at how you self-protected.
Some ideas to explore to shut down the critical tape
These suggestions are drawn from my books, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life and The Daughter Detox Guided Journal and Workbook.
Explore your habit of self-criticism. This is an exercise in three parts, meant to be done one at a time. At a moment when you feel challenged or threatened, write down the most common negative thoughts about yourself that come to mind; do at least six. You should use a statement format such as “That I am,” “That I always.” “That I never,” “That I won’t be able to” etc. Make your list as comprehensive as possible and then set it aside.
Part two asks you to re-read those negative self-assessments and write an entry that countermands the observations; list your positive traits, abilities, and strengths. These might be strengths of personality (I am good at making people feel comfortable or I am a good listener) as well abilities (I am a fine gardener or a skilled teacher). If you are having trouble coming up with positives, speak to a friend or a close other; all this tells you is that the critical tape is working overtime.
The third part asks you to re-read both the critical comments and the positives and to reflect on both. Write an entry about what you learned from this exercise. It’s illuminating if you do this particular journal exercise more than once over an extended period of time; it will really allow you to see how you are healing and what still needs work.
Look at what triggers the critical tape. Figuring out what in life makes the critical tape turn on in your head will give you great insight into your reactivity and permit you to take control over it in time. This requires you to pay attention to the kinds of interactions that activate the criticality and to start keeping a log of when it happened and what preceded it. Write down everything you can remember about the incident and then look at it analytically, asking yourself the following questions: 1) Was I being over-reactive or was what I was feeling justified by the situation? 2) Why did the incident make me feel bad about myself? 3) How might I have handled this differently or better?
Some daughters discover that their own reactivity to slights is enough to trigger the tape; others realize that it’s their fear of making other people angry or being in the wrong that causes them to devolve into self-blame.
See yourself in fullness. The soil in which the critical tape is rooted and thrives is your inability to see yourself as you truly are and not as those in your family of origin defined you. Many daughters find it useful to compile a list of words that describe them in order to paint a self-portrait that is honest without being scathing; we all have flaws and imperfections, after all.
Another useful exercise is to use a photograph of yourself, especially one taken of you in childhood, and to write about that girl as if you were a stranger and had never seen her before, describing her in as much detail as possible. I have actually done this exercise with readers on my Facebook page and the responses have been extraordinary; it is impossible to find the girl who was described as “unlovable.”
Copyright © 2017, 2018, 2021 by Peg Streep.
Pennebaker, James W. and Janel D. Segal, “Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 55 (10), 1243-1254 (1999)
Kross, Ethan, Ozlem Ayduk, and Water Mischel, “When Asking ‘Why’ Doesn’t Hurt: Distinguishing Rumination from Reflective Processing of Negative Emotions,” Psychological Science (2005), vol. 16, no.9, 709-715.