Most of us are familiar with those nagging thoughts that tell us we are not good enough, that cast doubt on our goals and undermine our accomplishments. These thoughts might be there to greet us when we first glimpse ourselves in the mirror in the morning. "You're so unattractive. You're fat. What a slob. Just look at your hair, hips, waistline."
This inner critic might meet you at work. "You're under too much pressure. You'll never get everything done. No one even notices you. You should just give up."
It's even there to critique your closest relationships. "He doesn't really love you. No one could care about you. It will never last. Just don't be vulnerable."
Every person is divided; part of us is goal-directed and self-possessed, while another part is self-critical, self-denying, and even self-destructive. This "anti-self" perpetuates a negative thought process, which my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, refers to as the "critical inner voice."
The critical inner voice is formed from painful early life experiences in which we witnessed or experienced hurtful attitudes toward us or those close to us. As we grow up, we unconsciously adopt and integrate this pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others. When we fail to identify and separate from this inner critic, we allow it to impact our behavior and shape the direction of our lives. It may sabotage our successes or our relationships, preventing us from living the lives we want to lead and becoming the people we seek to be. So how can we challenge this inner voice? How can we recognize its commentary and differentiate from its directives?
What Is The 'Critical Inner Voice?'
We all possess an inner critic or "critical inner voice." We experience this "voice" as a negative internal commentary on who we are and how we behave.
Common critical inner voices include:
- "You're ugly."
- "You're stupid."
- "You're fat."
- "There's something wrong with you."
- "You're different from other people."
You can start to overcome this inner critic by following a four-step exercise.
How Can You Overcome this Inner Critic?
Step 1: Try to identify what your critical inner voice is telling you. Acknowledge that this thought process is separate from your real point of view. Remember that your critical inner voice is not a reflection of reality. It is a viewpoint you adopted based on destructive early life experiences and attitudes directed toward you that you've internalized as your own point of view.
Step 2: One way to help you differentiate from your critical inner voice is to write these thoughts down in the second person (as "you" statements). For example, a thought like "I can't get anything right. I'll never be successful" should be written as "You can't get anything right. You'll never be successful." This will help you see these thoughts as an alien point of view and not as true statements. Notice how hostile this internal enemy can be.
Step 3: You can respond to your inner critic by writing down a more realistic and compassionate evaluation of yourself. Write these responses in the first person (as "I" statements). In response to a thought like, "You're such an idiot," you could write, "I may struggle at times, but I am smart and competent in many ways." This exercise isn't meant to build you up or boost your ego but to show a kinder, more honest attitude toward yourself.
Step 4: Remember not to act on the directives of your inner critic. Take actions that represent your own point of view, who you want to be and what you aim to achieve. Your critical inner voice may get louder, telling you to stay in line or not to take chances. However, by identifying, separating from, and acting against this destructive thought process, you will grow stronger, while your inner critic grows weaker.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org.