Turn Your Critical and Controlling Inner Voice to a CALM MO

Understanding how to go from inner critic to a CALM MO.

Posted Oct 22, 2016

One of the most common sources of psychological trouble for individuals is the way that they relate to their negative feelings. To understand how this trouble develops, it is first important to understand that humans have two streams of consciousness, one that is an experiential stream which consists of nonverbal perceptions and the primary emotional reactions, and second which is a self-reflective stream that can narrate and evaluate things that are happening, both inside and out. The internal relationship between the primary emotional stream and the reflective narrator is crucial. Oftentimes, the narrator portion of the psyche is very frustrated with the sensitivity or negativity of the experiencing portion. In addition, for some folks the narrator interprets the negative feelings as the source of a problem rather than signaling a problem, and the solution that is developed is one in which the narrating self is punishing or criticizing or controlling the experiential self. Thus, the individual often deems the feelings themselves to be problematic and tries to avoid or control the feelings (“I don’t want to go there”; “No sense feeling that”; “Wallowing in my pain doesn’t do anything” are the kinds of justifications that legitimize repression and avoidance). In addition, like a critical parent, the individual will often attack themselves for their feelings, wondering why they can’t just let it go or just be happy or why they are so weak-minded. The problem with this is that this attitude creates intrapsychic tangles and vicious cycles because if they feel bad about feeling bad they will likely feel worse and worse. What is the solution? I advocate for an integrated approach to psychological mindfulness captured by the acronym CALM MO. This refers to a “Meta-cognitive Observer” that cultivates an inner attitude of Curiosity, Acceptance, Loving compassion, and that is Motivated to learn and grow.

A case example can help clarify what this looks like and how a CALM MO intervention can be employed: 

Ashley* reported that her feelings of anxiety and depression worsened when she was in the ninth grade. She had always felt she was a little sensitive and she did not like the idea of burdening her parents with her negative feelings, as they were often stressed themselves. Then when they divorced, everything went into overdrive. She was dealing with more and more negative feelings inside, her family was splitting up on the outside, and she did not really have anyone to talk to about it. She wished that she could be strong, so she just tried not to think about her feelings and focus on her school work. Over time during that year, however, she became increasingly exhausted and down. Her Dad moved out and things settled some in the family, but she could not shake her negative mood. Her Mom noticed that she was not going out with her friends that much and was up in her room a lot more than she used to be. Eventually, her Mom asked Ashley in a way that Ashley spoke up and said she was feeling down. Her mom made an appointment with their family physician and Ashley was placed on Prozac which seemed to help some.

Ashley’s junior and senior years in high school were better. She made some new friends and had a serious boyfriend for the first time. She also enjoyed her classes more and did well enough to get into her “hoped for college”. However, the launch from home to college had not gone well and now she was once again in a tail spin. She had hoped that she would be free from her negative and depressive feelings forever, but now she wondered if she would always be dealing with them. The difficulty started soon after getting to college. She did not get along well with her roommate. And her roommate had made friends with the girls in her suite, so she quickly felt isolated there. She thought of herself as “pre-med” so she had signed up to take calculus, biology and chemistry and, now, 8 weeks into the semester, she was completely slammed with work she did not really like or understand. She found herself increasingly anxious and frustrated as she tried to do her college work. In addition, she had learned that her father had been having an affair before the divorce. This really bothered her.

Not only was all this going on, it was also clear that Ashley did not process her emotions in the healthiest of ways. Like so many individuals, she often considered her negative feelings to be a problem to be controlled, managed or avoided rather than experienced. Here is an example:

“So,” I said, “sounds like you have been having a tough time lately.”

“Yes, it sucks,” she complained. “I hate feeling this way. I try not to think about it, and just force myself to do my work. I know I have to get this stuff done, and here I am worrying and feeling sorry for myself.”

“Does anyone know you are feeling this way?”

“No. Normally, I would talk with my mom, but I don’t want to worry her. Besides, she is three hours away. What can she do? And I know she is dealing with a lot. She is still stressing a lot about finances and is dealing with my brother [her brother is a Type I Diabetic].”  

“What about your friends?”

“Well, my best friend from high school knows I am not doing super well, but she is at a different college and she is having a great time, so I don’t talk with her that much.”

“So what do you think you need to do?”

“I don’t know. I think I just need to figure out how to stop feeling this way. I mean, more and more, I am feeling either anxious or frustrated or down. And it sucks and it gets in the way of me doing my work. I just need to suck it up, push it out of my mind and get back to work. If I screw up my grades my first year, I will never be pre-med and that will totally suck. Maybe I need to go back on meds. They seemed to help.”

“That might make sense, Ashley. But I also want to suggest to you that I think the way you are relating to your feelings is generating some problems.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it seems to me that you try to control your negative feelings, try to get them off the stage of your consciousness.”

“Well, they suck and they keep me from doing what I need to do. So yes, I just try to keep them from boiling up.”

“It makes sense that you try to control them. Also, it seems you can get down on yourself for feeling them. That is you blame yourself for your anxiety or other negative feelings.”

“That is true. I don’t like this about me that I get so upset. Sometimes I think I am just being hypersensitive.”

“I am wondering, Ashley, if some of your difficulty is how you are relating to your feelings, which may be creating some additional problems for you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I believe that healthy emotional functioning occurs when individuals are able to hold their emotions in what I call ‘the emotional sweet spot’. This is the space between being aware of and attuned to one’s feelings on the one hand, and being able to adaptively regulate the feelings on the other so that they do not become completely overwhelmed. People who operate outside the sweet spot tend to often avoid their feelings and have critical thoughts about their feelings. And, not uncommonly, they will occasionally ‘lose that battle’ and then become completely flooded, upset, and overwhelmed.”

“That sounds like me. I try all the time to avoid my feelings. And it will build and build, and then like a dam it breaks. That’s what happened last Tuesday night, when I freaked out and was crying for two hours.”

“Right, so you are often outside the sweet spot, either trying to avoid or deny instead of being aware and attuned, and on the other side, being completely overwhelmed instead of adaptively regulating.”

“So, what do I do?”

“I think we need to adjust the attitude of your inner narrator from one that emphasizes control and blame to a CALM MO. Let me explain. So right now, your narrating self is angry or frustrated with your feeling self for all the negative feelings. That makes sense because negative feelings suck. But, let’s play this out. What do you think happens to your negative feelings if either you try to deny them or you blame yourself for having them?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t really thought about it that way.”

“Well, my guess is that you often end up feeling worse, which in turn makes your narrator portion even angrier. Let me ask you this, Ashley, why do you think we humans come equipped to feel negative feelings?”

“I am not sure. We feel happy when good stuff happens and bad when bad stuff happens.”

“Yes we do. And our feelings carry important information about what is happening to us. They are telling you important things about your needs and goals and what at least a part of you is feeling to be good or bad for you. This is one of the reasons attacking your feelings creates problems. It does not allow you to get clear about the information the feelings are communicating.”

“I think I follow that.”

“Good, it is cool working with someone who picks up stuff quickly. So if it is the case that our feelings are communicating key pieces of information, we need to figure out a framework for listening to them. The framework I am drawn to is well-described by the acronym C.A.L.M. M.O. What I am going to hope for you is that over time you can cultivate a CALM way of relating to your feelings. Let me start with the M.O. This actually stands for two things. One is M.O., as in ‘Mode of Operating’, Second, M. O. refers to Meta-cognitive Observer, which refers to observing and reflecting on your thoughts, feelings and situation. So, CALM describes the modus operandi of your meta-cognitive observer. Now let me explain what it stands for.

“The C stands for curiosity. Remembering that feelings are information, the C reminds us to first and foremost ask questions like, ‘What are these feelings and what are they telling me? Why am I feeling them now? What important memories might they be tied to? How do they relate to my current relationships or achievements? How do I feel about my feelings?’ Stopping and asking these questions provides you with a way to deeply understand what is going on and where these feelings are likely coming from.

“The A stands for acceptance. One of the first principles of the Buddhist philosophy is that ‘Life is Suffering,’ and the Buddha realized that a big key to life is being able to accept suffering as opposed to trying to run and avoid it. What does that look like? It means being able to hold the feelings and saying, yes, this is painful. This is what pain is and this is a part of life. It is not easy and it takes practice, but learning to lean into your feelings and being able to be with them is a powerfully important psychological skill.

“The L stands for loving compassion. This refers to the basic belief that humans are dignified creatures that generally are trying to do their best and, as such, deserve an attitude of kindness and compassion. This goes both for others and for you.

“Finally, the M stands for motivated to learn and grow from a position of security. I do believe that we can live more fulfilling lives, and if we are suffering we should look to see what changes we can make to adjust and to try to find pathways toward adaptive living and fulfillment. I see acceptance and motivation for change as existing in tension with one another.

“Does this make sense to you, Ashley?”

“Actually, it does. I can totally see that I do not have a CALM attitude as I feel my negative feelings. And it makes sense to me why that gets me tangled in knots inside. I am not sure if I can do it right away, but I can see clearly the difference between having a critical and controlling attitude and having a CALM MO.”

“That is great. And, of course, this is something that both is not easy and definitely takes practice. The main thing now is that you can see the difference between how you have been and a CALM attitude. And it seems you can envision how you might take steps to cultivate a CALM MO in a way that might be helpful. I look forward to our journey working together on this.”

I found this a useful frame to help folks turn their inner critic into a CALM MO, and in so doing, they find their lives to be, well, much calmer and more peaceful.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

*Ashley is representative of many clients my students and I work with.