Wellness Editor Lisa Levine is here to guide us on the ever-present and oftentimes pessimistic voice inside our heads holding us back — and is offering solutions to break the cycle of negative self-talk.
Do you ever have moments when the voice in your head is being a total bitch? For me this often happens when I’m attempting some new task, wrestling with technology, prepping for a big presentation, balancing a gigantic to-do list or even when I forget something at the grocery store or I burn the rice. If this is you, too then congratulations — we are all officially normal.
This inner voice goes by many names. Some people refer to it as the ego, the downstairs brain or the saboteur. My teacher, Martha Beck, calls it the “inner lizard” because it originates in the part of our brain known as the reptilian brain. Writer Geneen Roth calls it her “crazy aunt in the attic,” which I also love. For our purposes, let’s simply call it our Inner Critic.
We get so used to the Inner Critic’s shitty whispering that it almost becomes like background noise that we stop noticing. This is because those negative thoughts have been around for so long that they’ve formed well-worn grooves in our brains called neural pathways. We may not always notice the actual whispers but their frequent repetition impacts our self confidence and we start to believe that the whispers are actually true. Spoiler alert: They’re not. Just because we think something does not mean that it’s a fact.
Oddly enough, the Inner Critic’s goal is to keep us safe, although she sure has a funny way of showing it. She wants to keep us from being hurt, disappointed, or let down. She reliably shows up when we’re feeling nervous or unsure and she’s the first to chime in when things don’t go the way we want them to. She has all the rules on how we should show up in the world and she loves to remind us when we don’t follow them. She also enjoys pointing out our perceived flaws at the most inopportune times. Our Inner Critic is rigid and stern and uses words like should and always. What she says sounds like scolding or shaming, looks like a finger wag and implies that we’re somehow not enough. She usually says things that are way out of proportion to the situation.
The Inner Critic thrives on compare and despair (social media is one of her favorite hangouts) and seems to remember all the bad or unkind things anyone ever said to us as children. For many of us, her voice or words sound startlingly familiar, like our mothers, fathers, siblings, teachers, or grandparents. That’s because when we were children and learning to navigate in the world we followed their words to please them and avoid conflict. This may have worked back then but it’s not serving us now.
In society there’s a misnomer that we need to be harsh with ourselves in order to get things done. In reality all that does is reinforce a sense of shame, anxiety, and unworthiness which is the polar opposite of positivity or motivation. In fact, it contributes to things like procrastination, addictive behavior, checking Instagram 300 times a day, or mindlessly eating handfuls of dry roasted almonds to distract ourselves from feelings.
It always amazes me how bitchy my Inner Critic can be when she’s trying to “protect” me. Most times she’s straight up mean: You’re a fraud, she says. Shame on you! What an idiot! What’s wrong with you? You really fucked that up. I can’t believe you just ate/said/did that. You have zero self-control. You have no business wearing that. (Body image is a particularly favorite topic.)
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Persistent and negative self-talk from our Inner Critics keeps us stuck and small. It causes us to isolate and creates a greater feeling of disconnection. It makes us cranky and leaves us with a pervasive sense of yuck which then affects the way we treat ourselves and others. If we’re feeling crappy about eating those doughnuts then we’ll be less present and more snappish with our coworkers, partners, or children.
It’s highly unlikely that we would ever let anyone speak to us this way in real life, so why in the world do we allow it in our own minds? Well, we don’t have to. Here are a few ways to start changing the script:
Listen up. In order to disrupt your Inner Critic’s hold, you first have to catch her in the act. This means paying attention to what that voice is actually saying. Sometimes simply noticing the voice is enough to neutralize it or create space between you and the thoughts. Stay curious and nonjudgmental. What words does your Inner Critic like to use? Would you say these things to your child? To your bestie? To a parent? Would you tell them that they are useless, pathetic, too fat, or too old? Yeah, I didn’t think so…
Have a conversation with her. It can be helpful to give your Inner Critic a name. I call mine Amy (no offense to any Amy out there). Just calling her out on her shitty whispers is often enough to get her to be quiet. Tell your Inner Critic how her words make you feel and ask her what she’s really up to. What is she protecting you from? What is she afraid of? When you know where she’s coming from it can lessen her hold.
Tell her thanks, but no thanks. Acknowledge that she’s coming from a place of fear for your relative safety and doesn’t want you to be hurt in some way. Tell her, “This is not helpful right now” and try to do it with as much compassion as you can muster, although in the moment, the visual of “talk to the hand” can be really effective. Maintaining separation between you and your Inner Critic is really helpful here.
Turn it around. Here’s where you turn to self compassion. Compassionate thinking recognizes that there’s no such thing as perfection. It leaves room for learning and space for mistakes. What might you really need to hear in a particular situation and can you say that to yourself? We show up differently when we come from a place of love and compassion vs guilt and shame. Your BFF would not say, You’re a disgusting pig with no willpower. She’d probably say, I’ve totally fallen into a box of Thin Mints before or Don’t beat yourself up! We all do that sometimes. You can always edit the details and turn the story from negative to positive.
It’s important to note that being critical of other people quietly gives your Inner Critic permission to be critical of you at a later date. It’s all a negativity spiral so avoid jumping in.
Learning to live in harmony with your Inner Critic takes time, especially after years of battles. I know that Amy will come around like clockwork whenever I stray from the path of perfection (i.e. multiple times a day) but I don’t have to let her ruin my vibe. Be patient and recognize that it’s impossible to completely silence your Inner Critic. Remember that you’re in the process of building new neural pathways and learning new ways to show up for yourself. Your Inner Critic is not your conscience — she may be loud and opinionated but you are still the boss of you.