What exactly is a critical inner voice? Whether in therapy, a psychology class, in the media, or somewhere in the mountains of self help books or on the internet — I’m sure most of you have heard the term self-talk or the term inner voice, or even the intimidating sounding “critical inner voice” or “negative self talk”.
But what exactly is self-talk or the inner voice? Well, it appears to be a form of natural and automatic “inner dialogue” that pops in and out our conscious thinking. It takes the form of thoughts, expressions, suggestions, ideas and concepts that transmit themselves into our “consciousness” and into our awareness. It is often this “little voice” that guides our day-to-day behaviors and tells us we should “call our mom, catch up on our paperwork or try harder at some task”. No the little voice does not mean you are crazy. Pretty much everyone has a little self-talking voice to some degree.
From the neurobiology perspective the automatic thoughts and inner voice that come with it can possibly be explained by well worn neural pathways that have been created by the combination of our genetics, our years of life experience and maybe especially in all the cumulative experiences of our childhood.
When the Inner Critical Voice is a Problem…
Everyone has anxieties & worries and sometimes even an inner voice that leans towards giving us critical messages. Sometimes these more critical messages can help motivate us and drive us to make better choices and actions in our lives. For some people though, it becomes a much bigger problem. It can readily be described as the jerk or even the a**hole voice in our head, criticizing us, limiting us in what we think we are capable of, or even chastising us with negative “we can’t possibly do THAT” and we will certainly fail if we try” kind of thoughts. Most of us would not abide our work colleagues, friends or family speaking to us in this very negative way, so why do we stand by while we do this to ourselves? Why do we even listen to these insidious little voices?
We listen because they are part of the deep-rooted patterns of thinking that come from all of our past experience and our own uniquely developed patterns of seeing and interpreting the world. Often things like physical and emotional abuse, overly controlling, critical or demanding parents, teachers or coaches, critical friends, and of course past emotional traumas can all contribute to these negative self -talk patterns. We listen to the voice and its castigating, critical language because it’s become deeply worn into our thinking patterns and even into the biological structure and chemistry of our brains. Many people do not stop it because they simply do not realize it is happening and if they do, they do not know how! For many people we take the voice for granted and do not even realise what’s happening, let alone knowing how to stop it.
When people with degrees of anxiety and depression have a negative, critical self-talk message appear in their consciousness, they unfortunately believe it; when that happens they emotionally tear themselves down — and that causes even more negative thoughts to appear!!! These new critical thoughts end up supporting the earlier critical thoughts creating a vicious cycle! It can become a snowballing mess of negative critical thoughts and self-defeating perceptions of ourselves that can push us towards even deeper anxieties and depressions. It can effectively destroy our self-confidence, and self worth, keeping us from trying new things and leading us down the garden path to self destructive, and sometimes even addictive behaviours and habits. The bad coping habits we develop can then create even more negative self-talk messages effectively strengthening the vicious cycle.
How to Shush the Critical Inner Voice…
The first step in taking back our thoughts from the monster of critical inner thinking is… to be aware of it! Awareness of our self-talk can sometimes be tricky because it’s very much like it’s running on automatic pilot, We are often not even aware that’s it’s happening. An important key is to recognize that if we are feeling stressed, upset, agitated, angry, or worried that it may rooted in unproductive patterns of repeated and insidious self critical thinking that we are not even aware of.
If you are experiencing anxiety and depression or feelings of inadequacy or low self worth on a regular basis — it is particularly likely that you perceive your life through negative filters including a critical inner voice that clouds how you see the world. The inner voice can make us believe things about ourselves that not true! It lies to us!
So the first step in quieting the critical voice is awareness and catching it in the act when it trashes us! We simply need to pay attention to the voice, even write down what it tells us and question the so called facts that it is telling us
An interesting current trend in mental health and self-help has been the concept of mindfulness. Mindfulness can be a key part of quieting the inner voice.
In a nutshell, “mindfulness aims to achieve a relaxed, non-judgmental awareness of your thoughts, feelings and sensations; what Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, part of Oxford University’s department of psychiatry, calls a “direct knowing of what is going on inside and outside ourselves, moment by moment”.
So how exactly do you become more aware, more mindful? First, by simply becoming more aware of the world around you: switching off the auto-pilot and by noticing and watching your emotions, thoughts and feelings, and being aware of the physical world around us; the sights, sounds, smells and even the things we touch in our daily lives.
For anyone interested in further reading here is an excellent link from the Guardian Newspaper Online: Mindfulness: a beginner’s guide
Rebellion: Challenging the Negative Inner Voice
The second most important skill in defusing our automatic negative thinking and disarming our critical inner voice is to be brave; effectively “man or woman up”, and actually question the correctness and truthfulness of the perceptions that our inner voice wants us to believe are accurate.
“But what if, just maybe, they aren’t true?”
“What if we are operating on thoughts and assumptions that are incorrect?”
“What if my inner voice is wrong? Maybe even really wrong?”
“Is my inner voice being reasonable and balanced on this issue?
“Is my inner voice even-handed or does it lean towards being critical and negative most of the time?”
Asking Ourselves Challenging Questions
The following groups of questions can really help you check into whether your inner voice is being honest with you. They can also help you to problem solve and best figure out how to make life decisions in better, more healthy and productive ways:
The following question sets from David Burns can really help you check out whether your inner voice is being honest with you. They can also help you to problem solve and best figure out how to make life decisions in better, more healthy and productive ways:
- Reality testing
- What evidence supports my thinking?
- Are my thoughts based in facts or are my interpretation of the situation slanted to the negative?
- Am I jumping to negative conclusions?
- How can I find out if my thoughts are true? Can I ask a friend, therapist?
- Alternative explanations
- Are there other, possibly more positive ways that I could look at this situation?
- What else could the situation mean?
- If I were being positive, how would I perceive this situation?
- Is this situation truly as bad as I’m making out to be? Is my inner voice exaggerating?
- What’s truly the worst thing that could happen?
- What’s an alternative neutral or even a good thing that could happen instead?
- Is there anything at all good about this situation?
- Will this situation or problem even matter in five years?
- Goal-driven thinking
- Is thinking these thoughts helping me feel good or achieve my goals?
- What can I concretely do that will help me solve the problem?
- What are the first steps I can take?
- Is there something from the situation I have learned that may help me in the future?
Let’s do a quick “test drive” of these “challenging” questions:
Think of a situation recently where you have found yourself feeling badly, upset, stressed out, angry, sad/empty/depressed, ashamed, embarrassed or guilty.
Then try applying the above balancing questions. Did you find some overly critical self talk in there somewhere? You probably did!
Most of all remember that just because we believe something now or did in the past — even if our mind “yells it at us” repeatedly — it still does not necessarily make it true!
Remember: Staying Optimistic Helps!
Another very important tool to beating critical inner thinking is to really try to be optimistic:
“Keep an optimistic outlook
All of us silently talk to ourselves, commenting on how we look and act and mulling over problems. Self-talk is the endless stream of thoughts that run through your head every day. These automatic thoughts may be positive or negative. People who are depressed are more likely to have negative thoughts. With practice you can learn to identify negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones. Throughout the day, stop and evaluate what you’re thinking and find a way to put a positive spin on your negative thoughts. Over time, your self-talk will automatically become more positive and rational. These tips also may help:
- Realize that bad situations often are temporary. Like rainy weather, many bad situations clear up in time.
- Don’t always blame yourself when something goes wrong. If your spouse, friend or boss is in a bad mood, don’t assume it’s because of something you did.
- Think about how you can improve a bad situation. If a co-worker is critical of your work, ask for positive feedback on how to make improvements.
- Before you give in to negative thoughts, ask yourself: Am I overreacting? ”
(Mayo Clinic on Depression: Kramlinger, 2002, p. 121).
It may also help us to talk with our friends and family if our negative self talk is holding us back and/or to a counselor, therapist or Psychologist. Someone who can help challenge us to find more balanced and positive self talk. The key is to become aware of and challenge our negative and critical inner voice thoughts and instead create new ways and patterns of thinking. By doing that we can create new thought habits, effectively new “neural pathways” in our brains that are not only based in being self-critical. New thought pathways that are instead realistic and positively reflective of our true selves. Here is a link to some excellent positive self-talk building strategies: Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress
Good luck finding and developing an inner voice that supports your growth and helps you achieve your goals…
Here’s a bonus link with some more ideas to help you quiet your inner critic
Beck, A. T. (1976) Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders. New York: International Universities Press.
Burns, D. D. (1999). Feeling good: The new mood therapy. New York, NY: Avon Books.
Kramlinger, K. (Ed.). (2002). Mayo Clinic on Depression. Philadelphia: Mason Crest. Retrieved from Questia.
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