We all have an “inner critic” who bosses us around, second-guesses our choices, and lobs insults about our perceived shortcomings. This inner malicious voice often delivers a running internal dialogue that belittles us, warns us not to trust others, and offers bad advice about how to handle our relationships and conduct our lives. It’s easiest to silence this bully when we’re conscious of hearing him, but usually we’re largely unaware of the extent to which our behavior and daily lives are being directed by this hostile thought process. Here’s the thing, though: The more we can recognize this internal enemy, the easier it will be to shut him up, so we can be our best selves.
To become more aware of your negative thoughts or critical inner voices, follow these steps:
- Pay attention next time a bad mood hits. Ask yourself what you were thinking about yourself at the time that your mood shifted. Talk to yourself, it’s been confirmed that it’s actually good for you!
- Recognize situations that set off your negative thinking (a phone call from your dad or a friend sharing good news, for example). Become aware that you have turned against yourself. Try these other ways to combat negative self-talk.
- Notice when you are thinking people don’t like you and examine the thoughts that you imagine they are having about you.
- Be alert to any cynical thoughts toward other people; they may be valuable clues of how you are attacking yourself.
After becoming aware of these specific thoughts, take some time to consider what prompted them in the first place. To do this:
- Start by changing the “I” to a “you” and imagine saying them aloud to yourself (or writing them down). For example, if you notice yourself thinking things like, “I’m so stupid, I can’t seem to get anything right,” say these thoughts as though someone else is saying them to you: “You’re so stupid. Can’t you get anything right! What’s the matter with you?” Putting your self-attacks in the second person separates you from them. In therapy, clients often experience powerful emotions when expressing the voice in the second person, which usually leads to insight about where it originated.
- To understand where your negative thoughts come from, think about what or whom these voices sound like. People tend to make important connections between their voices and someone significant from their past. When you make these connections, you can begin to piece together where your voices started and are better able to separate them from your own point of view.
The next step is to change your thoughts with these steps:
- Challenge your critical inner voice. Perhaps the most essential step to silencing your inner critic is to respond to it from a realistic and compassionate perspective. Say aloud or write down a more congenial, honest response to each of your put downs. This time, use “I” statements. “I am a worthy person with many good qualities. I have a lot to offer.” As you answer back to these self-attacks, be alert for any rebuttals coming from the critical inner voice and defuse them.
- Connect your voices to your actions. Your critical inner voice has plenty of bad advice: “Don’t say anything. No one wants to hear what you have to say.” As you learn to recognize your critical inner voice, you can start to catch on when it’s starting to influence your behavior. Did you suddenly get quiet? Try to recognize self-defeating behaviors that you engage in as a result of these self-attacks.
- Change your behavior. Once you see how the critical inner voice influences your behavior, you can start to consciously act against it. The process of “not listening” to your inner critic and strengthening your own point of view can be uplifting, but it can also cause you considerable anxiety. You are challenging deep-seated thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. For this reason, the critical inner voice initially can get louder and more insistent. However, the more you continue to implement actions that oppose the voice, the weaker it will become.
- It’s also valuable to reflect on your negative thoughts to determine if there is any truth to them. It’s important to recognize that even though there may be a kernel of truth in a specific critical voice, its mean, vicious, punishing tone is totally unacceptable. Nothing can be gained by attacking yourself. In fact, criticizing yourself not only fails to change a behavior you may dislike in yourself, it also makes you feel bad, which increases the likelihood that the behavior will recur.
The best strategy is to take an objective and compassionate look at any negative behaviors or traits you have and work at changing them. Simply working on changing undesirable behaviors can contribute to significant changes that improve your life. To a large extent, you have the power to develop and, in fact, to re-create yourself to become a person you like and admire. Even though there is always anxiety as people grow, it is worthwhile to struggle through it to come out on the other end.
You can achieve this by striving to live according to your own values, ideals, and goals in life. And if you encounter failure along the way, you can have compassion for yourself and increase your efforts toward changing rather than being hard on yourself. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of liking and appreciating yourself. As you approach this goal, you will experience a sense of inner harmony because, above all, you need to respect the person you are to feel good in life.
Dr. Firestone is the author of The Fantasy Bond, Combating Destructive Thought Processes, and Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice. His most recent book is Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice: True Stories of Therapy and Transformation (2016)