How to silence the inner critic, defeat negative self talk
There's a ferocious voice that keeps pointing out your shortcomings. It shatters your self-esteem with a harsh putdown when something goes wrong. And it's very hard to run away from this voice: it is the voice of your negative inner critic. So let's examine how you can silence it.
When you hear the inner critic, especially when it is loud, it is good to remember that it is actually a compensation for feeling vulnerable. At that moment, there’s a part of you that can feel powerful by bullying another part of you. So you need to remember that this fierce inner criticism is actually a symptom of feeling vulnerable. Look for what it is that makes you feel vulnerable. Be gentle with it. Sometimes, facing the issue makes it a little less scary. Even when it doesn’t, it’s good to remember that, in staying with it, you’re “building muscle” for the long run.
Let's take the case of self-criticism with self-destructive habits. It goes for smoking, eating certain foods, overeating, drinking, getting out of bed late… you name it. Why can’t I stick to doing (fill in the blank), when I know it’s good for me and I need to do it?
The underlying assumption is that it should be easy. if only you had a little more disciline, a little more willpower. So you berate yourself: “All it takes is a little discipline, and you don’t even have that!”.
Sounds familiar? Well, this is the voice of the internal critic. When you hear this voice, you feel shame: “This critical voice is right, isn’t it? I’m really bad for not doing this simple thing that’s good for me”.
What gives this voice tremendous power is that there is some truth to what it says. It would be easier to silence that negative voice if it voice was totally wrong. But the problem is not that the voice is wrong, or only partially right. It is that this inner criticism actually makes it much more difficult for you to do what you need to do.
Now, you might be wondering: “Is this article saying that I shouldn’t do the things that are right for me?” That’s not what I mean. What I mean, literally, is that the critical voice is not helping. Otherwise, the problem would be solved. I am saying that the critical voice distracts you from the task at hand.
What, then, am I suggesting? Essentially, to do nothing. Just for a while. Do nothing, and listen to your internal dialogue.
This kind of situation often reflects a conflict: Different voices, inside you, are fighting for different things. There’s one – the one you’re aware of, the one that appears to be the voice of reason, asking you to do what’s right for you. And there’s probably also another voice, muted but very powerful, that holds you back.
What I’m suggesting is that you test this hypothesis. Take time to listen to your internal voices, for a few days. It might be a week, it might be a bit more . During these few days, give yourself permission to not do the “disciplined” thing that’s good for you.
Now, you say: “That’s terrible. That’s giving up. How will I ever make any progress if I stop trying?”
Just remember – you’re not really doing what’s good for you right now. You're just trying... or, actually, just saying that you’re trying. There’s not much of a loss if you give yourself permission to not doing it for a few days – you’re just accepting reality.
I know it’s not necessarily easy. That’s part of the struggle. You do it, and you observe how it feels to do it. You notice the thoughts and feelings it brings up. You remind yourself it’s an experiment, one that is limited to a few days. This experiment is about helping you know yourself better.
Let’s say you’re paying attention to the struggle you have about getting up in the morning. It’s morning, and you’re in bed. You know you have to get up. And you won’t. You’re noticing this, and this probably brings you back to the internal dialogue you usually have in the morning about that.
So, when you notice that, stop. Try something else. Try to be creative about it. Make up a dialogue between the Angel and the Devil.
You know how in cartoons they sometimes have these two characters battling for influence over the hero – the Angel and the Devil. The Devil will say something like: “Come on, just one more drink. One for the road.” And the Angel will say “You’ve had enough already” or words to that effect.
So imagine you have a Devil and an Angel floating somewhere around you, trying to influence you. Let them speak, listen to them.
You may then notice a third voice – one that says: “Come on, this is ridiculous. Stop this silly exercise, it’s not leading anywhere”. When that voice comes, notice it, acknowledge it… but ignore it, and go on. What you’re doing is worthwhile. You are exploring. You’re listening to what happens where you have trouble. You’re getting valuable information.
So you listen for a while – it could be a couple of minutes, it could be hours, it depends on you, it depends on the day…. Write down what’s going on. You can write it literally – if you do your “listening” while sitting down with pen and paper. Or you can write down the highlights after the fact. Add a sentence or two to sum up your reactions.
Now, what do you do on a morning where you have no difficulty getting up? Just write a couple of sentences about how you feel, about what makes it easy for you to get up this morning.
What's happening is you're shifting the goal, from forcing yourself to do something you obviously have difficulty doing, to getting to know better what is happening inside, so you can figure out what works for you.
Lasting self-confidence stems from a sense of knowing who you really are. This includes facing the negative inner critic, and being able to keep it at bay. Hearing the negative self talk, without believing it.
Once you have asked yourself the difficult questions, you think positive because you really know who you are, what you can do and what you truly can't.
Here is a sound bite from a radio interview about self-criticism:
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