We all have voices in our heads, some of which are critical inner voices that are holding us back. For many of us, the person we talk to most in a day is ourselves. How do we make sure that our inner voice or self-talk is the most helpful for achieving our goals and enjoying life?
Positive or Negative Self-Talk
The voices in our head have both positive and negative messages. Both are helpful except when they go to the extreme. There are times when this critical inner voice is beneficial, when it protects you from failing, from looking stupid, risking or making a mistake. Its’ role is to keep you safe. It’s a defence mechanism. The problem with that is when you start trying new things and moving outside your comfort zone, your internal voice may not realize you are intentionally trying something new. Hence, your critical voice is conflicting with your desire to grow. It wants to keep you safe and small, to keep you within your comfort zone, to maintain the status quo.
Same for the positive messages. When the inner voice says you’re amazing, infallible, always right, you lose touch with reality and miss threats and opportunities to learn.
The focus here is on negative messages of that critical inner voice as that’s most people’s struggle.
What is an Internal Monologue?
The critical voice in your head, the judgemental voice that tells you that “you aren’t good enough” or “who do you think you are?” Another name for that voice is the saboteur because it can sabotage your efforts, and it can hold you back or make you doubt yourself excessively.
I’m going to embarrass myself.
I’ve messed up again.
How could I be so stupid?
I should have known better/done more.
Critical Inner Voice – It’s Origins
The origins of the saboteur are two-fold. The first is from neuroscience. Our amygdala, the oldest part of our limbic brain, is meant to see threats and dangers in order to trigger the fight or flight response for survival. It was very helpful in ‘cave-man’ days when we needed our bodies to be flooded with stress hormones to survive encounters with lions and tigers. That fight/flight response still gets activated in present-day when we perceive we are at risk from making a mistake, looking stupid, and being ostracized from our ‘tribe’ aka work colleagues.
The second factor is our upbringing or conditioning. We have been conditioned through family, school and society for certain responses depending on how we were raised. What were you praised for growing up? Or what level of success or achievement did you have to attain to receive love or attention? What were your caregivers’ or teachers’ responses when you failed or made a mistake?
Your experience in those formative years will dictate the level of criticism or punishment you inflict on yourself. If you want to investigate its origins, therapy can help you do that.
6 Ways to Conquer the Inner Critic
- Reflect on yourself while you are DOING something (chairing a meeting, disciplining your child, cooking dinner) and capture your thoughts about yourself. Notice the running commentary you have in your head about yourself. What are your dominant scripts? If you find yourself being defensive, examine what triggered that defensiveness as it might give you insights.
- Reframe your thoughts. Replace your common critical phrases with positive reframes. Here are some examples:
- Rewire your brain. Separate yourself from your inner critic. Do this by writing your negative scripts using the word YOU (not I) as this will give you some distance and you act as a witness to the criticism rather than the source. Write positive affirmations that flip those critical thoughts and read them frequently (out loud). Can’t think of positive statements? Who sees you positively (not as a saint)? Write what they’d say. Or chose from a place of growth – who do you want to be and what do you want in your life? Write from that perspective.
- Recollect your positives. Capture the positive feedback you receive (verbally and otherwise) each day in a journal. Notice your inner value each day – what are you proud of yourself for today? Write these positives and prideful moments down. Writing it makes it real and not just another fleeting thought that comes and goes. Writing engages your hand (movement), eyes (visual) and brain. Feel the positive as you write and read it. This will help strengthen the new neural pathways in your brain to conquer the critical voice.
- Release critical thoughts. When you notice your negative self-talk, let go of it. Be light about it – have it float away on a cloud. Put it in a box. Don’t ruminate on it or beat yourself up for it. You’ve had it for decades, it will take some time to replace your critical inner voice. Distract yourself with a different activity when you notice your dwelling on it
- Reward yourself with self-compassion. Research shows that self-criticism decreases goal attainment and success. This is contradictory to the thinking of many coaching clients – they think that being hard on themselves motivates them to work harder and achieve more. FALSE. Studies, one from Stanford Medicine, show self-compassion increases motivation (not self-indulgence as many worry). Dr Kristin Neff’s book, Self-Compassion, recommends giving yourself a hug when you notice the negative self-talk, literally hug yourself. If you’re in a meeting and can’t do it overtly, cross your arms with your hands touching your body with a slight squeeze. It will increase your motivation!
Thoughts influence how we feel and what we do. Therefore, our self-talk can impact our success and enjoyment of work and life. Conquer your critical inner voice and create positive self-talk that encourages you to be your best self.
Book a complimentary coaching session with me here to explore how you can conquer your inner voice.