Steps to Overcoming Your Critical Inner Voice
Most of us are all too familiar with those nagging thoughts that seem to surface every time we decide to push ourselves and try something new. Although the worry and self-doubt we experience when we take on a challenge, interview for a job, apply to a school or ask someone out can be met with relief once we’ve accomplished that specific task, it’s never long before new worries set in: Will I be able to do the job? I’ll never make it at this school, or I’m going to blow it on the first date.
While a certain amount of worry is to be expected in a transition, it is important to question how much of our concern and doubt is natural and how much it is the result of an internalized critic referred to as the critical inner voice. The critical inner voice represents an internal enemy and may be thought of as a threat to self-actualization and self-fulfillment. It tends to foster inwardness, distrust, self-criticism, self-denial and limitation, addictions, and a generalized retreat from one’s goal-directed activity. Internalized voices attacks affect every aspect of a person’s life: one’s mood and psychological state of mind, attitudes and prejudices, personal relationships, mate selection, style of relating to others, choice of school or career, and work performance.
The critical inner voice is defined as a well-integrated pattern of negative thoughts toward one’s self and others that is at the root of an individual’s maladaptive behavior. It represents an overlay on the personality that is not natural or harmonious but learned or imposed from without. The critical inner voice is not an actual voice that speaks to us, rather it is experienced as those self-limiting thoughts and attitudes that exists in all of us and keep us from achieving our goals.
Watch a Whiteboard Video on The Critical Inner Voice
We can observe this voice at work in various areas of our lives; it tells us not to get too close in our relationships or go too far in our careers. These thoughts can be cruel and berating: Who do you think you are? You’ll never succeed. You’re not like everyone else. No one will ever care about you. These thoughts can also be deceptively calm and soothing: You’re just fine on your own. The only person you can rely on is yourself. You should reward yourself with one more piece of cake. Just have one last drink; it will make you feel better.
Whether cruel or soothing, these thoughts often hold us back from going after what we want and lead to our acting in ways that hurt us. Giving in to the voice and acting on its advice only creates more attacks. The voice that told us to have that extra piece of cake is now tearing into us for having no self-control. So how do we conquer this critical inner voice?
For 30 years I have studied, along with my father, psychologist and author Robert Firestone, the roots of the critical inner voice. He developed “voice therapy” as a way for people to identify and separate from this inner critic by understanding the origins of the critical inner voice and then taking actions to go against it, actions that are goal directed and that represent a person’s true point of view. The steps involved in this therapy process are detailed in a book he wrote for mental health professionals, Voice Therapy, as well as in a book he and I co-authored for the general public, Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice. The steps include:
Step One: Identifying What Your Critical Inner Voice is Telling You
In order to challenge their negative attacks, people must first become aware of what their critical inner voice is telling them. They can do this by identifying an area of their lives where they are especially critical of themselves and then pay attention to what the criticisms are. As a person discovers what the self-attacks are, it is valuable to articulate them in the second person, as “you” statements. For example, instead of saying “I feel so lazy and useless,” a person would say “You are so lazy. You’re useless.” When people utilize this format in voice therapy, they are encouraged to express their critical thoughts as they hear or experience them, and this often leads to them accessing the hostility that underlies this self-attacking system.
Step Two: Recognizing Where Your Voices Come From
After people verbalize their critical inner voices in this manner, they often feel deeply, and they have insight into the source of their voice attacks. They have unusual clarity, as they begin to recognize that the content and tone of their voice attacks is old and familiar; their voices are expressing attitudes that were directed toward them as children. They will often say things like, “That’s what my father used to say” or “That’s the feeling I got from my mother,” or “That was the atmosphere in my home.” Recognizing where their voices originated helps people develop compassion for themselves.
Step Three: Responding to Your Critical Inner Voice
In the third step of voice therapy, an individual answers back to the voice attacks. People who have thoughts like, “You’re so stupid. No one wants to hear what you are thinking. Just sit in the background and keep your mouth shut!” may respond with statements like, “I am not stupid! What I have to say is valuable and worthwhile. A lot of people are interested in me and care about what I think.” After responding, it is important for people to make rational statements about how they really are, how other people really are, and what is true about his or her social world. They may say something like, “The world isn’t a place where everyone else is brilliant and I’m the only stupid person. I’m not in elementary school anymore; no one is grading us. The truth is that people aren’t all that smart, and I’m not stupid. We are basically the same: interesting people who have interesting things to say about what they are thinking and experiencing.”
Step Four: Understanding How Your Voices Influence Your Behavior
After expressing and responding to their voices, people are naturally curious and eager to understand how these patterns of self-defeating thoughts has influenced their past and impacts their present-day behaviors. For example, the person with the voice that he or she is stupid may recognize times when he or she acted less capable or confident as a result of having heard that self-attack. Having this understanding of how the critical inner voice has affected their actions is helpful when people want to change specific self-limiting behaviors.
Step Five: Changing Your Self-Limiting Behaviors
Once people have identified the areas in which they limit themselves, they can begin to change themselves. They can do this by taking two actions: to not engage in the self-destructive behavior that is being encouraged by the critical inner voice and to increase the positive behaviors that go against the recommendations of the voice. For example, a person who is shy can stop avoiding social interactions and can make a point of striking up conversations with people.
Strange as it may sound, identifying and countering critical inner voices can be harder than it seems. With change comes anxiety, and getting rid of an inner critic is no exception. Often, when people begin to challenge their negative attacks and act against their directives, the attacks grow stronger and more intense. There are people who have gotten used to their critical thoughts and, although unpleasant, they are comfortable “living with” them. One woman even described them as keeping her company. When she stopped having as many self-attacks, she said she felt lonely and scared to be without them. Some people mistakenly believe that their critical inner voices are what keep them in line, so they fear that if they do not heed them, they will act badly. However, the more people act against their critical inner voice, the weaker its influence on their lives becomes. If they stick it out and follow the steps of voice therapy, people become more themselves and are able to achieve goals and live free from imagined limitations.
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Awesome articles! I started reading about a behavior trait that my husband has that drives me nuts and it turns out that I have the same trait and we both can trace it back to childhood…very, very interesting and enlightening!
This site has been a great discovery for me. I have recently had to pass a time where many of my plans have failed and my inner critical voice has overtaken bashing my self-esteem to the ground. Thanks to this article about it i have had the opportunity to reflect on my inner critical voice and maybe i can even get to living without it.
My inner critical voice. I can see how it can affect me negatively, but currently experiencing relationship anxiety, I will be very cautious bringing this concept to my GF attention, since, as mentioned, making change can cause anxiety. Interesting balancing act. She has been addicted to street drugs and alcohol for probably 25 years of her life, with stints in prison which close relatives said probably saved very life.I have become her supporting friend in her early stage of recovery from alcohol, while trying to avoid codependency and rejection potentially leading to her relapse.
Great articles by Dr Firestone. Just like the most of us, I’m a victim of anxiety and stress, and these critical inner voices. I’ve been in intimate relationships, but none of them has ever felt so real. I met a girl, we became friends, I started falling for her. The next thing we’re dating, and all of a sudden, I’m thinking marriage, kids and family with her. I became pretty sure that she’s the one. The thought of losing her is like the end of life, the end of everything so wonderful that I’ve accomplished. As we spend most of our time apart, I start hearing voices saying, “Do you really think she loves you? As time goes on, she’ll lose interest in you. Do you know where she is and what she’s doing? She might be with somebody else right now, as you don’t see. What if she still has a thing for her ex bf?” And at the same time, I know it’s all ridiculous and I know I can trust her completely, without a doubt. But these voices keep feeding me with the negatives. Now I’m scared it’s gonna jeopardise our relationship. But as I read these articles through, I start to feel some changes. They’re really helpful. And if you’re reading this, and you have any suggestions, Please share.
Sbonelo: hate to be the one to call out the “C-word” here: co-dependency. That shows when you say such things as “the thought of losing her would be like the end of my life.” I would expect it to hurt if you were to lose them, duh, of course….BUT not to the point where you feel it to be the end of your life, or that you can’t go on anymore. If you do feel that way, it should only be briefly at the very most, as you mourn. But anything beyond that clearly shows that you have got waaaaaaay too much attachment and expectations staked on one individual, which is not healthy. I have a fiancée, I love him with all of my heart, but he is NOT my world! I have plans to share a future with him, but if something were to happen where he would change his mind and/or leave me, it would devastate me, but not beyond the point of eventual recovery and moving on at some point. As cheesy as it sounds, the words of that .38 special song “hold on loosely, but don’t let go, if you cling too tightly, you’re going to lose control”. I have found a small amount of detachment in close relationships is healthy, it gives the other room to breathe and wiggle room from oppressive expectations another may (knowingly or unknowingly) place on them. Your post suggests you’re “not okay” with just you and your partner is assigned as the key puzzle piece where all your dreams magically come true. This is a recipe for doom, I’m afraid, as this is just not realistic…the key puzzle piece is you all along, don’t burden anyone else with that responsibility, that leaves more room for your partner to just be and share as an equal companion who is responsible for their own dreams….Unless you get past that lesson, I see trouble ahead for you :.(
You are coming from the perspective of undamaged self esteem. You have no idea.
I could have written your post verbatim. I completely understand your feelings as I limp along in my marriage…always ocilating between times of hope and times of immense fear. It is debilitating at times and I feel powerless. I don’t know how to love without losing myself and being totally vulnerable. I need to find a way to love and recieve love without feeling I need to guard my heart and withhold parts of it for safekeeping.
Exactly I am facing the same problem, I read this article so much useful, still a bit of insecurity is there in my mind about my girlfriend. How to overcome.
I’ve always been unusually self aware about myself. Like for one my “inner critic” seems to be entirely self inflicted. As there really wasn’t anyone who was excessively negative towards me growing up. But I developed it none then less.
My “inner critic” tends to focus on relationships, platonic and especially romantic.
I may be rationalizing my negative qualities into being worse than they are but I have a hard time thinking of a counterargument.
From my understanding the very fact that I suffer from this disqualifies me as a suitable partner.
The problem is, my inner critic is right. I’m the evidence.
Yeah, same for me.
Same thing here.
Bruce and Linda, a thought. Many people point out all their flaws and mistakes over the years and say, “that’s the evidence that I am worthless.” But usually it’s just the opposite: They BEGAN very early with a self condemning belief instilled by the big, “godlike” people around them, and they have been GATHERING EVIDENCE ever since to prove that belief/identity true.
After reading this article it’s clear I have a jealousy problem but whenever I have tried to talk to my partner in the past about how I feel the reaction is always the same – he calls my feelings stupid or crazy and doesn’t discuss the topic. I am now to afraid to bring up topics or things that make me feel vulnerable in case of how he reacts or making the situation worse, but I want to be open with him. What should I do?
Shout out to all the people commenting and reminding me big time that I am not alone in these feelings. That alone alleviates so much of the burden. Thank you for the article and thank you for the comments, all xoxo
What if there are more than one voice and they are fighting for death to be happy?