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Why We See Ourselves Negatively

Most of us spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves. We question whether we fit with a romantic partner, analyze our interactions at work, and wonder over how we came across at everything from parties to parent-teacher conferences. On some level, most of us are always keeping ourselves in line. It’s safe to say that some self-evaluation can be a good thing when it’s part of a worthy effort to follow our own moral code or to develop ourselves and make changes. However, our tendency to define, categorize, and criticize ourselves can also be destructive and limiting.

Most of us underestimate how deeply critical and just plain negative our process of self-identification and examination really is. To the degree that we define ourselves through the language and lens of a cruel inner critic, we are restricting ourselves, undermining our potential, and failing to fulfill the fullest possibilities of our identity. In this post, I will illustrate how listening to our “critical inner voice” works to diminish our ability to show up each day as the person we want to be: to become the most “us” version of ourselves.

The “critical inner voice” is a term often used by psychologist Robert Firestone to describe a part of ourselves that is against us. This “voice” insults, undercuts, and outright attacks us, pushing us deeper into self-hatred and further from our goals. Like a mean parent or coach that we’ve internalized, the critical inner voice tries to keep proving the validity of whatever negative ideas we got into our heads about who we are from very early in our lives. Many of us experience this thought process as an almost running commentary in our heads, which can come across as mean and angry or soft and pitying. However, its purpose is always to oppose or suppress expressions of our most authentic self and reinforce destructive messaging from our past.

How does the critical inner voice shape our sense of identity?

While our positive qualities and sense of self often arise from positive childhood influences, the critical inner voice is born out of adverse experiences and attitudes to which we were exposed, usually involving key influential figures like our parents or early caretakers. As children forming our sense of identity, we are all highly vulnerable to the critical attitudes our parents express toward us as well as toward themselves. Defining statements to a child (i.e. “Stop being so needy. You’re such a pest. Just give me some peace and quiet!”) can become part of a child’s self-concept. He or she may grow up thinking, “I want too much. I’m a bother. There’s something wrong with me.” Even much more subtle behaviors, like a parent’s frequently disappointed expression, lack of physical affection, or inability to offer consistent empathy can heavily influence a child’s ever-evolving self-perception. On an unconscious level, the child may make up stories to fill in the blanks and justify their parents’ treatment. “I’m too loud.” “I’m not lovable.” “I’m not smart/pretty/thin/fun/popular enough.”

These early ideas form the vocabulary of our inner critic. Instead of seeing these thoughts as a destructive, external force, we accept them as our real point of view. We then go on to live our lives based on these old, often distorted, prescriptions about who we are. For example, we may define ourselves with blanket statements: I’m stubborn, I’m a worrier, I’m shy, I’m not a people person, I’m better off on my own, I’m not physically attractive, I can’t take care of myself, I’m irresponsible, etc. These definitions can have harmful effects on our behavior; for example, they can lead to:

  1. Actions that are consistent with our critical inner voice

We may start to behave in ways that affirm our critical attitudes. If we define ourselves as stubborn, we may justify patterns of behavior in our relationships or at work that steamroll others, ignore their advice or feedback, or that lack vulnerability and openness.

  1. Expressions of uncertainty or lack of confidence

Once these ideas get into our heads, we may not know how to behave naturally. If we define ourselves as shy, we’re going to have a much harder time being outgoing, not because we have something wrong with us socially, but because we are telling ourselves that we have something wrong with us. It’s hard to keep up a natural conversation when our minds are literally flooded with thoughts reminding and warning us of all our many flaws.

  1. Defensiveness or overcompensation for our self-critical thoughts

Sometimes we are so caught up in our critical inner voice that we can’t tell what’s really going on around us. For example, we may be having a conversation with a friend who’s telling us one thing, but through the filter of this “voice” we are hearing quite another. “Why don’t you go running anymore?” our friend asks. But we hear, “You’re getting out of shape. Why are you such a quitter?”

Certain comments or events may trigger us more than others when they strike a chord from an old symphony of self-attacks. If we have an insecurity about our intelligence, for example, we may be very sensitive to any insinuation that we don’t know about a certain subject. This increased sensitivity may cause us to project our own self-criticisms onto others and become defensive. For example, our spouse may correct us on a random fact, and we find ourselves jumping down his or her throat. “I know that! What? You think I’m stupid?” We may also attempt to overcompensate for these perceived traits. If we think of ourselves as lazy and no good, we may work ourselves into a panic and drive ourselves to painful lengths to succeed.

The problem with all three of these reactions to our critical inner voice is that none of them represent what’s really us. They are all distortions based on an old identity imposed on us by someone else. Whether we are acting out these traits or defending against them, we are bending ourselves out of shape rather than discovering who we really are or deciding who we truly want to be.

If we do not break this pattern, we run the risk of passing these attitudes on to future generations. When they studied the critical inner voices in families, father and daughter psychologists Robert and Lisa Firestone, were taken aback by how similar the negative thoughts expressed by parents were to those of their adolescent and adult children. Without hearing each other name their critical inner voices, parents and children would often say almost the exact same things about themselves, sometimes practically word for word.

Wherever our self-critical attitudes come from, we can break the cycle and learn techniques to increasingly free ourselves from our critical inner voice. In addition to creating Voice Therapy, a cognitive/ affective/ behavioral therapeutic approach to challenging the critical inner voice, Dr. Firestone has written extensively about the steps people can take to combat this “anti-self.” These steps involve identifying, listing, and responding to our inner critic. However, there is one more basic action we can take this very minute to break free of our inner critic and reshape our sense of identity. That step, simple as it sounds, is to make a conscious decision to not accept whatever definition we have of ourselves.

We can make a tenacious effort to NOT take on the identity that was prescribed for us by our inner critic. Adopt a zero tolerance policy, and each and every moment that voice creeps in, don’t tolerate it. If it says, “You’re not a talker. Just stay in the background and don’t draw attention,” then think about what your real goal is. How will you feel from not speaking your mind? Is that really who you are? If that voice tells you, “You’re worthless if you don’t make these people like you,” it may be time to just relax and let yourself be without trying to prove anything one way or another. It’s important not to let these voices distort our actions, either pushing us toward a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we act out the very trait we fear, or on the flip side, to overcompensate or become defensive. When we wholeheartedly reject this self-definition without consideration, rumination, or negotiation, we open up space to redefine ourselves as whoever we want to be.

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