There is perhaps no more painful thought in the world than that of “nobody likes me.” It’s an easy feeling to indulge and dwell on, a terrible go-to self-attack in low moments when we feel isolated, depressed, anxious or insecure. This feeling has almost no bearing in reality and no purpose other than to deeply wound us and turn us against ourselves and whatever our goals may be. And yet, this exact thought is extremely common to shy people and extroverts alike.
When psychologist Lisa Firestone conducted research using a scale that measured individual’s self-destructive thoughts, she found the most common critical thought people had toward themselves was that they are not like other people. Human beings are a social species, and yet, every one of us feels, on some level, like we just don’t fit in with everyone else. A recent U.K. study of millions of people found that one in 10 people didn’t feel they had a close friend, while one in five never or rarely felt loved. So, while we may feel alone in thinking “nobody likes me,” we actually have that in common with a staggering number of people in the world. Moreover, what most of us who feel this sense of isolation also fail to realize is that the reason it is so easy to perceive ourselves as an outcast or to feel rejected, disliked or cast aside has much less to do with our external circumstances and everything to do with an internal critic we all possess.
This “critical inner voice” exists in all of us, reminding us constantly that we aren’t good enough and don’t deserve what we want. In her book Yes, Please comedian Amy Poehler described this inner enemy as “a demon voice.” She wrote, “This very patient and determined demon shows up in your bedroom one day and refuses to leave. You are six or twelve or fifteen and you look in the mirror and you hear a voice so awful and mean that it takes your breath away. It tells you that you are fat and ugly and you don’t deserve love. And the scary part is the demon is your own voice.” The critical inner voice tends to be louder and meaner in some of us than others, and it tends to pick on us more or less at different points in our lives. Yet, one thing’s for sure. As long as we are listening to this dangerous critic that twists our reality, we cannot really trust our own perceptions of what others think of us.
Chances are, it is this destructive “voice” we are hearing every time we tell ourselves, “nobody likes me.” It’s also this voice that instructs us to avoid situations where we’d get to know people. It shuts us up in social situations, makes us nervous, so we don’t act like ourselves. It confuses us with its ceaseless stream of self-shaming observations and self-limiting advice, leaving us anxious and stifled. In turn, it bends us out of shape in such a way that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once we lose confidence or our sense of self, we’ll no longer act like ourselves. We may even achieve the outcome our critical inner voice warned us about, feeling isolated or finding it difficult to connect with others. “Keep quiet,” the voice barks. “You’ll only embarrass yourself! Don’t you see how stupid you sound? No one wants you around. You don’t add anything. Just be alone! Stop trying. NOBODY LIKES YOU!”
Of course, the critical inner voice isn’t experienced as an actual voice talking to us. It can be a highly subconscious and seamless part of our thought process, making it hard to recognize. Sometimes, it operates like a subtle, shaded filter through which we perceive the world. When someone doesn’t make eye contact with us, it says, “See? He doesn’t like you. He can tell there’s something wrong with you.” When a friend doesn’t text us back right away, it says, “I wonder what she’s thinking. Maybe she’s mad at you. You’re being left out.”
By the time the critical inner voice builds the case of why we’re such losers or no one cares about us, we’ve lost touch with reality, and we blindly move forward believing every negative thought about ourselves that this voice has said to us. We’re so quick to indulge its claims that we mistake them for our real point of view. Because of this, it can be very difficult to notice that this voice has seeped in and even harder to peel away its sadistic coaching from our true perceptions. The best way to start fighting the critical inner voice is, therefore, to do two things: identify when it’s operating and understand where on earth it comes from.
Where does the “voice” that “nobody likes me” come from?
The critical inner voice starts to take shape early in our lives. It’s built out of any hurtful negative attitudes that we were exposed to in childhood, especially from significant caretakers. If a parent thought of us as lazy, helpless or as a troublemaker, for example, we tend to incorporate these attitudes toward ourselves on an unconscious level throughout our lives. We also tend to be influenced by how our parents felt toward themselves, if they felt awkward socially or had low self-esteem, we take on some of their self-critical perceptions as our own. Add to this the many other social experiences we had where we felt put down, shamed or rejected (a teacher who humiliated us in front of our class, a bully at school who put us down on a daily basis), and we can start to see how our inner critic took shape.
Dealing with Isolation and Loneliness
The critical inner voice strongly influences feelings of isolation, loneliness and social anxiety, a subject you can learn more about here. As Dr. Lisa Firestone put it in her article “A Way Out of Loneliness,” “It’s helpful to recognize that loneliness is very much a state of mind, and unfortunately, that mind is, in effect, lying to us.” Being alone isn’t necessarily the issue; it’s the filter of seeing ourselves as alone that must be challenged. People who feel lonely tend to view the world differently. There are even certain structural and biochemical differences in the lonely brain. Some of the psychological effects of feeling lonely include focusing on exclusion instead of inclusion. In other words, we may be far more likely to notice the one time someone doesn’t invite us out versus the five times they did. Another effect is timidity. We may act timid with others, making it more difficult to have a clear or relaxed exchange that would lead to a positive social outcome. Finally, loneliness can actually lead to misremembering, so when we think back on our day, we may distort things people said to us or how interactions took place in ways that would perpetuate the perception of ourselves as being isolated.
As loneliness researcher Dr. John T. Cacioppo put it “Lonely individuals are more likely to construe their world as threatening, hold more negative expectations, and interpret and respond to ambiguous social behavior in a more negative, off-putting fashion, thereby confirming their construal of the world as threatening and beyond their control.” Once again, this creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we start to see the world as threatening or not accepting of us, we are much more likely to act in ways that push away or alienate others. So, once again, in order to challenge our loneliness, we have to challenge the negative filter through which we see ourselves and the world around us. We have to take on our critical inner voice.
Overcoming the Critical Inner Voice
Once we accept that we come by this inner critic honestly, we can start to separate it from our real point of view. We can notice the times it seeps in and tampers with the filter through which we see ourselves and the world around us. We can then recognize how our actions are affected by this destructive thought process. How is my inner critic actually altering my behavior?
There are five important steps to overcoming this inner critic. These steps comprise a method developed by psychologist and author of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice Dr. Robert Firestone known as Voice Therapy. If someone is experiencing feelings of depression, anxiety, loneliness or social isolation, it can be extremely beneficial to seek therapy to help sort through where their self-shaming feelings come from and how to challenge them. Going through the steps of voice therapy with a trained therapist can have significant benefits. There are also exercises we can practice on our own that can help us to challenge our critical inner voice.
Step One: Get to know what your inner critic is telling you
Start to notice when your thought process shifts and your inner critic starts to invade your mind. Maybe you’re on a date, and it starts in with, “She doesn’t even like you. Why are you wasting your time?” You may be in a meeting, and when you finally speak up, you have a thought like, “You’re not making any sense. Everyone is looking at you. They want you to just shut up.” It’s important to get a hold on what situations trigger your critical inner voice and what that voice is saying to you in those moments. As an exercise, write down your critical inner voices as “I” statements, i.e. “I’m so boring. No one likes me.” Then next to these voices, write down the thoughts as “you” statements. “You’re so boring. No one likes you.” This actually helps you start to separate and see the voice as an enemy and not the real you.
Step Two: Think about where these critical attitudes come from
When people write down or say their voices out loud, they sometimes have insight into where these mean thoughts originated. Many people even start to imagine the voice as coming from a figure in their lives, a parent who always worried they’d never make friends, for example. Identifying where your voices may have originally formed can help you to have self-compassion and distinguish these old attitudes from your current reality.
Step Three: Talk back to your critical inner voice
This may sound tricky, and this step is often hardest for people, but it is crucial that you stand up for yourself and vocalize or write down a reply to your critical inner voice. You should aim to take on the perspective you would have toward a good friend and write down a more compassionate and realistic response to your voice attack, once again, as an “I” statement. “I am not boring. I’m a unique and worthy person who deserves friendship. I have many qualities that many people would appreciate and like.” Don’t listen to the undermining criticisms that come up as you complete this exercise. As Amy Poehler put it “Sticking up for ourselves in the same way we would one of our friends is a hard but satisfying thing to do. Sometimes it works. Even demons gotta sleep.”
Step Four: Think about how your voices affect your actions
As you come to know your voices, you’ll get better at recognizing when they pop up, and you can actively try to divert your mind. You can also start to notice how this voice influences your behavior. It may tell you, you’re too shy to make friends, so you avoid social situations. It may cause you to feel insecure in your relationship, so you find yourself seeking reassurance from your partner. If it tells you the world is rejecting you, you may find yourself acting a bit angrier in your daily interactions or a whole lot meaner to yourself. Try to take note of all the times your critical inner voice is driving your behavior. As you do this, adopt what Dr. Daniel Siegel calls a C-O-A-L (curious, open, accepting and loving) attitude toward yourself.
Step Five: Change your behavior
Once you’ve identified them, it’s essential to challenge the behaviors dictated by your inner critic in order to go after what you want in life. So, if your inner critic tells you to stay in seclusion or to keep your mouth shut at a party, uncomfortable as it may feel at first, you have to find a way to not indulge in the behavior that will lead you to feel more shame or loneliness. Even if initially you wind up feeling embarrassed or not quite yourself when you act against your voice, you should remember to practice self-compassion. Challenging your voices will stir up anxiety and changing a behavior pattern can make the voice seem louder at first. However, the more actions you take against your inner critic, the more confident you’ll become, and the more the voice will eventually fade into the background.
If, in this process, you find yourself having thoughts like, “Yeah right. My voices are right about me,” remember that pretty much everyone feels this exact way at some point or another. Most people feel like an outcast on some level, but challenging this precise feeling is what will lead you to get what you want in life. It will allow you to shed layers that keep you from feeling yourself. No matter what your inner critic is telling you or using to reinforce its arguments that you’re different or unworthy, you can find ways to access the strength to calmly quiet this destructive coaching and be persistent in moving toward your goals. Slowly but surely you’re inner critic will weaken, and your real self will become stronger, more vibrant, better known, understood and accessible to the world around you.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or in need of immediate help, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free hotline available 24 hours a day to anyone in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.