Re-Moralizing Your Inner Voice Part One

remoralizing inner voice

In conjunction with The Glendon Association’s webinar, Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, by Dr. Lisa Firestone, I hope to add some complimentary thoughts on the subject of self-attacking inner voices that diminish well-being, steal joy and shame natural enthusiasm. As children, most of us learned some version of the Golden Rule:  treat others as you would like to be treated.  Unfortunately, the lesson that we really learned was to treat ourselves, as well as others, as we were treated.

Due to their own histories of unmet needs, parents lacking self-esteem and competence are less able to provide sensitive, careful responses to their own child’s needs.  Parents burdened by the pain of their own emotional abandonment, neglect, or abuse may treat their children with insensitivity or even cruelty.  They practice treating others, including children they love, in ways they were treated. The cycle of abuse is perpetuated.

A critical inner voice develops in the child as the mistreated youngster takes on the hostile attitudes that are directed toward him or her in early relational patterns.  Even when people grow up and reject the model of treating others harmfully, they may not know how to treat themselves lovingly; there is no template for self-love.  Instead, they persist in replicating what is familiar to them by aiming critical, harsh, even vicious historical interactions at themselves.  A sense of failure and worthlessness is always lurking, ready to ambush the self at any opportunity.  Most persons would never treat others as harshly as they treat themselves.  In a perversion of the Golden Rule, they treat themselves as they were treated.

In an internal climate filled with storms of self-attack, it is difficult to maintain a sense of hope.  A critical inner voice will try to crush your belief that you can become more capable, competent or effective.  The chronic assault on hope leads to depression, anxiety disorders and demoralization.  In Persuasion and Healing (1991), Jerome Frank, Ph.D., M.D. defines demoralization as “a sense of powerlessness to change oneself or one’s environment.”

However, there is hope. By becoming aware of the critical inner voice, we identify our enemy and thus know what our battle is. Remembering how early childhood pain felt can lead us to organize relational goals around not causing similar emotional or physical pain for others; this is moral caring. We may do for others what we wish had been done for us. In other words, in spite of having been neglected or mistreated, we can treat others in ways we would like to be treated or wish to have been treated and manage to treat them well.

Miraculously, some people can use their own emotional voids and unmet needs to meet the needs of others. This creative transformation of early hurtful experiences into positive, nurturing actions toward others is one of the most beautiful examples of the human capacity to love. Often, we are much better at caring well for others than caring well for ourselves. Ultimately, we can strive to free ourselves from the destructive attitudes that we have carried with us for so long and extend the same care and compassion to ourselves that we were taught to extend to others.

About the Author

Ronee Smith Griffith, Ph.D. Ronee Smith Griffith, Ph.D. is an ethicist and licensed psychologist. She is the Founder of The Relational Ethics Institute (1988) and has taught professional ethics education for over twenty years.  She has served on the Ethics Education Task Force of the American Psychological Association and collaborated with the Ethics Co-Chairs of the Canadian Psychological Association. In addition to professional organizations, she frequently speaks to churches, schools, universities, civic groups, and social service agencies. In her psychotherapy practice in Atlanta, Georgia, she specializes with adults and couples.

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