Silencing the Troll Inside Your Head

In a recent study, nearly half of Americans surveyed said they’d experienced online harassment or abuse. Cruel, condescending, and critical commentary can be found everywhere from celebrity Twitter threads to the comment sections of blogs about topics as innocuous as how to properly boil an egg. While it’s shocking and upsetting to have a complete stranger lash out and define us, when they do, we can usually see the absurdity of the attack. Whether we choose to engage or not, most of us are able to react to trolling with adaptive anger and a sense of disbelief or even amusement. We often have a feeling of wanting to stand up for  ourselves. However, we are far worse at standing up to the troll that resides inside our heads.

Don’t get me wrong. Any form of bullying, online or otherwise, can take a serious toll on us emotionally. However, we all possess an inner critic that is much more difficult to block than those we encounter on social media. In fact, part of the reason baseless criticisms from troubled strangers sting so badly is because each of us already carries around our own inner troll just waiting to pounce. This “critical inner voice” produces an endless feed of cruel comments on pretty much everything we do. It’s there to tell us we’re stupid, ugly, boring, awkward, incapable, unworthy, or whatever buzzword shakes us to our core. Our inner critic is particularly troublesome, because unlike trolls we encounter on social media, the one in our heads has the inside track on our vulnerabilities and self-doubts.

Part of the reason, this “voice” is so hard to shake is that it starts to take form very early in our lives. It’s shaped from negative experiences and attitudes we witnessed and internalized, everything from criticisms our parents or other influential figures directed at us or themselves to attitudes they had toward us or themselves. These deeply engrained critical inner voices help mold our sense of identity, an identity that is false as it fails to reflect who we really are or who we would be in the absence of these attacks.

When our critical inner voice is at the wheel, generating our sense of self, we can struggle to separate this nasty enemy from a more compassionate, realistic view of ourselves. We may be bent out of shape by its limiting directives or destructive advice. It’s hard to pull off a perfectly polished job interview when our inner voice is screaming at us that we sound stupid or to act natural at dinner when it’s telling us how disappointed our date must be. So, how do we silence this inner troll? Here are five important steps that can be extremely helpful.

Notice when your inner critic comes online

Most of us have trouble distinguishing our critical inner voice from our real point of view. This is in large part because we are so used to experiencing negative thoughts toward ourselves that we barely notice when we’re having them. We may be more aware of the painful feelings the attacks generate such as humiliation, anxiety, or shame, but we fail to catch on to what we’re telling ourselves right before our mood changes.

In order to challenge our inner troll, we can work backwards by asking ourselves, “What situation was I in when I started to feel bad? What thoughts were running through my head? What was I telling myself at the time?” We can start to catalogue the scenarios that seem to trigger our critical inner voice as well as the specific thoughts we experience. For example, one woman recently told me how she noticed feeling irritable and unsure of herself immediately after she spoke to her boss regardless of what they talked about. She started to explore what she was telling herself during each encounter and noticed having thoughts like, “I sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about. She sees right through me. I’m not impressive at all.” Another friend of mine described feeling angry and hurt every time his wife reminded him about anything. As an exercise, he tried to pay attention to his thoughts during one interaction. He immediately noticed being bombarded with criticisms like, “She thinks I’m stupid and irresponsible. She doesn’t see what I offer. She obviously doesn’t trust me.”

Write your “voices” down in the second person

As we notice our inner critic chiming in, it’s important to start to separate what it’s telling us from a more realistic point of view. One way to do this is to write our critical inner voices down in the second person as “you” statements instead of “I” statements. For instance, in the examples listed above, the woman struggling at work would change the statement “I sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about” to “You sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The man who was upset being asked to do things by his partner would change the voice “She thinks I am stupid and irresponsible” to “She thinks you’re stupid and irresponsible.” It may sound simplistic, but doing this exercise helps externalize our inner critic and orients us to respond on our own side, as we would to an outside enemy attacking us, rather than blindly agreeing.

Respond to your attacks with reason and compassion

After we write down our critical inner voice attacks in the second person, we should respond to each and every one of these criticisms with the realistic and compassionate attitude we’d take with a friend. For example, if we wrote down a voice like “You’re so awkward. No one is drawn to you,” we should respond with a comment like, “I’m fun, and I have something to offer. Even though I may initially be shy, people like me and find me easy to be around.”

In the examples listed above, the woman might write, “I’m actually pretty comfortable talking to my boss. We have a lot in common. I have substantial ideas to express, and she values them. The only thing making me uneasy are these attacks.” The man mentioned above may write down, “No one is calling me stupid or irresponsible. I’m projecting that onto my wife. She often thanks me and acknowledges the way I help. Even if she didn’t, I know I’m not lazy or forgetful.”

It’s important when we respond to our critical inner voices that we again use the first person. The goal of this exercise isn’t to build ourselves up and inflate our ego, but to embrace a kind, honest attitude about who we really are and what we actually offer by being ourselves.

Don’t take its advice

One of the worst forms of trolling comes in scathing advice offered by strangers. It’s already so easy for most of us to feel unsure of ourselves, so when someone tells us we’re doing something wrong, we’re quick to agree. This is the same with our inner critic. As soon as we’re out on a limb, going after what we want or making a move in a positive direction, our critical inner voice is there to intervene. “You should just keep a low profile,” it warns us at work. “Don’t put yourself out there. You will be rejected,” it suggests.

Most of the time, the best advice we can take is to NOT take the advice of our inner critic. Even when it makes us anxious, and even when the voices get louder, we should be persistent in our path of taking chances. We should continue to go for what we want and ignore the directives of our critical inner voice at every corner.

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Embrace self-compassion

Study after study is showing self-compassion to be more beneficial than self-esteem, both in how we feel and how much we’re able to achieve. Dr. Kristin Neff, a lead researcher on self-compassion, points out that, unlike self-esteem, self-compassion isn’t based on evaluation of ourselves. Rather, it’s an attitude of being kind to ourselves rather than judgmental, of embracing a mindful approach to our thoughts and feelings as they pass through us, and accepting our common humanity with others.

Adopting this attitude is helpful when taking on our inner troll. It allows us to meet these long-engrained attacks with a new feeling of self-acceptance and empathy. We can feel for ourselves and the things that hurt us. We can start to understand the events that shaped our sense of identity and differentiate from these harmful influences, separating what was projected onto us from our true self. By making a practice of self-compassion, we can take our own side against the chorus of trolls commenting in our heads, and we can take actions that present a more honest reflection of who we are and who we wish to   to be.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012).Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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One Comment

Doireann Kavanagh

You’re so awkward. No one is drawn to you,” we should respond with a comment like, “I’m fun, and I have something to offer. Even though I may initially be shy, people like me and find me easy to be around.”

What if you don’t believe that you’re fun, then are you not lying to yourself?

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