The Voice (The Enemy Within)

Discover the negative thoughts and attitudes at the core of a person’s maladaptation.

The voice consists of a series of negative thoughts and attitudes toward oneself and others that is at the core of a person’s maladaptation. It can be conceptualized as the language of the defense system. The voice is not restricted to thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs; it is closely associated with varying degrees of anger, sadness, shame, and other primitive emotions. It can be thought of as an overlay on the personality that is not natural or harmonious, but is learned or imposed from without.

The voice can be conceptualized as a secondary defense that supports elements of the fantasy bond and the self-parenting process (rewarding and punishing the self). It is a form of internal communication – critical and cynical, sometimes self-nurturing and self-aggrandizing, but always harmful, thoughts toward ourselves or others– that we tend to “hear” as though being spoken to. They include attacks such as, “You are so stupid,” “No girl will ever like you,” “You never could get things done right,” or “You can’t trust her,” “He will always lie to you,” “Men are just mean.”

Critical inner voices are often experienced as a running commentary that interprets interactions and events in ways that cause considerable pain and distress. The voice defines situations in critical, pessimistic terms based largely on past events. It is analogous to a lens or filter that casts a gloomy light on the world which, in turn, has a profound negative effect on our mood and our feelings. It is distinguishable from a constructive moral influence. Instead, it interprets moral standards and value systems in an authoritarian manner, in the form of “shoulds” that lead to harsh criticism and self-recrimination. Even seemingly positive, self-nurturing voices, that may appear on the surface to be supportive can be hurtful, misleading and dysfunctional. An unrealistic build up sets the stage for later attacks on the self.

Voice attacks are sometimes experienced consciously, but more often than not they are only partially conscious or may even be totally unconscious. In general, the average person is largely unaware of the extent of his/her self-attacks and that much of his/her behavior is influenced or even controlled by the voice.

Self-attacks or voices vary in intensity along a continuum ranging from mild self-reproach to strong self-accusations and suicidal ideation. They precipitate a wide range of self-limiting, self-destructive actions, from retreating from or giving up positive strivings, to hurting ourselves physically or committing actual suicide.

In a very real sense, what we are telling ourselves in terms of the voice about events and experiences in our lives is more damaging and contributes to more misery than the negative events or happenings themselves. But where do these critical voices come from?

The origin of self-critical and self-destructive thinking processes

A baby comes into this world with a certain genetic predisposition and is profoundly affected by events during the first year of life when the brain is undergoing its maximum development. It is a time when the infant is most impressionable and its experience is on a preverbal level. Parental mis-attunement, failure to meet the infant’s basic needs, rejection, and malignant attitudes directed toward the infant leave a powerful imprint or primal feeling. If mis-attuned interactions with parents are not sufficiently repaired, the baby experiences a mixture of emotions of fear, shame, rage, sadness, and/or apathy.

Research has shown that shame is a primitive emotion strongly associated with parental rejection during the earliest phases of development wherein the infant assimilates a core feeling of being dirty, bad or unlovable Basically, children internalize any hostile or negative attitudes that are directed toward them in the form of vague memories, images, and primal emotions.

The self system and anti-self system

As the child develops and acquires verbal skills, he/she applies negative labels and specific verbal attacks to him/herself that express his/her internalized primal emotions. As children go through life, they refine and elaborate on their self-critical attitudes and thoughts and apply new labels to themselves. These destructive attitudes or voices form a distinct and separate aspect of the personality that I have termed the anti-self system.

In contrast, the self system is made up of the unique characteristics of the individual, including his/her biological, temperamental, and genetic traits, the ongoing effects of experience and education and the incorporation of parents’ affirmative qualities and strivings. Parents’ lively attitudes, positive values, and active pursuit of life are easily assimilated through the process of identification and imitation and become part of the child’s developing personality.

Later in life, these two systems become well-established and are in direct conflict. How this conflict is resolved over time powerfully affects the course of the individual’s life and his/her happiness or unhappiness. The anti-self or voice process directly affects a person’s attachment pattern and its persistence throughout adult life. As such, it exerts an influence on every aspect of interpersonal relating.

Just as individuals have a split view of themselves, they also possess diametrically opposed views of the people in their lives. The voice not only serves the func­tion of attacking the self; it is also directed toward others. These oppositional viewpoints are symptomatic of the deep division that exists within all of us.

The voice and attachment theory

The voice acts to bind individuals emotionally to their parents by supporting an internal, parental point of view that continues to advise, direct, control, and punish them. There are distinct similarities between the voice concept and the internal working models described by attachment theorists. In both cases, critical views of the self, distrust of others, and expectations of rejection resulting from early experiences with insensitive, mis-attuned, or rejecting parents tend to become core beliefs or cognitive schema that influence one’s behaviors in adult relationships. Whenever the attachment system is threatened by real or imagined threats of potential loss, basic primal feelings are aroused and there is generally an increase in voice attacks on both self and others.

The voice in relation to one’s personal identity

Internalized voices become a fixed part of the developing individual’s core identity, even though initially there was no essential validity to the labels. They pertained more directly to flawed parents and parenting practices, and the child was basically innocent. Later, as he/she internalizes the labels originally based on painful primal feelings and trauma, he/she tends to perpetuate and act out unappealing traits and behaviors based on the incorporated voices. In this manner, the child gives validity to and confirms his or her negative identity.

In other words, children and adults acting on false premises about themselves incidentally confirm their critical conception of themselves.  Later, this interferes with a person’s attempt to individuate and form a stable more positive self image.


In my book, The Enemy Within: Separation Theory and Voice Therapy, I summarize my thinking related to the origin and function of the voice. Essentially, the destructive thought process or voice represents: 1) the internalization of negative and critical attitudes directed toward the child, by parents or significant caretakers in the early environment, 2) a largely unconscious imitation of parents’ or significant others’ maladaptive defenses and viewpoints, (i.e. their aversive, cynical attitudes regarding people and relationships), 3) a defensive approach to life based on emotional pain experienced during the formative years. The greater the degree of trauma experienced in childhood, the more intense one’s voice attacks become.

In order to preserve feelings of compassion for themselves and others, people need to confront the internalized voices that accuse them of being inadequate, destructive or bad. In this regard, it is valuable, therapeutically, for a person to become increasingly aware of and then to challenge his/her voice attacks. Simply catching on to when one is being cynical, self-critical, or hostile toward oneself, partially alters the destructive attitude. Even when there is a certain amount of truth in one’s self-attacks, there is no need to adopt a hostile attitude. It is wise to follow the principle that it is never appropriate or of any value to attack oneself. Of course, people can and should constructively evaluate their behavior and learn to eliminate their negative characteristics and responses, but this process need not be punitive in nature.  Instead, it is therapeutic to challenge voice attacks by substituting a compassionate attitude toward oneself about the same issues.

Working on oneself in this manner can enhance one’s development but it requires considerable effort and diligence. In addition, formal “voice therapy” with a professional may be needed to affect the best results. Facing the enemy within and counteracting its influences are liberating, as people can improve personally either in or out of therapy. They can come to experience a changing rather than fixed identity, and remain open to personal growth and evolution.

The techniques and procedures employed in formal Voice Therapy will be discussed in my next blog.

About the Author

Robert Firestone, Ph.D Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist, author, theorist and artist. He is the Consulting Theorist for The Glendon Association. He is author of numerous books including Voice Therapy, Challenging the Fantasy Bond, Compassionate Child-Rearing, Fear of Intimacy, Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, Beyond Death Anxiety The Ethics of Interpersonal RelationshipsSelf Under Siege, and recently his collection of stories Overcoming the Destructive Inner Voice.  His studies on negative thought processes and their associated affect have led to the development of Voice Therapy, an advanced therapeutic methodology to uncover and contend with aspects of self-destructive and self-limiting behaviors. Firestone has applied his concepts to empirical research and to developing the Firestone Assessment of Self-destructive Thoughts (FAST), a scale that assesses suicide potential. This work led to the publication of Suicide and the Inner Voice: Risk Assessment, Treatment and Case Management. He has published more than 30 professional articles and chapters for edited volumes, and produced 35 video documentaries. His art can be viewed on You can learn more about Dr. Firestone by visiting

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One Comment

Hadi Mohd Nazir

Hello Dr. Firestone,

I just read this article and I want to express my thanks as this made me more fully aware of my critical inner voice and analyse my negative overthinking, ”The Enemy Within” as per say.

This has been an ongoing inner battle for me for a number of years, causing to succumb to many irrational decisions, each leading to its subsequent own problems. Especially as a student in my undergrad years at university, this cannot be any more relevant towards my life at the present moment with regards to stressload and making friends. It was either face forward, or end up comforting to the ”forever hermit life” which I simply didn’t want, all because I listened to the inner criticism deep inside.

So thank you for addressing some relatable problems here, how it probably originated and making it more aware.


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