“It’s not what you say out of your mouth that determines your life; it’s what you whisper to yourself that has the most power” – Robert Kiyosaki
We all have an inner critic. Most of us in fact, myself included have a number of them. Inner critics are those reactive and internal voices that shine a floodlight on aspects of ourselves we are not entirely pleased with, areas where we lack confidence & qualities, we flat out wish were not so. Our inner critic shows up during a variety of perfectly inopportune moments. The more at stake, the greater likelihood our inner critic will make an appearance. While we find it easier to shut out external criticism it is tougher for us to switch off our internal voice.
When we are awake, we think all the time and the brain is providing us with instructions on what to do, we are constantly evaluating and interpreting stuff. Self-talk can be as mundane as what we are going to have for dinner or wonder what is on TV tonight. Some of the self-talk we indulge in is quite reasonable. For example, if you need to go shopping after work for a gift for someone and you think about what you want to buy, that is fine. On the other hand, a small amount of negative is normal. For example, you forget your wedding anniversary and forget to wish your wife, and you think to yourself that you had remembered the anniversary. Excessive self-criticism, however, tends to backfire, because it leads us to focus on our perceived failures instead of the small ways that we could have improved. Left unchecked, such thoughts can do deep harm to our mental health and our life.
Negative self-talk comes in many forms:
- If something doesn’t go exactly as planned, we see it as a total failure falling victim to all-or-nothing thinking
- We use words such as “always” or “never” whilst generalising discouraging events as a part of a permanent trend
- We focus on the negative events while discounting the positive events
- We don’t take enough credit for positive events by explaining achievements away by external factors
- We jump to conclusions by assuming that someone is having negative thoughts or intentions towards us without clarifying or inquiring
- We predict a negative outcome to an event that could turn out in many ways
Self-criticism or negative self-talk triggers the brain’s threat system. This is the oldest part of our brain that tells us to fight or take flight. When this system gets triggered, cortisol (a stress hormone) is released, and this activates the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight response). This tells the body to get ready for danger. From an evolutionary point of view this is important because if a wild animal is chasing us, then we better do something to ensure our survival. As such this threat system provides protection by preparing us as best as it can with the means to fight or flee. However, in modern times we rarely encounter situations where our environment is triggering our threat systems. Our minds are in fact triggering our own threat systems with negative predictions, painful memories, or hard harsh judgments and self-criticism.
There are three broad ways to overcome our negative self-talk
Our cycle of negative inner dialogue is always focused on the past or the future. We are preoccupied with thoughts about things that were not done well in the past or worried about the outcome of things in the future. We start living life in moments before or what is about to come after but not the actual moment we are in. Once we start making a conscious effort to become aware of the moment we are in, though breath or by just being present, a transformation starts to happen. Earlier this year I spent a lot of time with a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka who has been practicing mindfulness since 1960s. A lot of our discussion centred around my anxiety and fear of failure over leaving the corporate world to start my own business. He taught me the following four steps to overcome my negative self-talk
- Recognise the negative thoughts or negative thought patterns as they arise instead of continuing rumination
- Tell myself that this is just a negative thought and that this is actually not happening
- He then instructed me to ask myself, “What evidence do I have to support this thought?” I quickly found out that I am not in possession of any evidence
- Replace the negative thought with a positive one. They do not have to be related. For example, if the negative thoughts relate to work, countering positive thoughts can be of our family or a hobby we are good at
Self-compassion means accepting everything about ourselves wholly and treating the self with warmth and understanding. Self-compassion helps us take responsibility for our actions while acknowledging that a lot of things in our life are outside our control i.e., our gender, our race, the families or countries we were born into and the actions of others. We need to appreciate the role of self-care in a good, ambitious, and fruitful life. According to the School of Life, we need to practice the following to inculcate self-compassion:
- We’re so in love with success that we fail to notice the scale of challenges we routinely set ourselves. We may have failed, but given the mountain we were trying to climb but the conclusion doesn’t have to be that we are simply fools
- We all have tricky family histories. Things happened to us at the hands of others which can help to explain some our troubles
- One look at the media and we tend to think that everyone is successful. But in reality, undramatic, quiet failure is the statistical norm by a huge margin
- Acknowledging the importance of luck as a genuine feature of existence. We are robbing ourselves of a fair conciliation by believing we are entirely in control and therefore entirely to blame when we crash
- We are not only our achievements. Status and material success are only one bit of us as an individual
- Sometimes it feels that the crisis will never end. It helps to reduce our expectations to zero for a time and take each moment as it comes
Describe the event that happened. Leave out any evaluations or judgments. Simply put a description to the event that happened in a way that is as unemotional as possible.
Explain how adversity was interpreted. Not how you think it ought to be, but what your default belief/interpretation was.
Think about the feelings and actions that result from these beliefs. Go back with a level of introspection and ask yourself how you handled things. Dig deep. How and when do those emotions/feeling lead to certain behaviours and actions.
Do you have any grounds to dispute these automatic reactions? What are the possible repercussions of following through on those emotions? Think about whether there are greater benefits to moving on from the situation and stopping that baseline (often impulsive) response in its tracks.
This is the last step that’s done when successful disputation occurs. Did you manage to turn things around? Put all your focus on the positive feelings that ensued as a result of reframing your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours. Ask yourself, what’s different between how I just handled this situation versus how I would normally handle it? Relish in those personal rewards.
Ultimately our inner dialogue will either fuel success or prevent us from reaching our full potential. Silencing the inner critic does not work. We need to start taming our inner critic and silencing the negativity so we can coach ourselves in a productive and helpful manner. At the end of the day it is just a voice that has learned how to respond to life in a particular way, based on what it knows. It’s all a part of us. We can start by accepting that the inner critic is here to stay and that it can be managed, and that the relationship is one that can shift with time.