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Why Do You Talk to Yourself That Way? Dialling Down the Internal Critic

Why Do You Talk to Yourself That Way? Dialing Down the Internal Critic

Sick of the internal critic? Leigh Matthews, Founder and Director of Therapy in Barcelona and an Australian Registered Psychologist exposes the internal critic and its replacement, the compassionate voice. Which will you choose?

“If I talked to my friends the way I talk to myself, I’d have no friends.”

Our mental chatter goes to the tune of approximately 4,000 words per minute. If you bought your mind from a store, you would have returned it by now. Sometimes that internal chatter is helpful but often it’s an assassin. It’s impossible to switch off, but can you dial it down?

What Is the Internal Critic?

The internal critic is just the thinking mind.

The thinking mind is a great ally, helping you solve problems, allowing self-reflection and correction and enabling you to plan for the future. Philosopher Renee Descartes took it a little too far when he said: “I think therefore I am.”

You HAVE Thoughts but You Are NOT Your Thoughts

If you have not meditated or been to therapy, you may not be aware that you can observe the mind. Take a deep breath in, sigh the breath out and just observe.

What are your thoughts?

Write down EVERYTHING that comes into your mind for the next few minutes.

That’s your monkey mind, mental chatter, stories.

You are not your thoughts.

You are watching your thoughts.

Nothing that comes and goes is you, including the internal critic.

Meet the Critic

Turn toward your internal critic with curiosity, observe how your mind reacts when you make a mistake or engage in behavior you are trying to change. Is the tough love of a perfectionistic, whip-cracking critic something you have been taught to cherish as the dream weaver, pulling you up by your socks, and bullying you into success? “You’re a loser, can’t you ever get anything right? Do better, idiot!”

Compassion for feeling criticized. Take a moment to experience the judgement. How does it feel? Is it hard? Does it hurt? Are you inviting more suffering into your life by giving the critic attention?

Understand the critic. Is it an internalized voice of a parent who taught you that being loved means to be “good” or perform? Does it come from the social message of “no pain, no gain?” Is the critic trying to protect you from harm or to help you? If you only find words echoing those of an abuser, then turn to yourself with compassion. If you discover some way the critic is trying to help you, then let the inner critic know you acknowledge the efforts: “Thanks for that, I know you’re trying to help me, but it hurts. Can you give the compassionate voice airtime now?”

Compassion Is for the Weak

One myth about compassion is that it is weak or self-pitying, but it is actually key to building resilience and coping. It is the hallmark of a growth mindset.

Research suggests the encouraging coaching voice increases our motivation to change and is linked to greater happiness, optimism, curiosity and initiativeThe compassionate voice enables us to cultivate greater self-acceptance despite our imperfections, or failures. If that wasn’t enough, the compassionate voice is tied to a greater capacity to get through difficulties in life, and to reduced depression, anxiety and stress.

The compassionate voice can be a fierce partner, giving you strength and courage when you are going through difficulty. If you are sceptical about this, consider why you don’t speak to a child or someone you love in the same way as the internal critic. So, why do you speak to yourself that way?

It is important to find compassion in place of the critic because the message criticism gives is: “You are a mistake.” This is the origin of shame and giving up. The message compassion gives is “You made a mistake but you are always worthwhile and can try again.” This is the origin of self-acceptance and persistence.

Instead of discouraging failure, like the critic, causing you to hide your vulnerabilities, compassion views mistakes as opportunities for growth, allowing you to embrace yourself in all your imperfect humanity.

Find the Compassionate Voice

Now open up to that supportive voice that also wants the best for you but approaches it in a gentle way.

Close your eyes, put your hand on your heart.

Feel the warmth of your touch.

Now, think of some behaviour you are unhappy with and respond to yourself with inner compassion that wants change, not because you are bad, but because it wants the best for you.

This is the voice that changes the observations of the mental assassin into encouraging statements:

“You’re a failure,” becomes “You made a mistake. It’s human to make mistakes. Try again.”

“You’re a loser,” becomes “I love you and I don’t want you to suffer. I’m here for you. You did the best you could.”

When you are used to the internal judge, it may feel hard to access the gentle compassionate voice. Set the intention to cultivate compassion and try daily.

5 Tools for Dialing Down the Mental Assassin

Which tool is best? Whatever raft gets you across the river is good, so just use what works for you after trying these strategies with some curiosity and willingness.

1. What words would a wise friend, mentor, or loving parent use? How would you speak to someone you love?

Choose these supportive messages in place of the mental assassin. Stand in front of the mirror and gift yourself these messages. “I love you.” “You are enough.” “Every time you make a mistake you are growing.” How does that feel?

2. Use Your Name

Adopting a third person voice when you are having a hard time can be helpful. Try using your name “Jane, it’s OK, you’re doing the best you can.” Using your name allows you to shift your point of view, to remind you how you would speak to others.

3. Labeling

Notice the thought: “I’m an idiot.” Repeat the thought, tagging on the front of it: “I notice that my mind is thinking ‘I’m an idiot.’” This gives you space between you and your thoughts, reminding you that you are NOT your thoughts and you do not have to believe them.

4. Silly Voices and Happy Birthday

Repeat the critical message using a silly voice or sing it to the tune of Happy Birthday. This flushes the meaning out of the thought, leaving empty words and funny sounds helping you to take your thoughts less seriously.

5. Fire the Critic

Give the critic a name and imagine who or what the critic looks like. Now, write a letter to “fire” the critic, thanking it for its time with you but letting it know its services are no longer required. Of course, the critic will continue showing up for work, but you can remind it that it doesn’t work here anymore.

This is a radically new way of connecting with yourself and you may feel uncomfortable, but keep trying every day. Compassion won’t take the pain and struggles of life away but it will help you to move through them with more ease. You deserve respect, love and support just like everybody else. To transform the world we must transform ourselves. Creating a more compassionate relationship with ourselves by cultivating a compassionate voice is a step to making the world a kinder place and can help us perform, live and feel better.

Leigh Matthews is an Australian Psychologist and Founder of Therapy in Barcelona, an international team of English speaking therapists in Barcelona and online. Leigh has been living in Barcelona for ten years and is in an intercultural family with her Catalan husband and son. Leigh can be found on LinkedIn, Instagram at @therapyinbcn and on Facebook at @therapyinbarcelona. You can join Therapy in Barcelona’s Therapist Led Peer Support Group for tips and inspiration.

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