You know that incessant chatter inside your head that keeps a running commentary on all that happens, critiquing and second-guessing your every move? For most of us, that inner voice is pretty harsh — even downright nasty. It drones on and on with never-ending criticisms, judgments, and comparisons.
Mine used to be a real witch. Years ago, she delighted in constantly telling me that I wasn’t a good enough wife, mother, friend, daughter… you name it; that I couldn’t possibly make it on my own; that I needed a man; that I wasn’t smart enough, strong enough, pretty enough, blah, blah, blah…. My inner witch was partially responsible for years of depression accompanied by an overwhelming sense of fear, anxiety, and panic which culminated in a suicide attempt over a decade ago.
I want you to know that you don’t have to believe that voice in your head. You can shut it up and even make friends with it. If I can do it, you can too!
Where Does the Critical Inner Voice Come From?
The internal voice in all of us is made up of our subconscious thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. While some of the mind material comes from your present and recent past, most of this background noise is made up of memories and programming from childhood. It consists mostly of your “junk” — wounds, fears, pain. As you grow up, you unconsciously integrate this negative subject matter into your belief system about yourself, others, and the world. The resulting subconscious filter becomes the lens through which you view life and interpret what happens. So, as an adult, you live your life seeing the world through the wounds of your childhood – until you intentionally alter your perspective.
This subconscious chatter largely determines your relationship with yourself, impacts your behavior, guides your decisions, and ultimately shapes the direction of your life. Your “junk” can prevent you from living the life you want to lead and becoming the person you want to be. This subconscious stream influences how you make sense of and respond to the world. On one hand, your inner voice can encourage and support you and, in turn, increase your resilience, achievements, and happiness. On the other hand, it can sabotage your career and relationships, undermine your confidence, and contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression.
Your Internal Voice Determines Whether You Live In a Hostile or Friendly World
We all have this incessant inner dialogue going on in our head to some degree, shaping our self-images, coloring our attitudes, and forming our concepts of the world we live in as either hostile or friendly. Whether your inner voice is your best friend or worst enemy depends on you. It doesn’t have to hurt you. If you become aware of and consciously correct and direct it, it can become your friend and help you.
Perhaps you don’t even recognize how often the nagging, limiting voice shows up because it’s just part of the subconscious transcript your brain has running all the time. It’s your norm. Becoming aware of your recurring beliefs and negative thoughts patterns that cause problems for you and beginning to challenge them and infuse intentional, more positive material can produce happier feelings and a more optimistic you.
Your Thoughts Shape Your Brain and Life
How you feel largely depends on the thoughts that run through your head. The quickest way to change how you feel is to change how you think. The many benefits of positive emotions are well documented by science. They improve physical health and foster trust and compassion. Positive emotions buffer against depressive symptoms and help people recover from stress. They can even undo the harmful effects of negative emotions. The frequent experience and expression of positive emotions increase resilience and resourcefulness. Moreover, positive emotions promote better social connectedness.
Your thoughts and emotions shape both the physical form and function of your brain, a capability known as neuroplasticity. Your brain is a feedback loop. Good thoughts and feelings today increase the likelihood of good thoughts and feelings tomorrow. The opposite is also true. So, you want to be sure you’re talking to yourself in a way that yields positive feelings and encourages and supports you.
How to Argue with Your Inner Critic
In his book Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Martin Seligman recommends responding to your negative inner thoughts “as if they were uttered by an external person whose mission it is to make your life miserable.” In other words, you want to argue with and shut up your inner critic. Seligman calls this process disputation and tells of the ABCDE method to accomplish this.
Albert Ellis, developer of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), devised the ABCDE method to provide a clear framework for you to examine and challenge your spontaneous internal thoughts in a new way. When you learn how to control your mind, you will begin to notice yourself gaining control of your life.
Recognize when adversity hits. Consider what happened right before you had the thought or emotional response such as anxiety, sadness, or anger. When you become more mindfully aware of events that typically trigger strong emotional responses, you can learn to anticipate future reactions and be more conscious of and prepared to deal with what emotions arise more effectively.
Become aware of your automatic subconscious assumptions, expectations, and beliefs about whatever has triggered you. Notice the script that is running through your mind and what you’re saying to yourself. Write your thoughts down in a journal. Avoid judging your thoughts and beliefs as right or wrong. You simply want to notice them.
- I’m really bad at public speaking.
- I always make a mess of it. I just embarrass myself.
- My boss and everybody else must think I’m not capable of doing my job.
Look at the emotional and other consequences of your beliefs. What do you feel and how do you feel compelled to act when you accept what the inner critic says as true? How does this affect you mentally and emotionally and in other areas of your life? Be specific. Are the potential consequences in line with your wants, your values, and who you want to be?
Consequences are more than just the outcome of the event. Consequences are also behavioral and emotional. Sometimes, you experience clear consequences externally. Other times, consequences are internal, such as experiencing overwhelming anxiety or sadness.
This is where you get to argue with yourself. Question your beliefs, assumptions, and expectations. Zoom out, look at the situation from a broader perspective, or even try on an opposing viewpoint. For example, ask yourself:
- What is the evidence for my existing beliefs?
- Are there other possible explanations?
- What are the implications of my believing this thought and is it helping me? Does it feel right to believe this any longer?
- How useful are my beliefs? Do I or others get any benefits from maintaining them or would I be better served by adopting new beliefs?
Byron Katie has an excellent method for questioning your thoughts and beliefs called The Work.
- I haven”t had much experience or any training on public speaking and giving presentations.
- That was only my third one.
- The head of the department spoke for less time than he was supposed to and no one seemed to think anything of it.
- Many people asked me questions and seemed interested in what I was saying.
- One co-worker even said he liked my slides and he isn’t one to say positive things much.
- I might not have been the best, but I was ok.
- I should be able to do better next time.
Effects (or Energy)
Notice the effects that result from actively examining and disputing your thinking. Once you identify and clarify your emotionally charged beliefs about something, you can begin to consciously come up with thoughts that support, encourage, and help you. Disputing your beliefs and thoughts can alter your energy and mood around any situation. Your intended course of action or possible solutions and outcomes might change as well.
It’s also entirely possible that you will confirm your original beliefs and intended course of action. The important thing is that you approached the situation with awareness and mindfully chose your behavior.
You sign up for a public speaking class.
When You Change the Way You Think, You Change Your Brain and Life
Over time with consistent practice, becoming aware of your inner voice, naming your emotions, challenging your thoughts, and consciously choosing more encouraging, supportive self-talk can help build a more positive brain and turn down your stress response.
Since my suicide attempt, I’ve made huge strides in my personal growth by learning to argue with myself, meditating daily, and adopting other mindfulness practices. I shut up the witch in my head, learned to live consciously, and extend myself compassion instead of judging and berating myself all of the time. My inner critic has had a lot of time off lately.
Arguing with yourself can change your thoughts and beliefs to help make you happier and more optimistic and support more optimal brain function. It may even reduce arguing with other people in your life.