Recently, I had dinner with two close friends. As the evening progressed, we talked about how sometimes we struggle with negative voices in our head. These are not the kind of voices that tell us to do harm to ourselves or others, but the ones that undermine our confidence and leading us to feel negatively about who we are and what we do.
If we’re completely honest, I think that all of us could have the same conversation. Sometimes this voice tells us that we’re not good enough. That it’s only a matter of time before everyone else notices how we’re faking it, and the image of ourselves that we’ve built comes crashing down. Maybe the voice tells us that we’re too thin, or not thin enough. If we were only a better partner or friend, or did thus and so, then our life would be perfect. Once we learn how to (fill in your own words here), then all will be well. We will have made it! We believe that our life isn’t perfect, because we are ‘lesser’ than others.
Sometimes we know where ‘the voice’ came from. We recognize the tone or words. In some cases, it belongs to a critical parent or teacher. In others, the voice belongs to a ‘friend’ who really wasn’t a friend. The owner of ‘the voice’ may no longer be in our life, but their messages persist. However, what if they lied? What if we’re good enough the way we are?
Why are we so mean to ourselves?
We’ve talked about some of the places where our negative messages come from, but why do we continue to believe them? On a basic level, it’s because we continue the behaviours (even negative ones) that serve us in some way.
At a recent workshop (Mindful Self-Compassion presented by Diane Frederick), Diane showed this clip of an interview with Dr. Paul Gilbert. Dr. Gilbert is a British clinical psychologist, author, and the founder of compassion focused therapy/compassionate mind training.
Gilbert suggests that one of the reasons we don’t give ourselves the benefit of the doubt is because of society’s current fascination with ‘winners’. Dr. Gilbert cites the increase in reality programs where, instead of focusing on the winner—in which there was usually only one or two—we negatively focus on the ‘loser’. Because we’re human, we’re programmed to want to be part of a group. In fact, until fairly recently in our evolution, being excluded from the group meant certain death. No one wants to ‘be voted off the island’!
Another reason that we beat ourselves up is that we want to know where we fit in hierarchy. As humans we compare ourselves to others. However, not so long ago, we only compared what we did or had to our close neighbours. Now, through the magic of social media, we can compare to everyone—even if the comparisons aren’t realistic or true. Not only do we get the negative messages from past people in our lives, but now also from mainstream media; and our self-worth suffers in the process.
A third reason we continue to be mean to ourselves is that we think it helps us to succeed. If we didn’t have that negative inner voice, we might give in to our baser instincts—eat whatever we want, spend every night devouring the latest Netflix series, or not giving 110% at work. How are we to get ahead in life if we don’t keep trying to improve ourselves? We don’t want to fail.
Why Should We Care?
Anxiety, depression, stress, rumination (negative, repeating thoughts), perfectionism, fear of failure and shame are the outcomes of a habit of ‘beating ourselves up’…and we can choose to do something different!
How Do We Stop?
Be mindful of your inner life. We do this by checking in with ourselves throughout the day…especially if you notice physical symptoms (headache, tense muscles or stomach issues). Our bodies are a wonderful barometer of what our mind is doing.
Argue with that inner voice. Through mindfulness, once you become aware of how you are being mean to yourself, argue with that voice. One Cognitive Behavioural Therapy method is to question the validity of our negative thoughts. A good way to do this is in writing. Write down the negative statement, then beside or underneath it, list a rebuttal. Keep going until ‘you’ win the argument. At the same time, rather than using an “I” statement, move the statement into the third person (i.e. using your first name). This provides distance and makes it less personal.
Download and use “Ditty”. This app lets you record a negative statement and then pick a funny way to play it back. It’s hard to take a mean message seriously when it’s being said to the soundtrack for “the chicken dance”!
Focus on the positive. Some people love to use affirmations, others not so much. If positive affirmations work for you, go for it.
Invite the voice in for tea. If arguing with your inner critic doesn’t work, try looking at it with compassion. Sometimes we spend a lot of energy fighting against something. However, once we accept what we don’t like it loses its power.
Life is sometimes difficult and the world can be a scary place. We need to be kind to others, and to ourselves….
And now, this beautiful song has become one of my new favourites…Enjoy!