You know that chatter inside your head that keeps a running commentary on everything you do? It drags you down with endless criticisms, judgments, and comparisons? This is your inner voice, and mine was brutal.
She constantly told me that I wasn’t a good enough wife, mother, friend, or daughter, that I couldn’t possibly make it on my own, and so on, ad nauseam. This vicious inner monologue was largely responsible for the overwhelming fear, anxiety, and panic that led me to attempt suicide almost a decade ago.
The inner voice is composed of subconscious thoughts, beliefs, and feelings — very little of which come from your present or recent past. Most of this subconscious stream is made up of programming from childhood, which influences how you interpret and respond to the world. It can either encourage and support you or it can sabotage your success.
No one is free from the inner voice. It's always shaping your self-image, coloring your attitude. Your relationship with your inner voice, however, is up to you. You may not even notice the negative undercurrent in your thoughts. Becoming aware of the patterns that cause problems is the first step to challenging them. At that point, you can fight back.
Wondering if it's worth the trouble? Oh yeah. For starters, positive feelings contribute to a stronger immune system; better cardiovascular function; and increased mood, optimism, resilience, and resourcefulness.
Ponder this: Your brain is continually changing based on repeated emotions, behaviors, and thoughts: That's called neuroplasticity. It's a feedback loop in your brain. That means good feelings today increase the likelihood of good feelings tomorrow, and vice versa. So, talking to yourself in a way that yields positive feelings today is exponentially important.
So, how do you take control of those negative thought patterns?
In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman recommends responding to your negative inner musings "as if they were uttered by an external person whose mission it is to make your life miserable." Seligman calls this process "disputation," and Nicholas Hall adapted it into an easy-to-follow ABCDE method:
Recognize when adversity hits — this is when our negative thoughts often arise. Rather than reacting instinctively, slow down, breathe, and begin to explore your thoughts and feelings about the situation. Get curious instead of getting hurt or angry.
Become aware of your automatic subconscious assumptions, expectations, and beliefs. Note the script that is running through your mind. Write it down in a journal.
Examine the consequences of those subconscious beliefs you identified. What do you feel and how do you feel compelled to act when accepting those beliefs as true? How does this affect the people around you? How does it affect other areas of your life? Be specific. Identify and record your emotions and reactions. Are the potential consequences in line with your intent, your values, and who you want to be?
This is where you 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.
How does disputing your beliefs change your energy around the situation? Did your mood, intended course of action, or the possible solution and outcome improve? Think about different consequences and feelings that could follow from internalizing a more optimistic explanation or belief.
After going through this self-analysis, you might confirm your original beliefs and intended course of action. It's also possible that you could completely reverse your position. The important thing is that you approached the situation with awareness and mindfully chose your behavior.
Over time, with consistent practice, becoming aware of your inner voice, naming your emotions, and consciously choosing more encouraging, self-supporting beliefs can actually help build a more positive mindset 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 some compassion instead of judging and berating myself all the time. My inner critic has had a lot of free time lately.
For more on knocking out your inner critic, start here: