Most of our conversations happen in our heads—only a small percentage of our words are spoken, although we all know people who would swing on either side of this continuum. The rest of our words run through our heads in a constant stream of thoughts, questions, factoids, nonsensical impressions, and sensory information. There’s a lot of chattering going on in between our ears but only some of it reaches our conscious awareness.
For some people, probably many, there is a running monologue that can be a bit bossy and harsh (aka, the inner critic). This is the thought dictator who tells us everything we are doing wrong, how we always screw things up, that people don’t like us, that we sound weird, that people are either staring at us or ignoring us—basically, there can be a whole litany of failure-talk and negativity and all of it is on repeat.
Where Does the Inner Critic Come From?
A couple of ideas: it might have started as a survival response or a safety mechanism i.e. your brain’s way of working through a threat (perceived or real) at some point in your childhood or adolescence. Maybe there was a harsh caregiver or tough teacher or you were bullied or shy or awkward or maybe you experienced a traumatic event or were shamed by loved ones. It’s a skewed way of thinking that probably isn’t related to a mental health diagnosis but can be, nevertheless, destructive and debilitating.
Keeping track of potential dangers is the job of your limbic system, the most primal part of your brain. Think of it as a smoke detector, which is an early warning system for a potential danger. It’s meant to warn you, to get you in position to fight, run, or freeze and survive the threat.
However, the threat system can stay activated a bit, or a lot, even after the metaphorical fire has been put out. Ongoing stressors, whether they come via externally or internally, can wreak havoc with our thought patterns. Add to childhood or adolescent factors the current difficulties—insomnia, harsh living conditions, relationship problems, traumatic memories, illness or chronic pain—and you have a lot of threatening situations, at least to your brain.
Stress and the Inner Critic
If you are experiencing ongoing stressors, it’s like the smoke detector keeps warning you over and over to take action, to do something, to hurry up with the answer to the problem. If the threat isn’t resolved, your limbic system stays fired up in a chronic state of readiness that keeps pumping out stress hormones and scanning for everything unusual, unpleasant, or undesirable in your environment and in your memory banks.
What Are You Saying to Yourself?
Over time, this can result in some ways of relating to your self that are decidedly harsh and punitive. The inner critic can become a tyrant and monopolize our conscious thinking. And we often don’t become aware of these negative conversations or think of it as an unusual way of being until someone else points it out. People might point out: “You are really hard on yourself” or “Don’t beat yourself up all the time.”
What’s Next? How Do I Break This Way of Thinking?
How can you talk to yourself differently? Very briefly: begin by reducing your stressors, healing your hurts, and having different conversations with yourself. Be kind and generous and compassionate when you are distressed. View yourself through the lens of a shared humanity with everyone else when you stumble and fall. Seek out reasons to like yourself and catch yourself doing things right. Fill your mind with what is good and beautiful and inspiring. Live mindfully and in the present as best you can. Argue with your inner critic. It isn’t the boss of you, not really.
If you want to consider more practices and components of a more compassionate way to live, refer to the article entitled: Self-Compassion: An Antidote for Shame. If intrusive thoughts are more problematic for you, refer to the article on trauma entitled Trauma (Part 1): What is Trauma And What are Its Effects?
Peace to you and your household,
Shari van Spronsen, MC, RCC, CCC