So you’re out on a date and having a reasonably good time, but suddenly that unwanted third party pops up: it’s that critical inner voice saying—oh, you know, the usual stuff. Suddenly, you’re not having such a good time anymore. Or maybe the voice comes up after the date, or when you’re considering making one.
We’ve all experienced that negative inner voice sometime or another. It generally tells us that we’re being judged for being or doing something wrong. We feel not good enough, not likable enough, not smart enough, basically, not enough. And along with those thoughts come the negative feelings and body reactions that can range anywhere from a facial flush to tightening shoulders to a sickening feeling in the stomach. Unfortunately, we often buy into the negativity. But just because you’re experiencing it doesn’t mean it’s true!
The reason we get these negative thoughts is because of how our brains function. Anything that happens in the present has to link up with our memory networks to be interpreted. So, for example, if we meet someone and feel immediate dislike, it’s generally because our current perceptions are linking to stored memories of someone in the past that appears similar and hurt us in some way. It may be unfair to the current person, but our responses are automatic and we act accordingly. In the same way, something in the present is triggering our negative self-talk, but it might not be reality-based. There’s a good chance that the reason is to be found in the memories of past experiences that are running our show.
The information processing system of the brain is geared to take disturbing events and physiologically digest them by making the inner connections needed to help guide us in the future. When a memory is appropriately processed, learning takes place. But if an event is too disturbing, it can stall processing, and the negative experience is stored as a memory along with the emotions, physical sensations and beliefs that were there at the time. This means that when something similar in the present happens, it can generate negative thoughts and feelings because these earlier memories are triggered. We don’t get an image of the event, but rather the negative critical thoughts and the feelings that go along with it. So, if you recognize that your critical voice often holds you back and doesn’t serve you, make a decision to stay aware when it is happening and change it.
Here’s a technique from my book Getting Past Your Past that you can use immediately to help deal with your critical voice when it comes up. Think of a cartoon character that has a funny voice like Donald or Daffy Duck, Popeye the Sailor or Elmer Fudd. Bring up your critical voice and scan you body to notice how those thoughts makes you feel. Then make the voice in your head sound like one of the cartoon characters. Notice what happens when you do that. For most people, the negative feelings disappear.
Using the technique can help you take a breather and separate yourself from the negative reactions. It can give you a chance to start smiling and acting like yourself again. The technique may not deal with the negative memories that are generally the source of chronic problems though. Processing the underlying memories with the help of a therapist is typically needed for that. But self-help techniques can help get rid of negative thoughts, emotions and body reactions when they arise. Banishing that critical inner voice can put you back in control. Sometimes we are our own worst enemy. No reason to keep giving our negativity the last word.