Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice and Live Free from Imagined Limitations

Cherokee Indian legend – Two Wolves Legend

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed

What Does It Mean?

We hear voices in our head all the time, voices that comment, question, compel us to do or say something. These are not strange voices. They’re our own voices, our internalized critic. Sometimes we even talk back to them. Are we crazy? Not at all. Everybody hears internal voices.

Our inner voice is like a personalized compass. It gives us the sense of being aware of ourselves, to act or not act on our thoughts, and the ability to restrain our negative impulses. But often that internal voice speaks critically. It judges us, and undermines us … like having a mental fight with ourselves.

 The Script

The critical voices in our own heads are far more vicious than what we might hear from the outside. Our “inside critics” have intimate knowledge of us and can zero in on our weakest spots.”

­– S.A.R.K., author of Creative Companion: How to Free Your Creative Spirit

Internalized critical voices can affect our happiness, peace of mind, success, and self-confidence. What are these voices saying? The script might go something like this:

“Should I ask for a raise? I probably don’t deserve it. I’m not good enough. What if my boss says no?”

Or like this:

“I’m stuck in the same job and I hate it. Other people working here get promotions. Their jobs are more interesting and rewarding than mine. It’s not fair. Work shouldn’t be like this. What’s wrong with me? I’ll never be successful. It’s probably because I’m lazy.”

Or this:

“Oh no! I’ve been asked to deliver a talk to a group of people at work. I’m a lousy speaker. I get so nervous speaking to groups. I shake and sweat. I forget what I want to say. What will my team think? What will my boss think? What if I blow it? It could be embarrassing.”

The Snake Bites Its Tail

Our critical voice affects not only our attitude, it determines our relationships, what school we choose, what career path we take, our work performance, how we relate to others. It can keep us from venturing out of our comfort zone, limit our job advancement, block new opportunities, and inhibit us from finding innovative solutions to challenges. We’re our own target … the snake that bites its own tail.

A persistent critical voice can set us on a downward spiral. That voice can become a pattern of self-propagating negative thoughts, denying us the realization that we are strong and capable. We can form self-sabotaging behaviors. We might procrastinate. We might turn inward. Listening to this voice we sell ourselves short.

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. co-author of Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, makes an important observation about our internal voice. “It’s not the truth that hurts. It’s what we think of ourselves that we really get reactive to,” she says.

Where Does It Come From?

Researchers in neurology say our inner voice takes place in the left hemisphere of the brain, the same place where abstract language is processed. Inner speech controls our self-awareness. We interpret the world outside of us using the filters of our defective self-awareness, causing us to be self-judgmental, to worry, be fearful, feel shame and doubt, and berate ourselves. Our self-esteem diminishes. Our inner voice is like an alter ego we allow to run rampant because our brain doesn’t distinguish the difference between that voice and reality. It can be our own worst enemy.

How to Conquer Your Inner Demon

Rewriting the critical voice script can be the way out of the self-defeating pattern. Consider these actionable steps:

Awareness is first. If you’re not aware that you have an inner voice, let alone what that inner voice is telling you, you are its slave. Recognize events that trigger it: interactions with others, negative feedback, work frustrations …

Alertness. Be alert to the signs you are shifting into critical self-talk. Some clues are that you begin slipping into a mental funk or become upset, mentally drained or tired or grouchy, snap at the people around you, get overly sensitive to innocent remarks by others or situations when things are not going your way.

Replay. Go over what your critical inner voice is saying. Think of a replay as hitting the playback button on a recording device.

Listen. Identify the thought process that’s going on in your head. What is the meaning of those thoughts? Are criticizing yourself? Assign words or labels to that criticism. What are you telling yourself?

Observe. Watch what happens when you let your critical voice take over. Whatever occurs is the outward manifestation of those voices. What behaviors and actions does it elicit?

Evaluate. How is this voice limiting you? How did that replay make you feel? What action is your inner voice advocating? Is it telling you to avoid doing something, brow-beat yourself, lash out at others? What were the accompanying emotions? Anger? Anxiety? Sadness? Frustration? Since our brain doesn’t know the difference between the actual event and replaying the event in our head, your recollection feels as real as if it’s actually happening. That can work against you and for you; that’s why evaluating those thoughts is so important.

Replace. Once you have pinpointed the precipitating event and identified what your critical voice was telling you, you’re ready to take control of that voice. How?  Many strategies can get you there:

  • Ignore that voice, decide not to listen to it by switching it off (not so easy, but possible with practice).
  • If you have trouble ignoring it, decide not to act on its advice. Decide to put any actions it advocates on hold.
  • Replace a critical script with one that is positive, empowering, leads you to take positive action.

Exercise Your Brain

Positive thoughts lead to positive attitudes and action, which leads to a happy state of mind and decision-making that benefits you.

To use an earlier example – wanting to ask for a raise – listen to what you are telling yourself and identify the fallout from those thoughts (inaction, procrastination, poor job performance, stress, health issues). Push those thoughts away and replace them with a positive script. “I did great work this year and deserve a raise or promotion. I want people to be reminded of my performance. With a raise or promotion I will feel more satisfied. It will push me to even better performance and opportunities.”

PRACTICE. Like a muscle, the brain needs exercise. It needs repetition. That’s how we got into this mess in the first place and it’s how we’re going to get out of it. We learned self-criticism so well that it became hard-wired into our brain. Like an involuntary muscle, when we think about it, we do it. We can learn to think positive thoughts just as well as negative ones. It happens with practice.

Brain-Based Exercises to Retrain Your Inner Voice

If you change your inner voice, you change your behavior. If you change your behavior you change your attitude. If you change your attitude you change your life for the better. Here are exercises to kick off the process:

Floating cloud technique. Most people quickly become aware of fragmentary thoughts drifting in and out of their consciousness. Try focusing in on them. Write them down along with any feelings that you’re aware of. Imagine each thought is a cloud. Identify each one and then let it float away, being as neutral as possible and releasing any negative sensations. By observing and not judging those thoughts you can learn not be upset by them.

Replacement technique. Interrupt any destructive inner thoughts and replace them with repetitive positive statements. You’re rewriting your mental scripts. Example: “I know I will succeed.” This will boost your self-esteem when performed repeatedly.

Silver lining technique. Look for the positive in what looks like negative. There is opportunity in every obstacle. That which we struggle with can make us stronger.

Practice these techniques diligently, especially when you’re hit with particularly difficult negative inner chatter. They will, at the very least, relieve the intense stress, calm you down, put you in a better frame of mind, restore confidence, and help dissolve the inner turmoil associated with them. They will keep your critical voice from going into autopilot mode.

We Are in Control

Don’t be afraid of your inner voice. Self-talk – critical or not – suggests a brain that is cognitively more complex. Embrace the knowledge that you have an incredible power at your disposal. Using the thoughts in our brain, we are free to pursue more satisfaction and meaning, be more at peace, form deeper relationships, be more optimistic, and control your destiny.