Is this what you call yourself when you stumble or make a mistake?
My niece called herself an idiot last week when she made a small error cooking our brunch. When I commented on calling herself an idiot, she assured me she would never call her children that. I believe her. Ann is a particularly giving woman and very conscientious as a parent. So how comes she doesn’t extend that to herself? What gives?
The Inner Critic
As a psychotherapist I get to listen in on that voice chattering away in people’s heads, and although I work with very nice people, how they speak to themselves can make me cringe.
There are different names for the critical voice in our heads; the most common is Inner Critic. Generally this is an aspect of our consciousness that developed when we were very young and internalized rules from our environment. These rules tend to be very black-and-white, as they are to a young mind, and the way of enforcing them is also rather primitive. Mocking, ridiculing, threatening with extreme consequences are actually rather coarse influence skills. It’s like a terrified four-year-old desperately trying to keep you in line, warning you the world will end if you don’t do something just right.
There are books about trying to defend against or slowly dismantle this inner critic. Here I’m going to focus on bringing in a voice that may help neutralize the critic and eventually replace it. Wouldn’t you like a kinder voice inside your head?
Nurturing Parent Messages
One way of thinking about it is that harsh self-talk (the way you talk to yourself) is a replay of critical-parent messages, and what we need instead are nurturing-parent messages. I’ll give examples of some, categorized by the functions they fulfill:
To comfort or soothe:
- Oh, Sweetie, it’s okay!
- That was really hard, wasn’t it? I’m here with you.
- You can do it! You’re so close…
- Remember how you mastered (XYZ).
To build self-esteem:
- That was so creative/smart/strong/brave…
- People like you.
What if you didn’t ever hear these kinds of things growing up? What if “nurturing parent” sounds like fiction to you? All is not lost. You can develop an inner presence with these qualities. As I wrote in The Emotionally Absent Mother, you can learn to mother yourself.
This capacity to respond to our needs in a nurturing way is something we develop over time. In doing so, we are actually growing a part of our self. Although often couched in terms of an Inner Parent helping an Inner Child, it doesn’t need to be.
An Inner Ally
What if you think of this voice we want to cultivate as an Inner Ally? Whereas the Inner Critic is like someone who kicks you when you’re down, this Inner Ally is someone who helps pick you up.
It helps us develop a nurturing inner voice if we have (or had) someone in our life who was especially kind and supportive to us. For me it began with “practicing” the response of a therapist I was working with at the time, which helped me set up a mirror image of her inside. (I’ve also written about this as a “Portable Good Mother.” Portable is good. You can’t always call someone in the middle of the night.) It starts out generally as a real, external resource that is then internalized.
If you absolutely can’t think of someone to base this inner ally on, you can work with a fictional image or an archetype. Everyone has been exposed to images of a nurturing other.
To develop your Inner Ally, begin by imagining what an ally would say when you burn the crust or make a mistake. What would a good parent or good partner say? What would you want to say to someone you love who just stumbled or fumbled in some way?
Imagine that being said to you, or saying it to yourself. Practice! We have plenty of opportunities in a day to comfort or encourage ourselves.
Gradually, this voice is there more and more of the time. I would say late in the process of integration, it feels indistinguishable from you.
Who Do You Listen To?
I had a client the other day who had been simmering in self-hate for several weeks. The hatred was communicated through a shaming voice. It had been beating her up, bad. When I couldn’t get behind the shame attack to how it might be trying to protect her, I changed tacks. I invited her to bring in a figure of light, perhaps someone from the Upper World. She had a clear sense of a spiritual teacher she had a strong connection with, and let herself orient to that. I watched as her face became beatific. She was filling with love. Since love is opposite hatred, it unhooked her from the hatred.
This is the choice we need to consciously make: We can listen to the shame attack, living under the thumb of the Inner Critic, or we can “change the channel” to a different energy.
Think about the energy you’d like to have available in times of need. That’s the energy you want to cultivate. That’s the loving voice you want as an inside companion. See if you can practice a more loving voice this week.
This post first appeared on Always Well Within, Sandra Pawula’s lovely blog to help you live a happier and more purposeful life.