“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” This little rhyme was one my mother told me and I used many times as a child when someone was taunting or teasing me or calling me names. I was trying to convince myself that the words of another did not matter, but the truth is, their words did hurt me. I could pretend otherwise, but inside it hurt. The words cut, they create damage within and knowing that someone said something to intentionally hurt me, did not help.
To this day however, the words of others are nothing compared to the meanness and hurt of some of the words I’ve said to myself. I don’t always say these words out loud, but the inside of my head is not a safe neighborhood to hang out, especially at night. If I had an action figure that represented myself and every time I had a negative or self-critical thought I whacked that action figure, I doubt it would make it through the day. It seems this is common among people I’ve talked to. I’ve worked with dozens of clients who refer to themselves as their own worst critic, but never as their own best friend.
Many psychologists discuss the concept of the inner critic. It’s referred to by many different names, but most agree that it can be directly linked to how our parents talked to us when we were growing up. Throughout our childhood experiences of interacting with our primary care givers, we imitate the parenting we received inside our own heads, continuing the practice of praising, disciplining, etc. One of the ways that shows up is as that critical inner voice. It’s also possible to have a nurturing, supportive voice but this softer, gentler voice for most people is drowned out by the louder, critical one.
In addition to self-criticism, I notice there are times when it seems everything going through my head is negative. No one around me is doing anything right, things are going wrong, and the world is a dark and scary place. When my inner self-talk goes down the fear spiral my mind can really go to town with what’s going on with the economy, and how I have been affected personally. The ‘what if’s’ completely take over and my inner neighborhood becomes a dark storm of disastrous possibilities that show up as loss, scarcity and catastrophe.
The good news is we can actually change our inner self-talk AND we can change what comes out of our mouths. Catching the inner critic before it starts beating us up and shifting our words to nurturing, supportive direction, like a coach would give, can lead to more positive outcomes in our lives. Being conscious, deliberate and intentional about what we say and what we think takes raising awareness, making a choice and acting differently.
Raising awareness starts with becoming an observer of yourself, noticing what you’re saying to yourself, how you’re interpreting situations, and what is actually coming out of your mouth, especially at those moments when no one is there to witness it. I have found the practice of journaling to be very useful in this. There are times when I don’t feel comfortable telling another person what I’m really thinking, but I would write it in a journal I knew was safe from the eyes of others. Once my thoughts and words are down on the page I can often see how my thinking is distorted.
Once I have recognized a negative or disempowering pattern, I can make a different choice. But what choice do I make? After all, my best thinking got me here. It can be really helpful in the beginning to get input from an objective friend or advisor since we can’t always be objective about ourselves. For example, I told a friend of mine that not as many people have been signing up for classes lately. She reminded me that I could look at this as something personally to do with me or I could more accurately conclude that people are reserving funds because of the economy. I realized she was right. If I take it personally, it feels negative, discouraging and disempowering, but with the latter interpretation I can look at it as an opportunity to do some work that I haven’t had time to do because I’ve been training so much.
Acting differently, of course means we don’t just raise our awareness and do nothing with it, it means we follow through and declare our new interpretations out loud. It’s a way of establishing a new pattern.
The most powerful way I have found to make these ideas work for me is by being proactive vs. reactive. If I wait for the moments when my thoughts are negative and self-critical it is much harder to direct myself to a positive direction, but by deliberately choosing to be gentle and supportive of myself as a matter of course, I can create a positive foundation to build from.
To do this, I have developed a daily practice of saying positive, uplifting and empowering statements to myself as soon as I wake up in the morning (typically the most negative time of day for many people). Statements like these are commonly called “Affirmations” because they are validating a positive truth we wish to emphasize and expand. The most gratifying result for me is a reduction in fear and depression, in spite of the constant influx of negative input so prevalent lately in the news and by doing this on a daily basis I have started a new, more positive pattern of thinking that leads to raised self-esteem and more positive outcomes.