Is the critical voice really an enemy, or a friend in disguise as an enemy, in disguise as a friend? Confusing, I know, read on.
You know what I’m talking about right? That voice in your head that is always saying negative things about you. Always accusing you of being not good enough, or selfish, or weak, or stupid,or lazy, or unlovable, or too angry, or too passive, or a failure or arrogant, or (Insert negative judgments here……………………………………………………………...).
What? You don’t have one of those? Oh well, no need to read further. Lucky you.
Oh, hang on. You’re still here. Welcome to humanity.
Now, I’m not saying that there are not people who don’t have a critical voice. To not have a critical voice you would either have to have been raised in a psychologically healthy family with two very psychologically healthy parents, or to have done a lot of work on yourself.
There may be people like that. One day I hope to meet one, and the talking Unicorn they rode in on. In my line of work the chances are pretty slim though. As a psychologist, I spend most of my time contending with the critical voice in other people’s heads. It’s tricky work, because the critical voice is a tricky customer.
Firstly, most people don’t really know it’s there in a really conscious way. They certainly feel the way it affects them, but they are not actually paying attention to what it’s saying. It is just background noise and they just assume that it is their voice, despite it usually having a remarkable similarity to one or both of their parents, and that it is right about them. If their own voice is saying it, it must be true.
Secondly, it’s clever and it tends to gaslight us. Gaslighting is where you do something to someone else, deny doing it, and accuse them of being crazy if they react to it. This can take several forms, with the most common being to accuse the person of doing something to deserve the abuse, or to be overreacting to the abuse, or to deserve the abuse because of the way they are reacting to it.
The critical voice does this a lot. It pretends to be our friend who is trying to help us overcome our shortcomings, or fix our faults, or restrain our badness in some way. What it is really doing is convincing us that we are faulty or bad or broken, and trying to stop us from doing the things we want to do in life.
Here is where things get a bit confusing though. The critical voice IS our friend. It IS trying to protect us, and it’s doing that by stopping us from doing things that might have got us rejected, punished or disapproved of when we were children. That’s why it usually sounds like your parents. The critical voice is an internalised representation of the rules of your childhood environment.
If being too loud or assertive got you into trouble, the critical voice will try to stop you doing that. If you being successful was perceived as a threat by someone in your childhood, perhaps even one of your siblings, it will try to stop you doing that. If having fun and relaxing was punished or disapproved of as a child, it will try to stop you doing that. If not succeeding got you humiliated, it will demand you always succeed, at everything. If being vulnerable was shamed, it will shame you for being vulnerable. If your desires were guilted, it will guilt you for wanting things.
If there were conflicting messages in your childhood your critical voice will be giving you conflicting messages now. One of the most common I have seen is where one parent rejects you for failing or being vulnerable, while the other one rejects and punishes you for being too assertive or ‘selfish’. This creates what I have come to call the ‘survival zone’, a very narrow range of behaviours that demand you to strive for success, but also prohibit you from being too successful. Very anxiety producing, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
Your critical voice is an algorithm, a program your brain wrote to adapt you to that environment at a time when you had very little agency and when you were extremely dependent on the support and approval of others. It’s a program out of time, stuck in a past that no longer exists. It’s a program that desperately needs upgrading to the current you in the current world, but it doesn’t know that.
Freud called it the ego, or at least part of the ego. In Freud’s concept its job is to survive by adapting your behaviour to your environment. It accomplishes this by creating an identity, which is really just a series of beliefs about who you are and who you are supposed to be. This comes from your environment. Human beings are a social animal, we need the group to survive, so we depend on our family and community.
Of course, it may have little to do with who you actually feel yourself to be. Freud called this the Id, but the psychologist Russel Meares calls it the ‘felt sense of self’ - your talents, values, desires and aspirations. The problem with the felt sense of self is that it may not be approved of by your caregivers and your culture. It may even be punished or abused.
When, as a child, there is a conflict between this natural felt self and the expectations of your environment, it is the felt self that gets repressed, and the ego that accomplishes this. It has three weapons to work with - fear, guilt and shame. These are your inhibitive emotions.
Fear’s job is to make you be cautious in the presence of threat, and motivates you to behave somewhere between being careful and running away. In order to stop you doing things that might get you disapproved of, your critical voice may terrify you with predictions of disaster and failure to keep you in line.
Guilt’s job is to stop you doing things that will violate the social contract that requires fairness, a balance of giving and taking. It motivates you to contribute, to avoid doing unnecessary harm and avoid acting in ways that are unfair, such as taking what you haven’t earned. In order to stop you acting in self-interest and keep you within the expectations of others, your critical voice may persecute you with the belief that you are bad, selfish, corrupt or deviant.
Shame’s job is to keep you aligned with your values, and motivate you to perform so you will be well esteemed by your group. However, those values and aspirations may not be conforming to the culture of your family or community, so the critical voice will use shame to stop you expressing yourself in ways that will violate these mores. It does this by telling you that you are unworthy, unentitled and unlikely to succeed, and may terrify you with visions of social rejection and humiliation.
In summary, the critical voice is using your own natural values, emotions and inhibitions against you by telling you untrue stories about who you are and predicting disastrous consequences if you rebel against it. It does this to repress you, in order to protect you. Another way to think of it is as learning that was appropriate to that environment but is now inappropriate to the reality of being an adult.
The critical voice is especially strong where there has been childhood trauma. Threatening experiences can create very intense emotional responses, and lead to very deep learnings that get stuck in the limbic system in the brain. In these cases, the critical voice will be very, very determined that you do not do anything that risks a repeat of those experiences. Therefore it will enforce those early learnings very strongly.
For instance, if you were having fun and making noise as a kid, and one of your parents went berserk about it, this may have been written into your brain as a very dangerous thing to do, and your critical voice will be very committed to making sure you don’t have too much fun or be too loud in the future.
Now you are an adult, capable of protecting yourself and having appropriate levels of fun and making appropriate levels of noise, but your critical voice doesn’t know that you have evolved and still thinks you are a powerless child, so that is how it treats you. It’s learning have not evolved with you, because the memories that underpin those early learnings have not resolved and evolved.
Dear Frenemy - “I’ll save you”
Now, as I said at the start, the critical voice does not always appear in the guise of an enemy. If all the critical voice did was criticise, abuse, repress and demand you would quickly start to rebel against it, which would be game over. So it is more clever than that. It doesn’t just tell you you are broken, it promises to fix you too. Of course, to believe that you need fixing you have to continue to believe that you are broken.
Your critical voice promises to solve the problem it says you have. If it is telling you that you aren’t powerful enough, it promises to make you powerful. If it’s telling you you aren’t worthy enough, it offers you a path to greater worth. Bad? I’ll make you good. Whatever it is telling you is wrong with you it also tells you it can fix, but it never really fixes it. It can’t, it was never really broken.
Sometimes the ‘fix’ is just becoming more of what would have gotten you approved and loved as a child. More beautiful, more intelligent, more perfect, more accomplished, more loving or more powerful. The problem being that there is never a point at which more is enough. No matter how well you do, the goal posts just move to a new level and you have to achieve that to become OK, and then they move again.
Sometimes it is even trickier than that. If surviving as a child meant you needed to repress your power and your self-expression, then the critical voice has to keep you feeling unentitled to be who you are. In this case the ‘fix’ it offers you is really just a way of giving you enough hope that you will still listen to this voice in your head, but the minute you start to approach being OK it will sabotage your success by telling you that it’s too dangerous or that you are still too broken or too faulty.
This is the tricky bit. The purpose of the fix is how it keeps you believing you are broken. The minute you stop believing that there is something innately wrong with you, it’s game over for the critical voice. You won’t listen anymore and you will just get on with being who you are and living how you want to live. You will start taking risks, expressing yourself, having good boundaries and pursuing your dreams.
So I guess, now that you know what this nasty/friendly voice in your head is up to, you would probably like to know how to change it. Good.
Healing the Enemy Within
Did you notice that I didn’t say ‘defeating the enemy within’? For good reasons. The first is that you cannot defeat yourself, and the second is that you don’t need to. Your critical voice may sound like an imposing and all powerful tyrant who is out to ruin your life, but it’s really just a terrified child trying to protect you against what it perceives to be the dangerous and unacceptable parts of yourself.
It’s a program, and programs can be changed, but it’s an intelligent program that will resist your attempts to change it, so it needs to change itself. The critical voice needs new information. It needs to understand that you are no longer a powerless child and that its strategies for getting you supported, accepted and loved no longer work.
It needs a new job description, one that gets it to encourage, validate and empower you to use your power, know your worth, value yourself and be yourself. The enemy who has been telling you that you are faulty, and pretending to be a friend who is going to fix your faultiness, needs to become a true friend who recognises your magnificence and helps you to shine.
How? Through love. Everything you resist will persist, everything you love will evolve. We have to love the ego into the present moment by engaging with it, teaching it and showing it that its strategy is no longer necessary. To put that another way, the critical voice is a trauma response, and trauma needs healing.
We can’t ‘fix’ the critical voice anymore than it can ‘fix’ us, and trying to fix the critical voice is usually just the critical voice pretending to fix itself because it knows you’re onto it. The critical voice isn’t broken, it’s your ego doing its job to protect you by adapting you to an earlier environment. Fighting it won’t work. Positive affirmations won’t work much. Ignoring it will work a little bit, but it’s hard work.
The most effective way to heal this is to work with a good trauma therapist to resolve the trauma memories that the critical voice is an adaptation to. Traumas are any event that left you believing something bad about yourself. The problem is that trauma memories are ‘locked’ and the negative belief that is locked inside them cannot change until we can get something better in there.
This is why purely cognitive therapies that don’t have a level of controlled re-experiencing often fail to make lasting change. Having a better understanding, a new perspective or a better story of self is good medicine, but the medicine has to get to the wound to do any real healing.
These memories also contain the emotional and sensory information of the event, and they have a ‘here and now’ quality to them, so they can feel pretty real when they are activated. This is why the critical voice telling you that you are broken, bad or faulty can feel so real, because it triggers these ‘experiences’ of being rejected, punished, abused and abandoned. Once these trauma memories have been healed the critical story loses its emotional power.
Have you ever wondered why people, maybe you, will fight so hard to defend their belief in being broken, bad or faulty? They ‘feel’ broken, so telling them that it isn’t true is felt as an invalidation of their experience. Telling them that they are OK is emotionally incongruent to their trauma and can be experienced as a threat to their hope for the future and their sense of self. What they are really defending is the possibility of being fixed that their ego had promised them, not their broken story.
These trauma memories are also why the critical voice believes you are broken, bad or faulty in the first place. These are the events it is trying to protect you against, by making sure that you don’t do anything that may get other people to treat you this way again. Unfortunately, it is often a self-fulfilling prophecy because the feelings and behaviours created by this negative story of self can make us vulnerable to being treated in negative ways by others, but that’s another article.
If you can’t get to a good trauma therapist, or you aren’t ready to do that, the next best thing is to become curious about what your head is saying to you and to see how this is making you feel. I often get clients to stand in front of a mirror and speak their critical thoughts out loud, with a ‘you’ pronoun. I.e. “You are a worthless waste of space, you are pathetic, you aren’t good enough, etc.”
This has a couple of effects. The first is ownership. The critical voice often seems to be something separate to us that is attacking us and we feel like its victim (those trauma experiences getting triggered). When we see ourselves doing this to ourselves it becomes clear that we are doing it, and once we have owned it we have power over it again.
The second reason is because I want people to feel how much it is hurting them to do this. It’s a bit like repeatedly hitting yourself in the head with a hammer and believing that someone else is swinging the hammer. Once you see that it’s your arm holding the hammer the choice to stop doing it becomes almost inevitable. Realising our responsibility gives us response ability. If it’s me doing it, I can change it.
So, either see a good trauma therapist, or take ownership of your critical voice, or both - both is better! Either way, it’s really just a protector trying to keep you safe from a repeat of your trauma. Give it a new option to keep you safe, like empowering you to live your magnificence.