There’s a voice inside that we wish we could just silence. It’s our inner-critic, or negative self-talk.
In pop psychology, some believe that this is the internalized voice of our parents.
And while there’s a kernel of truth to this, I hate to break it you— but, it’s actually worse than that. We don’t just repeat the harsh things our parents said to us. Instead, we actively turn on ourselves as children in order to preserve the relationship with our parents.
Even though that voice may be strongly influenced by what our parents said to us, let’s be clear:
That voice in our heads? It’s us. It’s OUR voice.
How did this voice come to be? Why are we so mean to ourselves? How do we learn to be kinder? I’ll explain.
It all starts when we’re children.
When we’re babies, love and support from our caregivers or parents isn’t just something we enjoy, it’s truly a life-or-death survival need. We will do literally anything to preserve our connection to our parents or attachment figures (a.k.a. the people raising us), because if we don’t, we won’t…live.
In case you think this sounds dramatic, here’s a quick dive into a tragic phenomenon called “failure to thrive” or “hospitalism.” In the 1890’s, doctors observed that orphaned infants were dying at alarming rates in hospitals, despite being given proper nutrition and medical care. This sent shock waves through the medical and psychological communities, and it became all too clear that in order for babies to survive, food and shelter are not enough.
We need love, touch, affection and warmth just as much as we need air.
So why do we turn on ourselves? The answer is complicated, but it starts when we’re very young.
Intentionally or unintentionally, our parents weren’t able to meet all of our needs. Maybe we couldn’t talk yet, and they couldn’t figure out what we needed. Maybe our parents were fighting their own internal battles, or didn’t have the material resources to meet our needs.
And when our needs aren’t met, we’re put in an impossible bind. Do we keep asking for what we need, even if we know we won’t get it, or do we accept that our parents can’t give us what we need (which is hopeless)?
Both choices are bad, but the latter is overwhelming for a child.
Why we abandon our own needs.
So then we’re left with one other option: telling ourselves that our needs are bad. That we’re bad for needing them.
And sometimes, this forces us to adapt and change. We can learn to manage without getting our needs met.
But if we tell ourselves that our are needs “bad” in order to preserve our relationship with our caregivers, this allows for us to at least maintain some hope. This is what’s called an adaptive survival strategy— turning on ourselves to keep hope alive becomes a strategy for survival.
When we get older, and begin to have more developed personalities and language, different challenges emerge. We start to discover and express our likes and dislikes. We learn the word “no.” We want to start exploring the world beyond our parents’ laps, and find a sense of independence, while also trusting that our parents will be there for us when we’re ready to come back and be held.
This is a really challenging time for many parents, and can trigger a lot of old childhood wounds. If we weren’t supported or encouraged (or were even ridiculed or punished) when we were learning to express ourselves and be independent, watching our children do this can feel scary and threatening both for them and for us. And what do we do when we see someone doing something that feels scary and threatening? We try to shut it down.
When we’re constantly being shut down by our parents, it puts us in another impossible bind. Do we stay true to ourselves and subject ourselves to pain, rejection or punishment, or do we abandon ourselves to try and please our parents?
Most of us choose the latter option, because as children, we will protect our relationships with our caregivers at any cost. After all, we’re dependent on our caregivers for a long time and if they reject us, all is lost.
How this creates negative self-talk.
When we abandon our needs, it doesn’t just leave us with a vague feeling that we’re bad, but encourages us to actively turn on ourselves with our self-talk, and attack the aspects of ourselves that would threaten our connection to our parents.
Our inner critic plays an important role in making sure we preserve that connection at all costs. This is adaptive as a child, but the impact on our relationship with ourselves over time is devastating.
Our relationship with ourselves, like all relationships, is made up of a complex web of communication, action and emotion. Like any other relationship, how we communicate with ourselves has a big impact on how healthy that relationship is. If we’re constantly calling ourselves lazy slobs, that is going to affect the relationship.
So now there are two pieces to this: 1) we can recognize that calling ourselves lazy slobs may have helped us stay in our parents’ good graces in some way, and 2) as adults, speaking to ourselves this way is very damaging because it erodes our sense of trust in ourselves. Most of us wouldn’t trust someone who called us a lazy slob all the time, so if we’re doing that to ourselves, we’re not going to trust ourselves much either.
It’s also completely self-defeating. Contrary to popular belief, we are much less likely to be motivated to do better when we’re hard on ourselves. Research tells us that we’re much more likely to feel motivated to do better when we’re kind and compassionate toward ourselves.
So how in the world do we show ourselves compassion, quiet the inner critic, and rebuild trust?
Unfortunately there are no “quick tips” for healing our relationship with ourselves. Just as it can take time to build trust in a marriage, it can take time to rebuild trust with ourselves. That being said, there are two practices that when done consistently can create shifts over time.
When we say something harsh, critical or downright mean to ourselves, apologize! In healthy relationships, when we say something hurtful to another person, we say we’re sorry. It is no different in our relationship with ourselves.
If you find yourself thinking, “it’s super weird to apologize to myself,” then consider this: why is it weird to apologize, but not weird to call yourself ugly, a failure or stupid? We’re already talking to ourselves, so it’s not any weirder to apologize.
Let’s say you’re being hard on yourself about what you accomplished today. Sure, you have a sick dog, 2 children at home for the summer, 10 projects and work, and you’re supporting a close friend going through a break up, but “of course you should have worked out today” and you must be “so lazy” because you didn’t (the internet needs a sarcasm font).
How would you feel if someone you loved told you that you were lazy for not working out? Wouldn’t you jump to your own defense? It wasn’t lazy, you had a full plate and chose to prioritize other things.
Just try to imagine how you might respond if someone in your life said to you exactly what you’ve been saying to yourself, and just notice what’s there.
Sometimes we might imagine this and think to ourselves, “I’d agree with them,” so if that’s the case, there’s another way in.
The other way to do this is to imagine how you might feel about someone you love in the same situation. Let’s say you don’t have a million things on your plate. Let’s say you’re feeling really anxious and depressed and even doing the laundry feels impossible, and you’re judging yourself for this. How would you feel if your niece or your best friend told you they were in the same situation? Would you call them lazy or weak for not being able to do more when they’re depressed?
Almost certainly not. So why is it different for you?
Both of these tools can help us start to see ourselves differently, and slowly but surely, that harsh inner voice can begin to quiet.
If it’s possible for you, talking to a developmental trauma informed therapist can be really helpful in this process, and if you’re intrigued by this philosophy, definitely check out the book Healing Developmental Trauma by Dr. Laurence Heller or the NARM Training Institute.