When was the last time you really listened to that voice inside your head? You know the one I mean—that one that is constantly criticizing you in the nastiest ways, telling you how you don’t measure up, and generally accusing you of being a loser.
That voice that speaks to us in ways that we’d never dream of speaking to someone else. It knows just what insults will leave you internally cringing and ashamed. It speaks to you constantly like an angry parent scolding a disobedient child.
And it never, ever stops.
I have one of those voices in my head, too. I think we all do to some degree or another.
I’ve learned over time, though, that while we may be stuck with that voice in our heads, we do have more control than we think we do about the way we allow it to talk to us.
For a long time, I don’t think I was even aware of that voice and just how nasty it could be. I just kept attracting people into my life that echoed the same things on the outside. They generally weren’t nearly as nasty, of course, but they echoed the same constant message that I never measured up and was never quite good enough.
Eventually, I became more aware of this inner critic, and even though I was horrified at the way it spoke to me, I still believed I deserved it. After all, I needed that push to improve if I was ever going to make something of myself, right?
I thought I needed to bullied into growth, beaten into compliance with the things I knew I should be doing (but often didn’t do), and needed to stay honest and aware of all that is wrong with me in order to make sure I didn’t develop any skewed ideas about what I am worth.
So I allowed that voice to keep right on going and continued collecting those external echoes from others who were equally sure that I was not good enough as I am.
As a scientist, though, I had to eventually pay attention to the evidence. The fact was that no matter how much I beat myself up (and allowed others to do so), it wasn’t helping me get any closer to the person I wanted to become. In fact, most of the time, I was just too discouraged to even try.
I noticed that when I was around people who saw good things in me and encouraged me with kindness that I was more likely to do the kinds of things that I wanted to do and to be the kind of person that I want to be than when I was being criticized.
The evidence said that I responded much better to the carrot than the stick when I came to motivation, and that evidence was enough to change my mind about my need for that self-critical voice.
I began learning about self-compassion. (Kristen Neff’s book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself is a great source for this!) I began learning how to speak to myself with kindness and encouragement. I began gently dismissing the harsh voice when it spoke up and replacing its commentary with kinder words.
At the same time, I slowly began spending less and less time with those people who echoed that critical voice on the outside of my head. I don’t expect all of my friends to think I’m faultless, of course, but I have learned to expect that they treat my faults with compassion and that they spend more time encouraging me than criticizing me.
The results of this experiment have been stunning!
While I still have most of the same faults, they no longer control my world. I spend much more time emphasizing the use of my strengths, and this means that I’m now actively growing into the kind of person I want to be. I’m more productive. I’m kinder (both to myself and others). I’m more optimistic. I take more risks. I’m happier. I’m learning to be at home in my own skin.
It turns out that I didn’t need that self-critical voice to motivate me after all. In fact, it was holding me back from reaching the goals I thought it was going to help me achieve!
Learning to speak to myself with self-compassion and encouragement instead of ugly self-criticism has completely changed my world.
How does the voice inside your head talk to you? Is it compassionate or nasty? How might shifting toward more self-compassionate self-talk change your life?
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