It’s easy for us to think of our job, finances, health, etc as causes for our anxiety. It might surprise you to learn the most significant factor in creating anxiety actually comes from within. It’s the critical voice we hear between our ears; our Inner Critic. Studies link negative self talk to anxiety, depression and low self esteem.
Where did this critic come from? As children we internalize what we observe and hear from others. We’re absorbing ideas and words before we have the capacity to discriminate truth from fiction (or other peoples crap). As children we are also completely dependent upon the adults who care for us. We have a survival instinct to please the caregivers so we can be housed and fed. In our innocent minds it’s easy for us to internalize criticisms, teasing or protective instructions we hear and take them to heart. Our child mind develops this inner voice to be vigilant to our behavior so we can please those around us and in return be cared for. This isn’t to blame parents, teachers, clergy, etc. Though some might justifiably be to blame, it won’t help us at this point. Most of them are merely repeating what they were told as children and what they still hear from their inner critic.
Unfortunately, we can learn early in life how we don’t measure up…that we need to do something special or be different than we are in order to be okay. We believe our survival depends on “doing right” or pleasing and our inner critic is born. For those who experienced abuse, the anxiety is intensified because not “doing right” resulted in harm. For all of us, the inner critic is connected to a survival instinct which can trigger anxiety.
Our flight or fight system can’t tell the difference from real or perceived threats so our constant internal belittling feels like a real threat. When you start beating yourself up, it often triggers the same biological responses you would experience if you almost hit another car (or any other scary event). Your adrenal cortex automatically releases stress hormones, your heart automatically beats faster, your breathing automatically becomes faster, your thyroid gland automatically increases your metabolism, and your larger muscles automatically receive more oxygenated blood. What you will notice is your body is having an automatic response to this perceived threat (your inner critic) even though it’s not a true threat.
Being attacked from inside by your inner critic is like having a monster locked in the room with you. It can add substantially to your experience of anxiety.
You’ll hear the monster say:
Why do I always make such a fool of myself?
Why did I blurt that out?
I’m so fat, I look terrible in this.
I always screw up the important stuff.
But she might not be so blunt. Some of the monsters are a little craftier. They sound like this:
She always looks so good; I wish I could be more like her.
I don’t fit in here.
She’s just being nice to me…she doesn’t really like me.
I need to be better/different/anything other than what I am.
So how do we open the door and get the monster out of the room?
Quieting Your Inner Critic
- First, become conscious of the attacks you are making on yourself so you can change the dialog and become more gentle and compassionate. If you don’t notice them you can’t re-frame them. A meditation practice can increase your awareness.
- If you’re feeling anxiety, stop and recall your recent thoughts. Have you been criticizing yourself? Do you sense shame or guilt?
- Re-frame the thoughts in your head. Picture yourself at 3 or 4 years old. Imagine this child saying these things to herself. What would you say to her? Tell her the comforting words she needs to hear.
- When giving yourself a pep talk or saying comforting things, use your name or the pronoun “you”. Studies show it is more effective at calming and bolstering you. “You can finish this blog, Wendy, you’re a good writer”. 😀
- Eliminate the word “should” from your vocabulary. Replace it with “get to” where possible. “I should go for a walk” becomes “I get to go for a walk”.
- Embrace the word “yet”. I haven’t got the job I want…YET. Your words are powerful. Speak what you desire and intend, not what you don’t have.
- Ask yourself: If my best friend said this out loud to herself, what would I say to her? Be your own best friend.
- Keep in mind your Inner Critic is trying to protect you; she’s just not effective. Help her by enlisting her help. You can dialog with this voice and let her know what she is saying isn’t true or helpful. Do this gently, as if you are conversing with a young child. Then ask her to support you by reminding you of what you do right. This may seem a bit bizarre but it actually works.
In the whole evolution of humans we’re much like a toddler just learning to walk. When a toddler is learning to walk they often stumble and fall. You wouldn’t tell them they were stupid or worthless would you?
We are all in this life to learn. We deserve the same consideration and affection a toddler does.
The next time you fall, say “oops”, grab the coffee table and congratulate yourself as you pull your body up one more time.