Inner critic is a bully.
April 11, 2016 7:44 AM   Subscribe

My inner critic can be very superficial and mean to myself and others. How do I shut that guy up?

Years of bullying when I was in grade school has turned my inner critic into.. well, a bully. When I was growing up I used to visualize a bully in my head who would say really hurtful and superficial comments to myself. Either about my clothes, weight, people I hang out with, family - pretty much anything. My hatred would aim towards this non-existent bully from my past. It was only until I recently realized that the bully in the head.. was me. I let go of the hate I had for people who brought me down when I was younger and now I want to silence this voice in my head.

The negative self-talk gets pretty loud whenever I'm trying on clothes that don't fit anymore, failing at projects, making mistakes at work - it's pretty horrible. It might be one of the reasons why I've haven't applied myself. The thing is though, this voice doesn't always just appear at times of failure. It happens when I'm happy too. It'll try to tear down what I have that makes me happy.

"That doesn't look as good as you think it does"

"He/she's is only talking to you because they pity you"

"They don't want to talk to you, so don't approach them. They won't like you."

I know I'm talking about this voice as if it's another person, I know it's me. I'm assuming my experience in grade school was pretty traumatic if I'm still carrying this immature, superficial, critical self-talk. Basically like a high-school bully.

As much as I tell myself that this self-talk is ridiculous, I still hear it sometimes.
Help me be at peace with myself.
I'm tired of thinking that everything's not good enough.

I plan on going back to therapy soon. I want to tackle this issue.
But any words of wisdom or advice in the meantime would help.

Thank you
posted by MeaninglessMisfortune to Human Relations (19 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
I wouldn't "talk back" to the voice with negativity. That won't work. Only light can dispel darkness, etc. So I would develop a kind, wise voice as well which thanks the inner critic for trying to protect you, but gently reminds the critic that they are hurting more than they're helping.
posted by quincunx at 7:48 AM on April 11, 2016 [15 favorites]

I agree with quincunx. You cannot silence the bully without silencing yourself. You cannot shut him up with obliterating yourself. The thing is, he is trying to protect you. He saw how you were punished and hurt arbitrarily and he is trying to spare you further harm. It's like if you had been burned by fire as a kid and you had a voice that was constantly saying "you'll get burned!" every time fire was near.

The problem is verbal abuse is arbitrary and senseless. You do nothing to provoke it and yet the assault comes anyway. And if that is true, if there is no way to protect yourself, then the proper solution is to either shut down or run away. Your mind knows this is not a good survival strategy so it looks for better ways to survive. It postulates a causal theory that your behaviour triggered the pain and you can avoid more pain by behaving differently. And honestly, despite placing the responsibility on the wrong party, it is not entirely wrong. If you shrink down to nothing, if you keep a low profile, if you are compliant and tiptoe around others needs, it can be possible to avoid abuse, to a degree. So, oppressing yourself to avoid real oppression is an adaptive survival strategy. But it is tragic, because it is the expression of the self that is blamed and that has to go underground.

What I would suggest is changing your target; it is not the self-talk that is ridiculous; it is the bullying. It is not you who came up with the idea that you were no good and that being yourself would lead to punishment; someone put it there and they did that by punishing you. The self-talk is a survival strategy. It is the same part of you that tells you to fear fire lest you get burned; it is doing its job at keeping you alive. You can embrace and thank this part of yourself for looking out for you, and slowly try to convince it that the threat has passed and he can stand down. Show love to that part of yourself.
posted by PercussivePaul at 8:04 AM on April 11, 2016 [15 favorites]

Yes! I had this for years and years. A lot of good solid therapy -- in my case, psychodynamic -- helped me really come to grips with it.

My therapist said, basically, our brains get so used to hearing those negative voices (in your case, bullies) that we start to believe that those negative voices are "normal" and recreate them internally if someone isn't there externally to do it for us. Like, our brains don't inherently *know* these thoughts are bad and painful; they just know they're typical. Or, put another way:

Mean people: [meanness]
Brain: oh look here is a pattern, great, let's keep doing that
Brain: [meanness]
You: wait no this makes me sad
Brain: but patterns

The solution to this is time and patience and therapy. But it is absolutely, positively doable. It's not about getting rid of the bad voice so much as it is, as quincunx suggests, letting your fragile good voice develop and take root. Eventually your brain will figure out that there's a new pattern and it will catch up and the mean voice will be greatly reduced.

I am a success story of this. You will be, too. Just take care of yourself and find a good therapist.
posted by harperpitt at 8:05 AM on April 11, 2016 [17 favorites]

I would recommend, if your current spiritual path allows, that you investigate metta, or loving kindness meditation.
This practices allows you to send love and kindness to both others AND yourself.

WikiHow on Metta

Metta on the Wildmind Buddhist Meditation site

Sharon Salzburg talk on Metta

I wish you the best.
posted by Major Matt Mason Dixon at 8:06 AM on April 11, 2016 [5 favorites]

I found the Inner Game of Tennis to be a good approach to dealing with this. Even if you are not a tennis player, there are many lessons that I found to be quite valuable and applicable to this situation. I seem to recall only one chapter on actual tennis mechanics.
posted by z11s at 8:07 AM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

There are lots of different approaches to try -- you may need to feel it out to see what will work best for you. You may also find that different approaches work for you at different times. Here are some ideas to try:

- Meditation or mindfulness practice. Start with a very short period of time -- maybe just 5 minutes -- and focus your awareness on your breath. If you become aware of critical thoughts, just notice them and let them float on, like leaves floating down a river. Over time, this can help you detach from the critical voice and gain a sense of inner peace. Here are some resources that might help.

- Refuting the inner critic. Try numbering a piece of paper from 1-25. Now fill in 25 things that your inner critic says to you. Then, write down a counter-argument for each one. You can find more exercises like this in the book The Artist's Way.

- Have a good-faith conversation with the inner critic. So, if the inner critic says, "That person doesn't really like you," you might say back, "Hey buddy. Sounds like you're feeling afraid, and maybe you're trying to protect me from getting hurt. Can you tell me a bit more about why?" Just talk it out with yourself; if appropriate, remind yourself of why the situation might not be as dire as the critic is afraid of, or remind the critic that you're a grown-up now and you have more resources available to you than you did when you were a kid. Be gentle, as though you're talking to a scared kid. This essay about the Social Survival Mammoth might help you to adopt this perspective.
posted by ourobouros at 8:10 AM on April 11, 2016 [3 favorites]

When I got a dog I noticed how encouraging, kind and supportive I was to her. "Oh great job!" "What a good puppy!" "You are such a cutie pie!" I thought about how nice it would be to be surrounded by those sort of positive words all the time instead of the horrible things I said to myself.

So I started paying attention to the things I said to her and -- yes, this will sound ridiculous -- started saying them to myself. I made a very conscious choice to notice when I did something well and to praise myself (usually inside my head but, when I was alone, out loud too). I hate washing dishes, so when I wash them I say something like "Good job, sweetie!" "You're doing such a good job!"

Being with myself has become a much better place to be.
posted by mcduff at 8:18 AM on April 11, 2016 [20 favorites]

A useful, and very accessible, adjunct to MMMD's links on Metta would be Kristin Neff's work on self compassion, which includes some meditations and exercises you might find helpful.
posted by penguin pie at 8:40 AM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

You say you were bullied in school. Is it possible that you invented this inner bully as a way to train yourself against future attacks? Maybe a way to approach this problem is to think of your inner bully as a well meaning (but out of date) sensei. This frame of mind might help you stop the cycle. Bullying yourself for having an inner bully is unlikely to yield results, it's all the same thing. But if you tell that inner critic, "you know, I believe you're just looking out for me, but let's try a more positive approach," it might feel better for you.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:48 AM on April 11, 2016 [4 favorites]

One way I sometimes approach this is doing nice things for myself. You know when you're doing something for someone as a caring gesture, and you're sort of internally meditating on how much you like them and how you want things to be easier and better for them as you do it? Like cleaning up after someone, or writing them a note, or leaving them a little surprise, or putting a care package together?

You can also do those things for yourself! Not only does this make chores more fun, if you frame them as "Here is a thoughtful and kind gift I'm giving to my future self", rather than "Ugh why haven't I done this already I'm so messy why I am I not an actual grown up like everyone else yet uuugh", but I feel like it gets you some of the benefits of self-compassion meditation too.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 9:04 AM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Nthing mindfulness and self-compassion practice. How long do you practice? Oh, everyday from now on.
Here is a technique I use: In your mind, go sit on a hill overlooking a small river. Place your negative thoughts in a boat on the river. Wish it well and watch it float away. The idea is to separate "you" from "your thoughts". They aren't the same thing.
And read When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron.

In peace
posted by jtexman1 at 9:40 AM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Cheri Huber's book There is Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate is all about this.
posted by Lexica at 10:18 AM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

You have already done the hardest part by noticing that it was there. Now you just have to redirect it. Every time it starts up, replace it with a best friend. You wouldn't say those things to your best friend, what would you say? Start talking to yourself the way you talk to others.

This mean voice problem can be a symptom of social anxiety disorder so don't be afraid to try medication for a bit, just until you can get a handle on it.

You can totally beat this.
posted by myselfasme at 10:53 AM on April 11, 2016

This is sort-of-facetious, but not really. Whenever I have the type of thought that you describe, I say to myself: "NOT TODAY, SATAN". It makes me laugh, and acknowledges the non-helpful thought for what it is. The I attempt productive thoughts and actions instead.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 11:07 AM on April 11, 2016 [23 favorites]

Based on advice I read on Metafilter, I made a resolution a number of years ago to start talking to myself like I would talk to a good friend instead like I was my own worst enemy. If I caught myself saying nasty things to myself, I would stop and re-phrase it: change it to something I would actually say outloud to someone I cared about.

It was a slow process. In the first year I found myself thinking frequently, "What the hell, this is so dumb, being nice to myself won't change anything so what's the point?" In the second year I started to realize how screwed up that thought was, because I was literally saying that being nice to myself was dumb and worthless. Since then, things have been a whole lot better.
posted by colfax at 1:15 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I let go of the hate I had for people who brought me down when I was younger and now I want to silence this voice in my head.

This part sticks out to me because it's really really hard to deal with the internalized hatred (the negative self-talk) when you're not allowing yourself to redirect it to its source (your original bullies). I went through a period of refusing to be angry with the people who taught me to hate myself and it really stymied my attempts to get the voice to shut up. When I'm in a really bad spell, sometimes the only way to snap myself out of it is to get angry at the real people who did this to me (especially since I wasn't allowed to get angry with them then); it feels really scary at first but often a simple "no! this is not how I want to talk to myself, I deserve better, and [expletives here] at the people who put this in my head!" works way better than all the positive counter-talk I can think of. It's not like I'm walking around brimming with uncontrolled anger at my bullies, I just use a spike of righteous anger to snap myself out of it when I need it.

The positive self-talk has helped a ton (I also did this via getting a dog) but I found myself kind of plateau-ing and still getting stuck in inner critic whirlpools until I accepted that I cannot avoid my negative emotions and my goal should not be "never feel a bad thing ever". Anger is a valid emotion, sadness is a valid emotion, and they can be useful for hauling yourself out of inner critic spells / emotional flashbacks. Sometimes the job is complicated enough to need multiple tools, y'know? Best of luck!

My book recommendation is Pete Walker's Complex PTSD from Surviving to Thriving which focuses on parental abuse/neglect but can be applied to other inner critics I'm sure.
posted by buteo at 3:50 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

Answering negative self-talk is a significant part of David Burn's Feeling Good book.

You need to answer back to this negative self-talk with strong positive talk.


"He/she's is only talking to you because they pity you" No, I'm actually a very interesting person.

"They don't want to talk to you, so don't approach them. They won't like you." I'm a great person. Many people enjoy my company.

This book has been a great help for me specifically for this reason and it's reasonably priced.
posted by Coffeetyme at 5:11 PM on April 11, 2016

I had one thought from the beginning of your question: you need to watch Ze Frank. His videos remind me I'm not alone. And that my inner critic is more of an asshole than anyone else.

Reading your question was like watching his videos. If you don't know who he is, he's basically one of the pioneers of online video. He did a video nearly every weekday for a year in 2006-2007. They he disappeared (probably partially due to an asshole of an inner critic) and came back in 2012. These videos are from his reemergence.

Watch Finishing (keep going - he gets to the point relevant to you around 2:00). Oh, and FILDI is "Fuck it, Let's Do It." Watch Crushing Words. Watch Everything Thing. Watch Brain Crack. Watch Chase That Happy.

He also made a longer video about how to calm the monsters. I love that video. And one on worrying too much.

Basically, just watch everything on Ze Frank's channels. I have seen all of these videos hundreds of times. They still make me feel better.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:47 PM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

When my inner jerk starts in on anything, my only response is this: "And?"

Just like in real life, if someone is offering complaints and putdowns but isn't offering any actual solutions or constructive criticism, ask exactly what it is they plan to do about it. If the answer is, "Nothing, I was just complaining" (and it probably is) then you are well within your rights to tell them to either do something helpful or shut the hell up and stay out of your way.

I also like a lot of the suggestions to listen to the bad self talk and actively refute it. "You're boring and no one likes you" turns into "Really, well, tell that to my very interesting group of friends who would not hang out with me if I were boring and unlikable."
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:47 AM on April 14, 2016

« Older When can you start? "Not until after my surgery"   |   Which alphabet is this? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.