Bitter Nothings

How the words we whisper to ourselves change everything

If a device was invented to record your inner voice, what would that recording sound like? Would it be a warm, encouraging, supportive voice? Or would it be harsh, bullying and critical?

While the thought that we could bully ourselves sounds strange, it’s actually incredibly common. Harsh self-talk can rip away our confidence, making us feel inadequate and incapable. Instead of believing in ourselves, we believe in our limitations. We become cautious, depleted and fearful of taking those big, brave steps to get where we truly want to be in life.

So how can we take the power away from our internal bully? How can we stop buying into all this horribly unhelpful stuff this inner voice is saying?

First, we must realise that it’s entirely normal to have an inner critic. It is hard wired to protect us and ensures we obey social norms. This part of the brain allows us to be a successful social animal, prompting us to do those things which will allow us to feel safe and accepted.

It’s also important to realise that this harsh inner voice isn’t our mum, our teacher or our boss. It’s not really us either. It’s just our brain regurgitating a bunch of stuff we’ve picked up along the way. And these days, we are picking up a whole lot of incredibly unhelpful stuff.

Marketers and media companies love our inner critic because it makes them millions. They have become highly adept at picking at our insecurities and playing on our worst fears. Sophisticated algorithms feed our inner critic precisely what it needs to chip away at us and make us feel like we are not enough.

If we try to do everything our inner critic tells us to, we will spend a lot of money, become terribly exhausted and still fall horribly short. We can never get ahead by trying to appease our inner critic and meet its every demand. We need a different way.

The best way we have of dealing with our inner critic involves some simple cognitive strategies and a very healthy helping of self-compassion.

When we have self-critical thoughts, we don’t have to believe these thoughts or obey them. The most useful thing we can do is simply recognise and name them. We may say “ah, here’s the inner critic again” or “there’s that old harsh story” or “there’s that thing my awful ex used to tell me,” or “there’s that unfair comparison”.

We may also feel a desire to fight back against this internal bully and wrestle against these thoughts. Instead, it is much more helpful to take more of a Mahatma Gandhi-style passive resistance approach, where we meet confrontation with kindness. The most beneficial action we can take is to acknowledge it with warmth and care, “I see you’re trying to help again inner critic, but it’s just not that useful.”

Over time we can also start to develop a very different inner voice – one that is less of a bully and more of a good friend. This friend is an inner ally; it always has our back and is completely accepting of us, just as we are. It speaks to us with genuine, warmth, kindness and care, for example, “things have been tough recently, but I’ve got your back”.

This friend can remind us that we’re human and just like all other human beings we have flaws and imperfections and that’s 100% okay! This inner ally also reminds us that we are safe in this moment and that we are doing the best we can with what we’ve got: “I’m here with you, I know you’re doing the best you can right now and that’s enough”.

Consistently this friend will build us up and push us forward, rather than tearing us down and holding us back: “I know it’s been challenging but I’m here with you, you’ve got this”. We can develop this inner ally by engaging a regular mindful self-compassion practise that nurtures our compassionate voice.

Like developing any muscle, we can build self-compassion over time. The more we practise it, the stronger we get. Sometimes people find it hard to turn their compassion inward. To help, we may consider what words of kindness and support we would offer a dear friend or loved one and see if you can then turn these phrases inwards. Many people develop their compassionate voice in this way.

As we do this, the bully begins to lose its hold over us.  We learn to befriend our inner critic and treat our mind and body with greater respect and care. We get to choose what we believe, what we accept, what we buy into and ultimately, what actions we will take.

When we speak to ourselves with self-compassion it changes everything. When we finally have our own support, it allows us to be more comfortable, more confident and more resilient. At last, we can be imperfect and still be perfectly good.