For many years I was plagued by a bully who beat me up at every chance he had. He didn’t live on my street or go to my school; he lived in my head. He harrassed me with negative thoughts and daily threw spitballs at my confidence. Later I would learn that many people live with this constant distress. It’s called the “Inner Critic.”
The Inner Critic is a stream of ruminating thoughts. “You’re not good enough,” it says. “You will look stupid if you try this.” ”That’s only for people who are smart, lucky, and good-looking. And by the way, you are none of these.” It mocks you, berates you and fucks with your self-esteem. For me, these unwelcomed thoughts came from nowhere yet would stick around like a turd on the bottom of my shoe.
Through therapy and a program of recovery, I learned that there was another voice. This one was a little friendlier but tended to get truncated by my Inner Critic. Still, he was there if I only listened. I was introduced to my “Inner Advocate.” My Inner Advocate is creative. He’s a risk taker and likes to help me solve problems. He is optimistic. My Inner Advocate is pulling for me like a cosmic cheerleader on Super Bowl Sunday. He says things to me like, “You can do it, you have what it takes!” “Let’s make the world a better place!” and “You look damn fine in yellow!”
If you find yourself burdened with inner dialog that is constantly berating you, don’t be discouraged. You too have an Inner Advocate. Your advocate is your authentic self. It resides in the deepest part of your soul waiting to be asked to come out and dance.
Nevertheless, if you’ve been hurt, traumatized or abused, negativity may be holding your confidence hostage for fear of being wounded again. If we want to live in authenticity, we have to have the courage to listen to the still small voice of the Inner Advocate.
In his work, “The Legend Of Bagger Vance,” Steven Pressfield’s protagonist describes the Inner Advocate as our “authentic swing.” “Inside each and every one of us is one true authentic swing… Somethin’ we was born with… Somethin’ that’s ours and ours alone… Somethin’ that can’t be taught to ya or learned… Something that got to be remembered… Over time the world can, rob us of that swing… It get buried inside us under all our wouldas and couldas and shouldas… Some folk even forget what their swing was like…” If you’ve forgotten your swing, you can find it again, if you’re willing to tune into its frequency.
Once a negative thought begins to attack our conscious, we can’t just “not” think about it. That’s like trying to not think of a pink elephant! Instead, we have to make a deliberate decision to replace the thought with something different… say a blue alligator. Think of it like this: Have you ever been listening to the radio when a song comes on that you don’t like? What do you do? You change the channel and tune into something more to your liking. Your monkey brain is the D.J. throwing out random thoughts, but your Inner Advocate controls the stations if you let it.
Beverly Engel, The author of “The Nice Girl Syndrome,” puts it this way: “Turn down the volume of your negative inner voice and create a nurturing inner voice to take its place. When you make a mistake, forgive yourself, learn from it, and move on instead of obsessing about it. Equally important, don’t allow anyone else to dwell on your mistakes or shortcomings or to expect perfection from you.”
For me, tuning into positive thoughts and listening to my Inner Advocate was challenging and took a lot of practice. But once I learned to identify whose voice was in control, I was able to change the channel and invoke my Inner Advocate. Soon the Inner Critic learned to be quiet. I found practicing the “Three Rs of challenging thoughts” to be helpful.
Three R’s of challenging thoughts
1. Recognize: My first step was only to recognize when the Inner Critic hijacked my brain. To do this more consciously, I got one of those rubber bracelets. Whenever I observed I was having self-deprecating thoughts I move the bracelet to the other wrist. It sounds silly, but by doing this physical act, I started to program the neuro-pathways in my brain to connect to the body, which created greater awareness.
2. Refute: Secondly, I learned that thoughts are just thoughts. They are little bits of electricity that drive randomly through my brain. I can’t stop my mind from thinking any more than I can stop my heart from pumping blood. However, I can choose my thoughts. As I learned to recognize when the Inner Critic is in the driver’s seat, I would refute the negativity by reciting a two-part mantra. The first part would be to say to myself, “That’s an interesting thought… but it’s just a thought! It’s not true.” This little statement took power away from the Inner Critic and gave me the ability to move to the second part of the mantra.
3. Reverse the Negative: After I said to myself, “That’s an interesting thought… but it’s just a thought! It’s not true,” I would say, “In fact, it is just as likely that _______.” I would fill in the blank with the exact opposite of the negative thought. For example, my critic might say “I’m going to make a huge mistake and fail.” I would reverse the idea by saying to myself, “It’s just as likely that you’ll do great and be a huge success.” I would then continue to choose to think about the success. If my Inner Critic tried to get back in the forefront, I would repeat the three steps.
Challenging a bully takes courage. You may have to stand up repeatedly to your Inner Critic. He will try to intimidate you, get you to back down and fall in line. His words are lies and thoughts can only hurt you if you let them. In the end, you may find as I did, that by confronting your Inner Critic with authenticity and courage, like most bullies, he tends to back down and run away.