For decades I was plagued by a bully who beat me up every chance he had.
He didn’t live on my street or go to my school; he lived in my head.
He harassed me with negative thoughts and threw spitballs at my confidence daily.
Later I would learn that many of us live with this constant distress. It’s called the “Inner Critic.”
The Inner Critic is a stream of ruminating thoughts. “I’m not good enough,” it says. “I will look stupid if I try this.” ”That’s only for people who are smart, lucky, and good-looking. And by the way, I am none of these.” It mocks us, berates us, and f*cks with our self-esteem. For me, these unwelcome thoughts came from nowhere, and 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 only I 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, “I can do this, I have what it takes!” “Let’s make the world a better place!” and “I look damn fine in yellow!”
When we find ourselves burdened with inner-dialogue that is constantly berating us, we may become discouraged. Nevertheless, we all have an Inner Advocate accessible to us. Our advocate is our authentic self. It resides in the deepest part of our souls, waiting to be asked to come out and dance.
We have all have experienced hurt, trauma, and abuse at some level; as a result, negativity can hold our 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: When I’m listening to the radio, and a song comes on I don’t like, do you know what I do? I change the channel. We all have the power to switch the channel and tune into something more to our liking. When my monkey mind plays D.J. and throws out random negative thoughts, I let my Inner Advocate control the station.
Beverly Engel, 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 Rs 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 jump 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 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 I’m going to 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. Some days I have to stand up repeatedly to my Inner Critic. He tries to intimidate me, get me to back down and fall in line. Just this morning I had the thought, “I should just give up on my writing. No one cares what I have to say.” I felt the overwhelming rush of discouragement wash over my body.
Then I remembered the three Rs and recognized I was about to be Shanghaied by my bully once again. I said to myself, “That’s an interesting thought, but it’s just a thought. In fact, it’s just as likely that I have something important to offer the world, what I say matters and maybe I can help someone, even if it’s in the smallest way.” I had to remind myself that the Inner Critic’s words are lies and my thoughts can only hurt me if I let them.
In the end, when I confronted my Inner Critic with authenticity and courage, like most bullies, he backed down and ran away.
Author: Chuck Chapman
Image: Fight Club (1999)
Editor: Emily Bartran