How Demoting My Critical Voice Helped Me Regain Myself
You’re stupid. You’re useless. You suck at everything. You’re not good enough.
Until recently, this was the daily commentary inside my head.
A few months ago, I started to see a person-centred counsellor. The anxiety disorder I have been battling on and off since the age of 5 had finally reached a point of intolerance. I would soon begin IVF treatment, and it was time I tried to work out the long-standing issues that threatened to keep me on edge throughout the process. I have tried various talking therapies in the past, but the anxiety would continue to appear, bigger and bolder, each time it was triggered, often after having laid dormant for some time.
Like many children, I was bullied in school. The insults, alienation and negative comments from my bullies became embedded into my own psyche. They became my own “critical voice,” which became my companion 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the next 25 years. The voice was initially formed as a coping mechanism. Before the bullying had started I had been reasonably confident, but that experience taught me that I wouldn’t necessarily be liked by everyone and that any flaws in me perceived by others would be ridiculed. My critical voice was formed in preparation for any possible criticism, unkind comments or hurtful insults that may come my way. It was the first to step in, making it less painful if and when someone else was to say such things. The trouble was that I believed everything it said and it became unhelpful and harmful.
Only in recent years have I started to refer to my critical voice as though it were a separate person from myself. Somehow, thinking of it in this way made my own mind, with all of its conflicting parts in constant disagreement, feel less confusing. It felt less messy. I had come to see my critical voice as something exclusively harmful and poisonous. However, it was still something I clung to, as if it was somehow keeping me in check; as if, without it, I would become arrogant and egotistical.
I genuinely believed I needed my critical voice to be there; to constantly tell me that I wasn’t good enough in order to keep my humility, like there wasn’t a difference between liking myself and being a narcissist. I felt as though the voice could never be silenced. It felt impossible to cut that tie in case I lost all sense of who I was. Yes, it was cruel, but it had been a part of me for such a long time that I wasn’t sure of who I would be without it. Surely, I thought, even if I can silence it, years of work will be required to regain “me.” I was wrong.
Enter: my counsellor. It took just one comment from him during a session of heavily discussing my critical voice to change my perspective.
“I’m not going to collude with it,” he said, “but I don’t want to tell it to get out either because it’s a part of you that once served a purpose, and that should be acknowledged. It just isn’t helpful anymore.” That was when I stopped seeing my critical voice as a bully in my own head. Instead, I saw it as a guardian which started by trying to protect me but somehow lost its way.
When I got home from that session, I laid on the sofa and addressed the critical voice directly. I thanked it for trying to protect me and acknowledged that it had been trying to help. I then asked if it could do things differently by making its criticisms more constructive and less insulting. Instantly, it became quiet and has remained that way for that past five weeks, with the exception of a random negative comment, for which it has promptly apologized.
The work on my general anxiety has continued unhindered by my critical voice, which, my therapist and I joke, has been demoted to light clerical duties.
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Thinkstock photo via sSplajn