Take your well-disciplined strengths
and stretch them between two
opposing poles. Because inside human beings
is where God learns.

–--Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Bly

An Exercise to Reduce Negative Inner Voice

Recent­ly, I’ve been work­ing with a num­ber of clients who are inter­est­ed in reduc­ing their neg­a­tive thoughts, self-talk and defen­sive reac­tions. Here are some notes from our dis­cov­er­ies togeth­er and a relat­ed net search.*

• Neg­a­tive inner voice (inner crit­ic) express­es thoughts ini­tial­ly formed as a set of rules and penal­ties aimed to pro­tect us from harm. It does this by induc­ing strong emo­tions that immo­bi­lize per­son­al choice and action.

• As an adult, the rules quick­ly go out of date, but main­tain­ing them can cre­ate an illu­sion of emo­tion­al safe­ty. More­over, attempt­ing to let go of them breaks one of the car­di­nal rules so it can feel risky or self­ish to “let go of mind” in this way.

• The voice can be con­ceived as a child’s inner Guardian Angel, except the angel is now a fall­en one and no longer need­ed because the angel’s advice no longer fits the cir­cum­stances of adulthood.

• These thoughts are not the same as con­science. Adult con­science is based in dis­cern­ment and choice, not pro­gram­ming, inner coer­cion and compliance.

• The voice doesn’t know any­thing about mak­ing us hap­py (but may seem to promise that).

Voice of the Inner Critic

• The voice is mechan­i­cal and pro­grammed. It is part of our nature but extreme­ly lim­it­ed and reac­tive. It can only say what it is pro­grammed to say, although it may oper­ate through many dis­guis­es and reinventions.

• Neg­a­tive thoughts can cause very strong emo­tions such as embar­rass­ment, guilt, shame or fear, or even just a strong sense of emo­tion­al desta­bi­liza­tion, such as feel­ing over­whelmed and unable to think.

• The degree to which these emo­tions are felt is the degree to which there is uncon­scious agree­ment with a thought. The stronger the emo­tion, the greater the implic­it agree­ment. This is a key point and not nec­es­sar­i­ly logical.

• When oth­ers express a repeat­ing neg­a­tive thought (e.g., as part of an argu­ment, put down or dis­missal), oth­er aspects of the defen­sive sys­tem kick in, such as blam­ing the oth­er per­son and fight­ing back, but the emo­tion­al punch may still pri­mar­i­ly come from the neg­a­tive thought and our implic­it agree­ment with it. This can lead to a sense of help­less self-blame.

• The emo­tions cre­at­ed by our agree­ment often dri­ve action of var­i­ous kinds (e.g., com­plain­ing to a friend about cir­cum­stances) because we want so much to escape these feel­ings. How­ev­er, we can­not avoid the neg­a­tive emo­tions with­out exam­in­ing the uncon­scious agree­ment first.

• The strength of the emo­tions can also dri­ve a search for ver­i­fi­ca­tion or con­tra­dic­tion through evi­dence, which is often a waste of time, and cre­ates a cycle of dri­ven self-assess­ment (not curi­ous self-reflection).

• Rec­og­niz­ing how uncon­scious our implic­it agree­ment is, a pow­er­ful course of action is to notice the voice and make its mes­sages con­scious — and then dis­agree. This is called, “standing up for yourself.”

• Dis­agree­ment is a gen­tle move, com­ing from a place of self-accep­tance and self-com­pas­sion. There is no need to sti­fle or try to deny the voice; bet­ter to make room for it while hold­ing to the con­scious and inten­tion­al disagreement.

• The uncon­scious agree­ment is part of a child’s ear­ly psy­cho­log­i­cal world, filled with sto­ries, myths and expla­na­tions for cir­cum­stances and ear­ly rela­tion­ships. Inso­far as we can remem­ber our own child­hood sto­ry-mak­ing, we can bet­ter under­stand the neg­a­tive thoughts that intrude and begin to reroute neur­al cir­cuit­ry in a more pos­i­tive and appro­pri­ate direction.

We are exper­i­ment­ing with an exer­cise to inter­rupt the voic­es and reac­tions. If you would like to par­tic­i­pate, you can do the fol­low­ing. On a sheet of paper in four columns, write down the fol­low­ing each time a neg­a­tive thought or defen­sive reac­tion occurs:

The neg­a­tive voice’s spe­cif­ic mes­sage, framed as a “you” state­ment, not an “I” state­ment. For exam­ple, “You are a fraud.”

The spe­cif­ic emo­tions felt as a result of this neg­a­tive thought, such as fear or anx­i­ety, anger, dis­ap­point­ment, guilt, shame or embarrassment.

The strength of the emo­tion (1 to 10). The is the degree of implic­it or uncon­scious agree­ment with the thought.

How you disagree.

You can down­load a tem­plate for the exer­cise here.

Please let me know if you have ques­tions and if this exper­i­ment with your own inner crit­ic is help­ful to you.

You can email me here.

*There are a great many arti­cles avail­able. Two I found that were par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful are list­ed here — and I am grate­ful for the wis­dom expressed. Some of the key points in the above list were drawn direct­ly from posts by Gary van Warmer­dam and Cath­leen Med­wick. (Cath­leen’s con­tains a high­ly self-dis­clos­ing inter­view with the founder of pos­i­tive psy­chol­o­gy, Mar­tin Seligman.)



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  • Hi Dan

    OK you’ve got my full attention 🙂 

    I’ve done a lot of work in this area — begin­ning back in my days study­ing psych, with strong influ­ences most rel­e­vant here from some­thing called Psy­chosyn­the­sis (Robert Assa­gi­oli) and Gestalt Ther­a­py (Fritz Perls). 

    Through­out the years I’ve also learned and incor­po­rat­ed a lot from Bud­dhist thought (mind­ful­ness) Eck­hart Tolle and Michael Singer’s work.

    Recent­ly, I’ve start­ed to expand my think­ing on these “voic­es” (thoughts). From neu­ro­science we learn that repet­i­tive thought can be habit­u­at­ed neur­al pat­tern­ing that we find dif­fi­cult to shut off (impos­si­ble with­out cog­ni­tive aware­ness — altho I strong­ly believe that the body’s “Hold­ing” this mate­r­i­al plays a role (as we know from trau­ma — and Peter Levine’s work is valu­able here). 

    I still believe (as in teach­ings from the now lost work of psy­chosyn­the­sis — that many of these voic­es cre­ate “sub­per­son­al­i­ties” with their own set of needs.

    We know from the lega­cy of Carl Roger’s work and today’s work in Focus­ing, that when we lis­ten to these voic­es, ask­ing them what they feel, believe and need (here we get to whole con­cept of “implic­it” (uncon­scious agreement. 

    Crit­i­cal­ly impor­tant infor­ma­tion can form here. And its not just cog­ni­tive. Focus­ing, for exam­ple, pays as much atten­tion to what is hap­pen­ing in the body as the words we used to describe our experience.

    But — one thing I have come to real­ly appre­ci­ate of late from gain­ing a deep­er under­stand­ing of depres­sion, for exam­ple, is that these voices/thoughts — as in your exam­ple — I am a fraud, so dom­i­nate the men­tal state (with their cor­re­spond­ing phys­i­cal debil­i­ta­tion) that unless some­one is very skilled (and tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the pos­si­bil­i­ty of psy­chophar­ma­co­log­i­cal mit­i­ga­tion (at least tem­porar­i­ly — and not always inevitably) lis­ten­ing to this voic­es can exac­er­bate the prob­lem. Espe­cial­ly since access to cog­ni­tive flex­i­bil­i­ty is often out of reach in those states. 

    So kudos from putting out some real­ly valu­able insights about the very impor­tant top­ic of self-talk/in­ter­nal dia­logues, which while many peo­ple are not even aware of, essen­tial­ly dom­i­nate much of what we feel and do.

  • Hi Louise

    A fas­ci­nat­ing sub­ject, indeed, and thank you for the list of your read­ing and influ­ences on this top­ic. Clear­ly, this stuff has been bat­ted around a great deal. By the way, one name that has not come up is Byron Katie, whose “The Work” essen­tial­ly is tak­ing the approach I’m describ­ing into a whole lot more depth and detail. 

    Thank you, too, for what I read as a mea­sure of warn­ing that a per­son can get lost in neg­a­tive mes­sages and the dark emo­tions they dri­ve, and I cer­tain­ly would­n’t hes­i­tate to refer a coach­ing client (or read­er here) to a pro­fes­sion­al coun­selor in the event that is the per­son­’s expe­ri­ence. In my mind there’s a big dif­fer­ence between occa­sion­al­ly being dis­rupt­ed by the intru­sion of neg­a­tive thoughts and a dai­ly onslaught of debil­i­tat­ing voic­es. (Byron Katie’s own per­son­al sto­ry is quite inter­est­ing in that regard, since for sev­er­al years she was afflict­ed by phys­i­cal­ly debil­i­tat­ing depression).

    The idea that I am most inter­est­ed in and that I haven’t seen else­where in such direct terms, is the notion of “implic­it agree­ment” with neg­a­tive thoughts and how that can be “mea­sured” by the depth of the emo­tion felt. Those I have worked with around this agreement/emotionality con­nec­tion seem to expe­ri­ence an imme­di­ate, if par­tial, sense of relief. It seems to pro­vide con­text why this emo­tion, say, is “loud­er” than that one, and pos­si­bly pro­vides a way to nar­row some focus with­out need­ing to find more mean­ing in the emo­tion than is required to begin the process of dis­agree­ment. Part of the prob­lem seems to be the nat­ur­al focus on hid­ing, deny­ing or man­ag­ing the dark emo­tions, rather than direct­ly address­ing the dark thought caus­ing them.

    Anoth­er aspect of this whole sub­ject that I did not include is the­o­ry about for­ma­tion. Doug Bre­it­bart has a very clear idea from Adler­ian psy­chol­o­gy about how that hap­pens (see my post on FB for his com­ments) and a heal­ing approach that focus­es on “Chang­ing your mind” rather than sim­ple dis­agree­ment. Clear­ly, it’s how dis­agree­ment occurs, at what depth and with what sup­ports that mat­ters. My own view, again based on client expe­ri­ences, is that the “sub per­son­al­i­ties” rep­re­sent var­i­ous forms of a child’s attempts to explain the lim­its and suf­fer­ing of being alive and aware as a per­son and cope with cir­cum­stance. This is, per­haps, a lit­tle more like Ellis’s ratio­nal-emo­tive mod­el, assum­ing the beliefs and sto­ries form very ear­ly. Any­way, this part to me remains fog­gy and per­haps is less impor­tant than what we can do now to find tools that help us release from these painful imped­i­ments to ful­ly real­iz­ing our poten­tials and liv­ing our powers.

  • Dan, this is some pow­er­ful stuff. I know that neg­a­tive inner voice has sti­fled me in more ways than I’d like to admit. 

    Hear­ing that voice is scary. It makes me feel less than what I am.

    Through arti­cles like this, I’m begin­ning to see that oth­ers are strug­gling in much the same way. We hear voic­es that aren’t the truth or were a truth but are no longer.

    I’m going to give your exer­cise a try and see how that helps.

  • Hi Joseph!

    Your com­ment reminds me how very impor­tant it is to sim­ply acknowl­edge that the neg­a­tive inner voice exists and how sti­fling it can be, the suf­fer­ing it caus­es. Part of why it is so per­sis­tent is that it cre­ates its own shame about that pub­lic acknowledgment. 

    It sounds like for you the neg­a­tive thoughts cre­ate fear. As you do the exer­cise see if you can get a good read on what the mes­sages are that cause that fear. What might be true that scares you? Some­times these mes­sages come in sev­er­al lay­ers so you’ll want to stick with it. Then as you mea­sure implic­it agree­ment with these neg­a­tive thoughts — through the degree of fear they gen­er­ate — focus on how you dis­agree, gen­tly and per­sis­tent­ly con­tra­dict­ing their “false truth.” 

    In an odd way, you can con­sid­er these mes­sages your lost gold coins. As you find each one, put it in your pock­et and say, “Ah, so that’s what’s been going on!” Good luck to you and do please let me know how the exer­cise works out for you.

    Thank you so much for writ­ing, Joseph. I took a look at your own lead­er­ship web­site and posts and I’m hon­ored you have com­ment­ed here!

    All the best


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