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• As an adult, the rules quickly go out of date, but maintaining them can create an illusion of emotional safety.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.)



Young tigress, one of three sisters, Pt. Defiance Zoo, Tacoma WA


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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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