Have you ever noticed that you have a little voice in your head, talking to you all the time?
We all do. And if you’re like the vast majority of my clients, the little voice in your head is kind of… well, a huge jerk. Critical, mean, and constantly whispering things that make you doubt yourself, or feel anxious.
This happens around body image issues, of course — the voice might be constantly whispering that you’re too fat, too undesirable, not perfect, or in need of changing this or that body part. Maybe it calls out insults about your hips, your belly, your chin, your thighs, or your skin. Maybe it asks you who you think you are, and how you think anyone could love you while you look like this?
This is what my clients report all the time: an endless stream of nasty, critical, mean thoughts about their bodies happening all the time.
But it rarely stops with their bodies; folks struggling with body image issues tend to also struggle with being extremely hard on themselves in other areas, sometimes allareas. Which means their harsh inner voice is constantly criticizing and insulting not only their appearance, but their intelligence, personality, work ethic, talent, skill, and even relationships.
When working with such clients, we start by acknowledging that as mean and horrible as this inner voice can be, it’s a form of self-protection, and it’s created in response to pain and fear.
It’s kind of like how kids only become abusers after they’ve been abused, and how playground bullies were often being bullied at home first. You have likely developed critical self-talk in response to being hurt, rejected, criticized, neglected, or abandoned. Somewhere along the way, you learned that you weren’t inherently good enough, and need to be better — otherwise you’ll suffer.
Enter: the mean inner voice monitoring every moment ways you should “be better.”
It’s not logical exactly, but it does make a certain amount of sense. By pointing out every single thing you’re doing wrong, your mind is trying to protect you from the shame and pain lurking out in the real world.
We can think of this voice like a misguided grandparent, criticizing your choice in clothing or haircut because they want the world “to take you seriously.” They might genuinely want what’s best for you, but their specific criticisms don’t exactly make sense.
What does your inner voice tend to say — kind, compassionate, supportive stuff? Or mean, nasty, critical stuff? The way you talk to yourself in your own head has a huge impact on how you feel about yourself, so if you’re someone with a constantly critical inner voice, that might be worth exploring.
The good news is that while many of our thoughts are unconscious, you can make them conscious (and therefore changeable!) by bringing attention and awareness to them. Once you start identifying critical thoughts in real time you can interrupt them, redirect them, poke holes in them to prove them untrue, or replace them with something more neutral or positive.
It’s important to recognize that trying to just force yourself to “stop having mean thoughts” is going to backfire. It’s kind of like the old trick where someone says “don’t think about an elephant,” and immediately an elephant is the only thing in your mind.
Instead of trying to stop having these mean thoughts, we’re going to try to disempower them, shrink them, distract them, and re-route them.
The first step is always awareness, and separating yourself from your inner critic.
Since this mean inner voice was programmed for you in reaction to pain, shame, or fear, it’s not really you. By personifying it and separating yourself from it, you’ll be able to start taking it less seriously.
After all, if it was you who was saying “you messed up that project, your boss thinks you’re an idiot, and everyone is laughing at you and hates you,” that would seem like a very serious situation, right? But if a grouchy and critical old grandmother-character was saying it, shouting at you from the dim corner of the room where she sits and lectures everyone all the time, well… that’s probably not going to have the same impact.
Instead of rushing to fix the problem or apologize to your boss or bake everyone cookies to make them like you, you might just roll your eyes and shoot back “Grandma, I thought we agreed I shouldn’t take career advice from someone who hasn’t been in the workforce in sixty years!”
That’s the goal anyway: a critical voice with more distance and less power, and it begins with awareness. Wanna try this?
Start by gently bringing your attention and awareness to any critical, unkind, or judgemental thoughts about yourself that you have throughout the day. When you catch yourself having one, say hello to your inner critic! Personify this inner critic as much as you possibly can. Is it male or female? Tall or short? Big or small? Does it have a name? Does it wear clothes? What kind of voice does it have?
Don’t be surprised if your inner critic takes on the appearance in your mind of the person who helped program them early in life. I’ve had clients whose inner critics were reminiscent of parents, or partners, and often when this is present, the inner critic reminds us of those who formatively wounded us.
My inner critic used to sound an awful lot like a mean older brother, scoffing and doubting me, reminding me that I suck, and laughing at me when I took risks or made myself vulnerable. Why? Cuz I had an older brother growing up.
That said, I’ve since purposefully visualized my inner critic to be like a small and doughy, furry, gremlin-like monster ball who wears nothing more than boxers, suspenders, and a dirty tophat. He’s kinda gross and kinda cute, and most of all he is not to be taken as a serious source of advice. I imagine he lives down by the docks and works at carnivals scamming people. He has a bunch of unkind shit to say about me, but I’m a grown ass human with many impressive accomplishments. I don’t need to be taking life advice from a carnie gremlin who can’t even be bothered to put pants on.
Once you’ve personified your inner critic, say hello every time he/she/they show up! Seriously, get on friendly terms with them. As we’ve already noted, they might be extremely mean, but they’re not dangerous. Just misguided. Put a muzzle on them in your mind if that helps (literally!), but say hello, and be friendly.
If you do nothing other than visualize and greet your inner critic every time it shows up for the next month, you’re likely to notice some improvements in your self-talk, because it will disempower a voice which has been too powerful for too long.
Taking it a bit further, at some point I recommend asking your inner critic what it’s trying to protect you from. Really approach the question with curiosity, and listen to whatever answer arises.
For example, I had a client we’ll call Emily, whose inner critic she nicknamed Bertha, and who looked like a big fat jabba-the-hut kind of creature who was a total shut-in, the equivalent of an agoraphobic blob shouting insults at her neighbors through her blinds. When I encouraged my client to have a conversation with Bertha about what she was protecting her from, the answer surprised her.
Emily sat with her eyes closed, imagining the conversation and listening for the answer, when all the sudden tears started streaming down her face.
“Bertha’s so afraid of everything. I asked what she was protecting me from and all the sudden she seemed so small, and so scared, and she said the world is just so dangerous, and she’s terrified I’ll get hurt. She’s afraid of everything. It’s so sad.”
This isn’t an unusual story, either. Our inner critics are often formed in childhood, and therefore they often represent old, scared, wounded, childish parts of ourselves.
Ask yours what it’s trying to protect you from, and then really listen. See if you can figure out where and when your inner critic was formed, based on it’s answer. Once you have a better understanding of your inner critic’s intention, you can talk back to it in a language it can understand, to further disempower and redirect it’s message.
After understanding Bertha better for example, Emily started speaking to her with gratitude and compassion, saying things like “I know you’re scared for me, but I’m powerful and strong enough now to handle the world and I don’t need your protection anymore. I can be brave enough for both of us, ok?”
With practice and time, Bertha showed up less and less often, and was more easily soothed and quieted when she did.
Remember that your inner critic will never completely go away, and that’s ok. But we can alter our relationship with it, so that when it shows up we’re not completely knocked down.
PS If you follow me on YouTube or Instagram, you’ve probably been seeing me publishing brand new Body Image Avatars content the last few weeks! I’ll be sharing more about the avatars for the rest of the month, and I’m coming out with a whole Avatars Guide for you soon — stay tuned, and be sure to let me know how it’s landing in the comments!