Can you imagine your life without the weight of your inner critic? What would your days feel like without the negative self-talk?
What possibilities would emerge in its absence?
The effects of a crappy inner dialogue might feel all too familiar, but rarely do we stop to consider its true cost. Without an honest exploration of the war we wage with ourselves, we fall prey to things like imposter syndrome, the comparison trap, and self-doubt. Not only does that stuff feel bad, it’s exactly this stuff that keeps us from putting ourselves out there. It keeps us from trying new things, stretching into new skills, and claiming a life well lived.
I’m pretty sure you didn’t sign up for cheating yourself out of your best life. And I’m certain that you wouldn’t choose self-doubt given the option. So what’s going on here? Why does this happen?
Negative self talk and all its effects arise from a strained relationship with ourselves. That strained self relationship is what I call inner opposition. It is the resistance we have with ourselves — resistance to our worth, our competency, or our “enough-ness.” The result is self-doubt and an ensuing belief that we’re lacking in some way. (Neither of which feel great.)
And here’s what’s wonky: we choose our beliefs.
So then, if a belief feels so bad, why do we take it on? And if its weight holds us back and keeps us from thriving, why do we keep choosing it?
As humans, we’re hardwired for connection and belonging. Our brain’s job is to keep us safe, and it treats social threats the same as environmental threats. So, for example, our boss throwing us under the bus in a meeting is as triggering as a tiger lunging at us from a bush. Rejection literally “hurts” to the brain. Any experience of isolation, exclusion, disapproval, humiliation, or perceived negative judgment registers as physical pain in the brain. (Sidenote: take a Tylenol if you’re experiencing any kind of rejection, it targets the same place in the brain and actually helps!)
If rejection is painful and social threats are on par with environmental threats, then that means we’re doing everything we can to stay in good graces or in favorable standing with others. The need for acceptance and approval drives much of what we think, say, do, and feel. For example, think back to the last high-stakes presentation you gave and any accompanying anxiety you may have experienced. Now, consider the contents of your inner dialogue, which may have sounded like this: “What if I fail? What if I sound like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”
This kind of silent monologue is so common we rarely get to the root of the fear. We say it’s fear of failure, or fear of doing a bad job, but I encourage you to inquire further. What’s really underneath this fear? It’s a fear of negative judgment, which maps to rejection, which maps to pain our brain tries to avoid at all costs.
We generally don’t like pain and most of us steer clear from social and environment threats. The need to stay “safe” is so primal that our brain’s search for safety influences our perception to navigate in a way that favors our safety. What we see, what we interpret, and what we believe, is largely influenced by this need to stay safe.
So back to negative self-talk. Where does it come from? Point blank, at some point in your past you took on a negative self-belief to protect yourself from rejection. That negative self-belief, such as I’m not good enough, is like a lens you look through back at yourself and out to the world. Through that lens you’re more easily able to identify the situations where you’d be “found out”. Equally, you’re more apt to see the situations where it’s easy for your worth to shine. This kind of conditional living is exactly what we mean by not putting ourselves out there or playing safe. That lens is exactly what keeps us from thriving. More importantly, its the filter through which all negative self-talk emerges. The self-talk that is the running commentary that’s guiding you into “safety.”
Just because we took on a negative belief to protect ourselves from rejection, we don’t have to be a victim to it. If we can get to the source of our negative self-talk – those negative self-beliefs – we give ourselves the opportunity to not “choose” them. When they’re not in the driver’s seat, we’re free from the weight of our inner critic.
#1: Answer this question from the fear-based part of you: “What are you afraid other people would either think, decide, or find out about you?”
Whatever you answer is what you believe about yourself. It’s the root of your negative self-talk.
#2: Acknowledge that you took on this belief a while back to make sense of perceived rejection. That this belief was an innocent, well-meaning, but completely unhelpful and inaccurate way to protect yourself from the primal fear of rejection. Seeing that you unknowingly chose it to stay safe helps loosen the grip of inner opposition.
#3: Ask: Does it serve me and the world to hold onto this belief? Meeting this choice with logic often is enough to see the futility in it. It makes it much harder to actively choose a negative self-belief when you see that no one benefits.
#4: Choose otherwise. No one is perfect and mistakes are inevitable. In fact, according to recent research, we want to be failing 15% of the time for optimal learning and growth. Find solace in our humanity and claim the truth that you’re inherently enough and on your own unique path. Everyone is. Decide to know you’re whole and complete and mistakes don’t mean anything about your worth.
The moment you make peace with the truth of your enough-ness is the moment you stop negative self-talk at the root. To take it further, check out by book, Living On Purpose, to dive deep into the subject of inner peace and heal the relationship you have with yourself.
Amy Eliza Wong is an executive coach, author, and facilitator in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sign up to receive articles like this and updates on new offerings and workshops.