Life coaching expert Tal Fagin responds to a reader who feels distracted by a harsh inner voice. Tal explains that the actual self-talk is different for each of us, but is fairly universal.
I hope this doesn’t sound too crazy, but I seem to live with an inner mini me, a nasty little guy who does a regular play-by-play analysis of the world around me. Occasionally the voice says cruel things about others, but mostly his color commentary is focused on me—my mistakes, my shortcomings and the myriad ways I need to improve. It is getting pretty exhausting! I wouldn’t say it is constant, but it is definitely frequent. The voice acts up when I am trying to work, distracts me when I am playing with my kids and taunts me when I am trying to sleep. I tried meditation, but it felt impossible. My inner dialogue only went into overdrive! It seems that wherever I am, whatever I am doing, mentally I am somewhere else, reliving some past disappointment or stressing over some upcoming event.
Do you have any advice as to how I might silence the mean voice in my head?
Dear Seeking Silence,
You are not, nor do you sound, in the least bit crazy. We all live with “a nasty little guy” (or gal), a harsh inner critic that expresses frustration and disapproval about our actions, choices, behaviors and circumstances. The actual self-talk is different for each of us—as is its intensity, timing and frequency—but what you are describing is fairly universal.
The “inner mini me” to which you refer goes by many names. I have heard it called “The Judge,” “The Dictator,” “The Taskmaster” and far more colorful things. (Rumor has it, Dan Harris originally wanted to call his bestselling book, 10% Happier, “The Voice in My Head is an A**hole.”) We Martha Beck coaches call it “lizard brain”—a play on the so-called “reptilian brain”—because it is the voice of fear and self-preservation, whose job is to incessantly point out all the things we need to be wary of. Even the Buddha weighed in, describing the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, swinging around, screeching, chattering and carrying on. Hence the term “monkey mind.”
Personally, I refer to my own whip-cracking alter-ego as my “Inner Bee-AHTCH.” Her name is Lola, and as I have written about before ( http://talfusion.net/love-the-one-youre-with/ ), she has a tendency to beat me up, put me down and drive me hard. Lola holds me to incredibly high, arguably unrealistic, standards of near-perfection. She has been with me all of my life, a constant voice of determination and motivation whose chosen methods of “encouragement” usually involve hurling insults and shaming me into action.
That inner voice of yours, let’s call him Nasty Little Guy, is a toxic presence in your life—a source of distraction, stress and pain. Your query tells me that living under his rule no longer suits you, that deep down you know there is a better way. The good news for you, Seeking Silence, is that you’ve noticed it. The first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is one, and just being aware that you have an inner bully will enable you to start taking back control. Beyond that, you might want to try a few of these:
Just Breathe. I can’t say it often enough. When the inner voice takes over, when you notice that you are tight or tense or that you’ve mentally drifted to a galaxy far, far away, just breathe. Take a deep inhale, ideally to a count of five. Pause. Let out a long, slow exhale. Repeat. Repeat again.
Focus on Facts – Ever notice how Nasty Little Guy tends to exaggerate and generalize? Perhaps you make a mistake, it could be small or large, work related or personal. Suddenly, the inner voice is lambasting you with a tirade of insults. The focus is not on the mistake, however, but on your entire existence. This is your opportunity to call Nasty Little Guy out, to separate the facts from the fiction. Fact: You made a mistake. Fiction: You are a good-for-nothing loser who can’t do anything right. The mind loves to make generalizations, but sticking with the facts eases the pain and frees you from excessively harsh judgment.
Cross-Examine the Witness. Most of us take our harsh inner voices at their word, without ever stopping to question them. Somehow, the bad stuff is always too easy to believe. If you catch yourself in the cross-fire of criticism, try asking this simple question: Is that true? Is that absolutely true? Put Nasty Little Guy on the stand and cross-examine him. Are you really good for nothing? Is it entirely accurate to say you can’t do anything right? Take it one step further and begin citing evidence of the opposite. List at least three things you are, in fact, good for. Note three more that you can, in fact, do right. (Even just brushing your teeth will do.) This will afford you a little wiggle room around the painful thoughts, alleviating the tension it causes and widening your perspective.
Self-Promote. Not only is the bad stuff too readily accepted, but all-too-often, our better qualities are too quickly ignored or waved away. Set aside a little time each day to toot your own horn. Modesty is a virtue, but acknowledging and celebrating yourself in private will help combat negativity. We already know Nasty Little Guy is quick to remind you of your “failures, shortcomings and the myriad ways” you need to improve, but what are the things you are proud of? What qualities do you appreciate about yourself? Counter the negative self-talk by keeping a list. Add to it each day—one thing you truly appreciate about yourself—or just stand in front of the mirror and sing yourself a love song. No one’s watching!
Befriend the Bully – Spend some time getting to know Nasty Little Guy. Does he broadcast the same complaints over and over? Identify his greatest hits, pay attention to what he says and when he says it. Notice any repeating patterns—common triggers, the things he causes you to do and feel. Try to understand his motivations. (Spoiler alert: His bullying is just a well-intended, misguided effort to protect you.) What does a bully need? Attention. Love. Reassurance. Acceptance. Ask your Nasty Little Guy what he needs to feel better. When he rears up and you are feeling assaulted, ask yourself what you need. Is it compassion? Understanding? Support? A hug? What would you tell your child, a friend or anyone you love in that moment? Would you attack them with insults, or provide encouragement? Whatever it is, give it to yourself and watch Nasty Little Guy retreat.
Practice Meditation. Please notice, I did not say “try” meditation. Rather, I’d like to emphasize the word “practice.” Perhaps you found meditation unsettling or strange. Perhaps the silence made you uneasy, and the idea of sitting quietly with an empty mind felt, as you said, “impossible.” Allow me to clear something up for you:
That. Is. The. Whole. Point.
Meditation is not about clearing all thought from the mind or achieving some state of bliss. This is a fallacy that blocks far too many people from sticking with (or even trying) this simple, accessible, life enhancing practice. Meditation is about sitting with discomfort and discovering you can handle it. It is about separating yourself from your thoughts, about watching them flow by without getting pulled along or carried away. It is about recognizing that wherever you go in your mind, you are still just sitting there, safe and sound. It is about realizing that you are not your thoughts. They do not define you, they do not control you and you do not have to indulge them. You can simply notice them, make choices about how you want to interact with them, then choose to let them go and return to your breath.
I would urge you to try meditation again, to make it a practice, without any agenda or pre-conceived notion of how it should go. If your mind goes into overdrive, so what? When you realize you are lost in thought, rather than judging yourself for being a “bad meditator” or dismissing the whole thing as “impossible,” simply come back to the present moment. Let the thoughts go and return to your breath. Do this over and over again, accepting the fact that thoughts will intrude and the mind will wander and that this is exactly as it should be. As you get better at doing this in meditation, you will get better at doing it in life.
Play It Positive. Despite any struggles or misfortune we may have, we all have things in our lives for which we can be grateful. Noticing and focusing on them, rather than your worries or regrets, changes your brain’s patterning, training it to scan your environment for the good rather than the bad. Cultivating gratitude makes us happier, more resilient and less likely to fall victim to Nasty Little Guy’s rants. Take some time each day, preferably just before bed, to reflect upon or write down three to five things for which you are grateful. You will not regret it.
Schedule Some Happy Time. Add “doing things I love” to your calendar, and do it often. We show up for work, we schedule doctor’s appointments, we get the car serviced. What about making time for fun? We say “happiness” is the ultimate goal, but we don’t make room for it in our daily lives. Research shows people get more overall pleasure from lots of small, pleasing things than fewer large ones. Identify a few small pleasures of your own, and mark them down. It’s this simple: do more of what you love. Making a solid commitment to yourself, deciding that your happiness is worthy of your time, will leave less room for interference from Nasty Little Guy.
General Self-Care. It’s the most unoriginal, yet most important advice I can give, but the best defense is a good offense. Taking care of yourself—through exercise, eating right and getting enough rest—not only promotes overall health and well-being, but bolsters strength and imbues a sense of capability. Nasty Little Guy is fueled by insecurity. He gears up in times of stress and pressure, perhaps when deadlines or projects loom, when bills need to be paid or people are counting on you to perform in some way. Taking time out from all of that to eat a healthy meal or take a hike may seem counter-intuitive, but it will help. Even moderate exercise reduces levels of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones), while also stimulating the production of endorphins (aka “happy chemicals”). Plainly put, working out will give you a sense of accomplishment. It will energize you, boost your mood and keep Nasty Little Guy’s need to complain to a minimum. Feeling svelte and rested never hurts, either. The better you feel, the quieter he will be. Silence will be yours!
I have been where you are, Seeking Silence. In fact, I am there right now, endlessly tinkering with this column for fear of posting something stupid, inadequate and humiliating. Truth be told, Lola gets nervous every time I write, banging around inside my head, saying things like “No one cares what you have to say,” “You are not a real writer” or “Who do you think you are?” For years, this meant that I only shared my work with a few friends—just one example of how I used to allow fear to sabotage me, shut me down and prevent me from being my true self. Now, thanks to coaching and the tools laid out above, Lola no longer scares me small. She chatters, I listen. I thank her for her concern, pat her on the head and go about living my life in a way that feels clear, confident and free.
And that is exactly what I hope for you.