Always Well Within

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Nurturing Self-Talk: A Kinder Voice Inside Your Head

Purple Roses - Positive Self Talk

Editor’s Note:  I’m delighted to share a guest post today by Jasmin Lee Cori, MS, LPC on a topic that trips up so many of us.

“Idiot!”

Is this what you call yourself when you stumble or make a mistake?

My niece called herself an idiot last week when she made a small error cooking our brunch. When I commented on calling herself an idiot, she assured me she would never call her children that. I believe her. Ann is a particularly giving woman and very conscientious as a parent. So how come she doesn’t extend that to herself? What gives?

The Inner Critic

As a psychotherapist I get to listen in on that voice chattering away in people’s heads, and although I work with very nice people, how they speak to themselves can make me cringe.

There are different names for the critical voice in our heads; the most common is Inner Critic. Generally this is an aspect of our consciousness that developed when we were very young and internalized rules from our environment. These rules tend to be very black-and-white, as they are to a young mind, and the way of enforcing them is also rather primitive. Mocking, ridiculing, threatening with extreme consequences are actually rather coarse influence skills. It’s like a terrified four-year-old desperately trying to keep you in line, warning you the world will end if you don’t do something just right.

There are books about trying to defend against or slowly dismantle this inner critic. Here I’m going to focus on bringing in a voice that may help neutralize the critic and eventually replace it. Wouldn’t you like a kinder voice inside your head?

Nurturing Parent Messages

One way of thinking about it is that harsh self-talk (the way you talk to yourself) is a replay of critical-parent messages, and what we need instead are nurturing-parent messages. I’ll give examples of some, categorized by the functions they fulfill:

To comfort or soothe:

  • Oh, Sweetie, it’s okay!
  • That was really hard, wasn’t it? I’m here with you.

To encourage:

  • You can do it! You’re so close…
  • Remember how you mastered (XYZ).

To build self-esteem:

  • That was so creative/smart/strong/brave…
  • People like you.

What if you didn’t ever hear these kinds of things growing up? What if “nurturing parent” sounds like fiction to you? All is not lost. You can develop an inner presence with these qualities. As I wrote in The Emotionally Absent Mother, you can learn to mother yourself.

This capacity to respond to our needs in a nurturing way is something we develop over time. In doing so, we are actually growing a part of our self. Although often couched in terms of an Inner Parent helping an Inner Child, it doesn’t need to be.

An Inner Ally

What if you think of this voice we want to cultivate as an Inner Ally? Whereas the Inner Critic is like someone who kicks you when you’re down, this Inner Ally is someone who helps pick you up.

It helps us develop a nurturing inner voice if we have (or had) someone in our life who was especially kind and supportive to us. For me it began with “practicing” the response of a therapist I was working with at the time, which helped me set up a mirror image of her inside. (I’ve also written about this as a “Portable Good Mother.” Portable is good. You can’t always call someone in the middle of the night.) It starts out generally as a real, external resource that is then internalized.

If you absolutely can’t think of someone to base this inner ally on, you can work with a fictional image or an archetype. Everyone has been exposed to images of a nurturing other.

To develop your Inner Ally, begin by imagining what an ally would say when you burn the crust or make a mistake. What would a good parent or good partner say? What would you want to say to someone you love who just stumbled or fumbled in some way?

Imagine that being said to you, or saying it to yourself. Practice! We have plenty of opportunities in a day to comfort or encourage ourselves.

Gradually, this voice is there more and more of the time. I would say late in the process of integration, it feels indistinguishable from you.

Who Do You Listen To?

I had a client the other day who had been simmering in self-hate for several weeks. The hatred was communicated through a shaming voice. It had been beating her up, bad. When I couldn’t get behind the shame attack to how it might be trying to protect her, I changed tacks. I invited her to bring in a figure of light, perhaps someone from the Upper World. She had a clear sense of a spiritual teacher she had a strong connection with, and let herself orient to that. I watched as her face became beatific. She was filling with love. Since love is opposite hatred, it unhooked her from the hatred.

This is the choice we need to consciously make: We can listen to the shame attack, living under the thumb of the Inner Critic, or we can “change the channel” to a different energy.

Think about the energy you’d like to have available in times of need. That’s the energy you want to cultivate. That’s the loving voice you want as an inside companion. See if you can practice a more loving voice this week.

What’s the voice like inside your head?  Have you practiced nurturing self-talk?  If you’re reading by email or RSS, click here to join the conversation.

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Jasmin Cori is the author of 6 books, including Healing From Trauma and The Emotionally Absent Mother. Her psychotherapy practice includes clients around the US and several other countries. Sign up for her blog or visit her site for more.

 

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24 Comments

  1. Hi Jasmin & Sandra,
    Great topic, It’s amazing how many of us are kinder to others than ourselves. I’ve been working on self compassion, being gentler & kinder to myself and how I talk to myself. Great tips and reminders. Thanks. 🙂

  2. Thanks, Brad. A great practice to have taken up. Seems the self-compassion supports a more general heart opening, and just feels good! Best to you, Jasmin

  3. Sometime in the last year I noticed I have an almost non-stop stream of self-criticism running in my head (when it’s not replaced by repetitive ’80s disco tunes, which I much prefer). Although I sometimes “counter” myself, I’ve not started a practice of doing so. I love mythology and finding an inner ally may be a great way to start. Thank you, Jasmin (and Sandra)!

    • Thanks for sharing, Debra. So great that you’ve noticed. Part of what maintains this critical voice is our not noticing it, just going along with the content it feeds us. This is such an important step you’ve taken! Keep going! Jasmin

  4. Jasmin! Not gonna lie – I didn’t exactly have the most supportive parents. They loved me well enough but to this day, when I doubt myself or embark on any exciting life journey the voice in my head goes “Is this realistic?” or “C’mon, you can’t do that” or “it’s too hard”… And that voice… Is my fathers. I know it when it happens and I work every day to reverse it. Sometimes I think it’s important to just breathe, redirect the thinking and as you say, create an “inner ally”. I really believe the power of positive thought is VERY powerful… more so even than the inner critic. We “just” need to recognize the thought patterns and stop them dead in their tracks. Great article!

    • Thanks, Kristy. Glad you have moved beyond these restrictions.
      An additional technique that could be interesting is to talk back to this internalized father. “Hi Dad! Gotta make my own decision here. Likely to be different than yours. I’ll be fine.” Of course you could also be sarcastic, “Thanks for the support!” It would let this part of you know that you are claiming your own autonomy and it is not simply a matter of it getting louder. Thanks for commenting.

  5. This topic really resonated with me. I have found by practising metta bhavana meditation my self talk has become much kinder.

  6. I am currently going through process of changing how I talk to myself. This post is beautiful, and I love the image of the woman who used the image of her favorite spiritual teacher. We’re all vessels for light, we just need to learn to let it in!

    • Yes, how true. Sometimes when we have not yet cultivated loving kindness for ourselves, it helps to imagine how divine being treasures us. Possibly feeling how anyone (with a spiritual teacher or family member or friend) treasures us helps us move to a place where we see our own light. Thanks, Kayla.

  7. Ah, yes. I am all too familiar with my inner critic. She’s such a downer. I much prefer the warm-fuzziness of my inner ally.

    I also like to work with archetypes when I’m in a “negative phase.” Wild woman really speaks to me in particular. My version of Women Who Run with the Wolves is well-loved and highlighted to the hilt.

    Jasmin, can you recommend a resource that identifies multiple archetypes? Thank you!

    • Hi Michelle,
      I haven’t kept up, but an old classic is Goddesses in Everywoman: Powerful Archetypes in Women’s Lives by Jean Shinoda Bolen, which had a second edition.
      Best, Jasmin

  8. What a great article and reminder to continually work towards being kinder to myself. It is amazing how difficult that is!

    • Thanks, Kaylin. Yes, imagine if we held ourself as precious, how it could change our life. Kindness is a doorway to that. Be well!

  9. I listen to my Inner Critic all the time! Thanks for the advice on how to combat him!

    • Thanks, Mike. It is often a long-term project, but makes a real difference in quality of life. Very best with it!

  10. Wow, this is amazing. I love the idea of having an Inner Ally. I often change my Inner Critic into an Opponent Ally asking “what lesson is it you want me to have here?” and then “is this still serving us?” There’s something about inviting it into dialogue that always creates space for healing.

    • Verhanika, thanks for your comment. When you get curious like this, it helps you move from the content of the message to the Why. In the book, Embracing Your Inner Critic the Stones describe the critic as generally trying to protect us from rejection, by keeping us within the rules as the Critic understands them. Some would consider the critic a Protector. The dialogue you describe is most valuable in creating a relationship that is other than adversarial. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Lovely article. I enjoy your writing. So often we berate ourselves for the silliest things. Then berate ourselves some more for telling ourselves off for something so silly in the first place! I regularly praise myself, sometimes out loud! Saying it gives me such a good feeling, as if someone else has said it. And it furthers my confidence in getting on with other things I wasn’t so sure about before.

    • Thanks for sharing that tip, Loren. I’ll have to experiment with saying these things out loud. I guess you know it ‘hits the spot’ when you feel so good inside.

  12. Natalia

    Inner Critic is the most difficult to combat when times are hard, when I feel on my own, unsupported and outcast. Then your suggestions of nurturing self talk sounds patronising, unreal, phony. If I was not deserving or lucky enough to receive such nurture from birth, it seems pointless to pretend otherwise now.
    Yes, I can pay to strangers to simulate some sort of idyllic mother figure. But the fact has always been staring me in the face – these well meaning people will forget about me the minute I stop paying. (Not unlike my mother!)

    • As in our outer relationships our inner voice has to meet us. So if you feel alone and abandoned, it’s not going to work to come at it from too cheery a place. In an instance like that, nurturing self-talk may sound more like empathy from a friend: “It’s really hard right now. I get that you feel alone. I care about that.”

      From my perspective it’s not really possible that you were undeserving from birth, although it sounds like you were indeed unlucky. I don’t believe that has to be a life sentence.

      Best to you, Jasmin

  13. Jean Sampson

    Hey, Jasmin and Sandra. What a wonderful post! I wish more people could read it! A lot of people are going around being beaten down by the mean voice in their heads. I have been working on the inner critic for a long time and there is only one area in which I seem to have not been able to quiet him/her down. I think having a talk with that little voice in my head might be a good idea so I can find out why it is still active in this area of my life. I find it helpful to write down the “conversation” because writing really lets me know what I do not consciously know. 🙂

    • Jean, that’s great progress that your critic has settled down so much, and wise to actually listen for where it is coming from. Writing seems like a great tool here. Sounds like you write down what it has said; what if you continue the dialogue going forward, being curious where its attitudes have come from and what would help it relax. We can have this kind of dialogue with any part of ourselves, and certainly this one. Very best with it.

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