Conversations with the Critical Voice

Updated: Sep 1

Years ago I was living in a small apartment with a roommate who was a very kind and genuine guy. I was also neck deep in a life subtly driven by insecurity, a need to prove myself--and a persistent fear that I never would.


Like so many of us who've lived that kind of life, my inner narrative was often ruled by a harsh critic whom I could never please, who often tormented me in the privacy of my own mind. But then on day he got caught outside, and my roommate saw him. And his reaction changed my life.


It was evening sometime in the middle of the week. We were both into our nighttime routines, and part of mine was setting up the automatic coffee pot. This was very important to me (and still is). However, for some reason this night I absentmindedly set the pot for "brew now" instead of "timer". Not realizing my mistake, I walked away to the next step in the bedtime process.


I was in my room when I noticed the faint, familiar sound of gurgling water accompanied by the aroma of coffee. Instantly I knew what I'd done. Such a small thing, right? But something about not paying attention, having wasted something, made a 'stupid' error--something about it struck the right kind of chord to awaken the fierce, unforgiving voice.


It had also likely been stewing from something that happened earlier that day.


I stormed into the kitchen, shut off the machine and dumped the steaming brew into the sink, muttering nasty insults and slurs at myself. I was halfway into resetting the pot when my roommate came around the corner.


"Dude, what's wrong?" he asked.


I showed him what I did, describing my idiocy without mercy, like it was necessary


"You know," he said, "if somebody else was talking to you that way, I'd tell them to leave. That's not okay. I really don't want to hear you doing that again."


At once I felt a rush of weird and conflicting things. Disarmed by how he'd stood up to me--for me. Ashamed I'd done something else wrong. And a new sort of exhilaration at my first sense that this awful experience I had with the self-hating part of me wasn't normal, and maybe I didn't have to put up with it.


Step Back, Talk Back

Most of us are in some way tormented by a Critical Voice, a part of us that has sort of split off and picked up a reproachful, always-unsatisfied narrative that claims it's making us better, but really only beats us down. It might come from a perfectionist parent, a relationship characterized by shame and dominance, or the overarching messages our culture ceaselessly screams about what makes us valuable.


In some cases it's actually a self-protection mechanism, almost a way of inoculating ourselves against being exposed and judged. But it doesn't quite work out that way.


Wherever your critic found its voice, it's you that's got to meet it. There might be a nudge of outside intervention needed, like I got, but it really couldn't be roommate's job to stand up to the self-defeating narrative that had taken root in my mind.


Step back. Notice when there's a part of you being harsh, judgmental, unforgiving, but recognize that's not all of you. Inside each of us we can also find an advocate, a defender, a loving parent. They may take help and hard work to find, but they're there.


Talk back. When I noticed that antagonistic narrative emerging, I literally began saying out loud: "You're not allowed to talk to me that way. Find something helpful to say, or leave." Yes, it felt weird at first. And it worked. Choosing and owning the words (again and again) showed me just how much power I had to reshape how I viewed and felt about myself--and how deeply I needed to do that.


Some people find it helpful to be almost cooperative with their inner critic, thanking it for trying to protect and improve, but asking it to rest. For me, the voice I experienced was cruel and mocking, rooted in a shame narrative, and taking a definitive stance against it was the best way.


We may not be able to silence this hurtful voice, but that is actually okay. By learning what's at the heart of that harsh narrative, we equip ourselves to look at it through new lenses and relate to it in a more helpful way, and stop letting it dictate how we feel or what we do.


Once again, owning our stories is the best way to discover our path to more healthy and helpful living. Transforming how I responded to my Critical Voice was only part of my journey out of the lifestyle of insecurity and inauthentic posturing I was trapped in.


But it was a crucial step, and a journey worth making.


Counseling Can Help


Mike Ensley, MA, LPCC, is a nationally board-certified counselor in Loveland, CO.

Photo by Aidan Todd on Unsplash.

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