Coping with that Savage Inner Voice

As I’ve discussed elsewhere, when we emerge from our childhood with a profound sense of damage and the shame that goes with it, when we feel hopeless about ever getting better, we tend to long for perfect and magical solutions instead.  At the same time, a part of us comes to expect that we will become perfect and berates us brutally if we fall short of expectation.  I’m sure many of you know exactly what I’m talking about:  that savage inner voice that can make our life an ongoing misery.

In my own practice, the majority of my clients have suffered from such savagery, as I myself have done.  Even in the best of therapeutic outcomes, this voice never goes away entirely.  What we can hope to do is to free ourselves from its domination, to recognize it quickly and sideline the cruelty, moving on to more productive ways of thinking.  The first step involves some techniques that can be worked on and mastered, in keeping with behavioral modification techniques as well as meditation; the latter part takes time and involves building mental muscle, the ability to think clearly and exercise non-harsh judgment.

In an early post on the importance of mental silence, I described ways to put a stop to verbal thought and focus instead on breathing, much as advocated by Eastern meditative practice.  This becomes especially important in dealing with the savage inner voice.  To this day, I regularly have the experience of recalling something I may have said or done and feeling my entire body flinch; I’ll close my eyes tight and clench my muscles, as if somebody very strong were about to strike me.  If I’m not paying enough attention, I might then start to tell myself what an idiot I was to have done such-and-such, or how stupid I am to act in so narcissistic a way.  I think you know what I mean.  Then I have to force myself to relax, to silence the words and focus instead on my breathing.

Behavioral modification refers to this as “thought-stopping,” a useful technique.  I do not, however, go on to voice self-affirmations instead.  I don’t believe in the lasting value of self-affirmations because they do nothing to promote real thought or to develop discernment.  The truth is that my savage attacks often contain an element of truth to them.  If I simply tell myself that I’m a good person, I’m strong and sensitive, that everyone makes mistakes, etc., I will have learned nothing from the experience.  The goal is not to substitute a non-reflective positive judgment for a harshly negative one, but rather to develop a more nuanced capacity for discernment.

Let me give an example, one I’ve referred to in other posts, especially this one abut how to make an apology.  Many years ago, I said something hurtful to a friend at a dinner party.  It took me a long time to recognize that I had misbehaved; once I did, I came down very hard, berating myself for behaving in a thoughtless and hurtful way.  I was brutalizing myself.  The solution was not to start telling myself that I was actually a good, thoughtful person, or to tell myself it’s okay to make mistakes; what was needed was to remove the savery from the self-criticism.  Once I did, I was able to understand the envy that drove me to misbehave, to make an apology (though not as genuine a one as I should have given), and to pay more attention to my own frustrated longing.  In the process, I moved from viewing myself as a contemptible loser to a frustrated writer with painful feelings of envy for a successful friend.  This didn’t excuse my behavior but made it understandable.  I learned something from the experience.

It takes a long time to develop the capacity to make such a transformation.  What we try to do is evolve a better internal parent, one who doesn’t simply attack you because you made a mistake or lie to you about how “good” you are, but might help you understand why you made such an error and how you might learn from your experience in order to avoid such an error in future.  In my experience, it’s difficult to make this change alone.  You may need to work this through in the context of regular psychotherapy, with a person who you respect.  Even then, it’s not easy.  With my clients, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how difficult it is to clear a space where we can think together about something the client did, without feeling crushed with humiliating shame on the one hand or taking flight from it on the other.  For such clients, as discussed in my last post, any attempt to exercise discernmnent feels like harsh judgment.   It takes a long time to transform black-and-white thinking into a process with shades of gray.

Without such a thoughtful internal parent, only two options exist:  either you’re wonderful and everything is fine, or you’re a contemptible fuck-up and you’ll never be any different.  This dynamic leads to a cycle of crime and punishment, as discussed elsewhere, where nothing can be learned and we’re condemned to repeat the same behaviors again and again.

Finding Your Own Way:

Think of something  you did or felt for which you’ve criticized yourself harshly.  It may be something that happened long ago that you’ve never gotten over.  Maybe the memory of it makes you cringe, as some of my recollections do.  Don’t run away from it or attempt to put it out of your mind, but focus on your breath and work for mental silence.  See if you can keep the idea in mind without berating yourself.

Can you think of possible reasons for your behavior that involve no harshness, either for you or for anyone else (i.e., no shame or blame)?  Can you feel any sympathy for yourself that doesn’t excuse your behavior or make it somebody’s else’s fault?  Can you learn something about yourself from that experience that might help you to do something different next time?

The goal here is to recognize traits or feelings that might cause you trouble in future but not to judge them harshly; to take them into account and tolerate them next time, without simply acting reflexively, without understanding, and berating yourself afterward.

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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10 comments

    Again I have been learning to do this for the first time recently. Sadly I don’t have a therapist, let alone a helpful one, but I do ‘work hard’ on my own. One of the things I did that mortified me was publicly pick on the leaders of a survivors’ group and got nearly banned from the group. My shame of my actions very nearly sent my mental health into an even deeper downward spiral, but with the help of a Samaritan (listening helpline in the UK) I was able to tolerate what I had done without becoming fiercely harshly critical. Instead I experienced a lot of grief that I lash out in anger in some situations (the situation was, I felt someone was being picked on and inadequately defended by the leaders of the group; though they reassured me they were doing all the defending behind the scenes; I had mocked and tried to shame them in retaliation). It was the first time I have apologized and been able to see my problem and how I could have acted better, and not instead just beat myself up.

    Hi
    I sometimes have such intense periods of self loathing . In the midst of these bouts I criticise my every action. I lose any sense of perspective and start berating myself for things that arent even valid or worth condemnation. Everything I do could be improved upon, everything I say is not right.

    I cannot understand this thought process. It serves no purpose and narrows my perspective. During these periods I cannot even begin to entertain the possibility of thinking positively about myself. I’m unable to challenge the validity of these self critical thoughts because they come too quick, and feel too painful. My mind will tell me to shut up if I try to contest them. The best I can do is to try and apply mindfulness, and disengage with them as best I can. They still pain me though.

    What can I do? How can I continue living like this? Is it possible to reduce the intensity of this self loathing even slightly?
    These criticisms teach me nothing. They’re unfair and leave me in a lot of pain. My mind is clearly against me.

    Any insight you can offer will be much appreciated. I respect your judgement and your website is one of the few self help sites I derive any value from

    This sounds like an issue you might what to bring to a psychotherapist. But in addition to that, I think you would benefit from some kind of mindfulness meditation. What you need to do is learn to silence that voice, at least to some degree. As you say, its point of view is not valid and it serves no purpose other than to destroy your sense of well-being. A good therapist could help you understand the reasons why you might be doing that to yourself; but in the meantime, if you can try to silence it a little, that will offer you some relief. Like anything, it takes consistent effort over time to learn how to do that, but just keep trying. Don’t reason or argue with the voice; just try to silence it. You won’t be very successful at first, but over time, you’ll get better.

    This article has been an eye opener for me. Every time I make a simple mistake like dropping a glass, or if i disappoint my husband, the internal verbal assault that ensues leaves me morbidly depressed and angry at myself. I become anti -social and it eventually affects friends and family. Is this something I can fix on my own using meditation, or do I need to see a therapist? My husband thinks I just have issues but this is something that really affects me, sometimes to the point where I mentally shut down. Your advice would be greatly appreciated

    This definitely sounds like an issue for a good psychotherapist. I don’t think it’s a matter of “fixing” it as much as getting in touch with your perfectionism, your hatred of your ordinary human-ness, and probably some shame in there, as well.

    Thanks for this interesting article. Personally, I’ve found two things so far that have helped with my inner critic.

    The first is to try to empathize with the critical voice and where it’s coming from. Like actually saying to the voice in my head something like, “Wow, it’s sounds like you’re really disappointed by my behavior and you’re wishing I could have been more careful about other people’s feelings (or whatever the issue might be)” I learned this one from studying Nonviolent Communication and it really does help in my experience. It’s hard to berate yourself and be empathic at the same time, and as well, it gets to the heart of what you’re wanting to change about your behavior in a nonjudgmental way.

    When this fails, my other strategy is to just allow myself to feel the shame full-on. I never knew I was able to do this until one day while I was driving home from seeing my therapist. I suddenly realized I had done something embarrassing and was about to physically slap myself in the face about it when for some reason I stopped myself and just let myself have the feeling of shamed in undiluted form. To my shock, that feeling lasted less than 5 seconds, after which I was able to look at my actions in a more balanced light. I think it’s another example of a case when the feelings we’re defending against (shame) are not as bad as the defenses we use to avoid them (berating ourselves.)

    Thank you for this article. I’ve been struggling for years with the way I treat myself when I feel guilty for something I have done. When I was a teenager, I would feel so angry with myself for making such mistakes that I would hit myself until I felt I’d punished myself enough, thinking that somehow making the pain physical would make the emotional pain of guilt go away, but that just left behind more guilt for using such a bad coping strategy. That lasted well into my young adult years, and it’s only been with the help and encouragement of my husband that I’ve grown strong enough to hold back from that impulse to self-injure. But the savage voice inside still rages on when I make mistakes – mostly it’s only when I’ve done something that hurts someone else or disappoints someone. The hardest times are when I’ve disappointed my husband or said something that hurt his feelings by accident. I never intend to be a jerk, but sometimes my more self-centered and ungenerous inclinations get the best of me and come out in thoughtless remarks or actions. I always end up feeling that no amount of apologizing or punishing myself can ever make things right. But the more I try to work with those feelings and find good articles like this one that give me food for thought, the better it gets, little by little, and the more I’m able to understand what’s going on and try to form healthier reactions. Thank you.

    One strategy that might help: instead of viewing the hurtful things you occasionally do as “thoughtless” or unintentional, try to find the intent behind them. Come to terms with the reality of “self-centered” and “ungenerous” you — think of her as an actual person inside of you that you have to cope with, who will keep expressing herself, doing what she wants in insensitive ways, even saying deliberately hurtful things from time to time. If you don’t see this as an ongoing struggle with a very real part of yourself, then you’re condemned to repeat this cycle of “thoughtless” crimes and brutal punishments.

    As usual, this article was insightful and thought-provoking.

    I think you may be dismissing self-affirmation (at least some forms of it) too quickly. Certainly there are ways of doing it badly, and I think that’s mostly what you were talking about here–self-indulgence or mindless positive mantras. But if done well, as an aspect of the larger practice of self-compassion, I think self-affirmation is helpful.

    Kristin Neff has done tremendous work on self-compassion. Her book chapter on “The science of self-compassion” is excellent and is available on her website. Here are a few quotes that are relevant to the concerns you raised (although I recognize that her concept of self-compassion is much broader than the self-affirmations you were discussing):

    “Self-compassion is associated with greater wisdom and emotional intelligence … [self-compassionate people] report greater emotional coping skills, including more clarity about their feelings and greater ability to repair negative emotional states”

    “while self-compassion is negatively related to perfectionism, it has no association with the level of performance standards adopted for the self. Self-compassionate people aim just as high, but also recognize and accept that they can’t always reach their goals. Self-compassion is also linked to greater personal initiative; the desire to reach one’s full potential.”

    [See original source for references]

    Admittedly, much of the research so far is correlational. But intervention studies are being done as well, like the famous <a href="https://webspace.utexas.edu/neffk/pubs/AdamsLearyeating%20attitudes.pdf"eating habits study.

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