Have you ever strived to change your health but kept hearing a critical voice in your head that stopped you in your tracks? Maybe you tried eating clean or doing a cleanse, but a voice kept nagging and limiting what you thought you could accomplish.
What are these voices and where do they come from? And why are they so powerful?
We asked Dr. Susan Campbell, psychologist and author of numerous books to help us understand how our inner critics work.
By getting to know the different “voices” and the way we talk to ourselves, we’ll be less prone to take them seriously and more ready to take action on our health goals.
What Are These Voices?
Each of us is home to a mess of conflicting wants, needs, hurts, and problems. As Walt Whitman said in his poem Song of Myself, “I am large, I contain multitudes”.
Like Whitman, we also contain multitudes, in other words, the many different “voices” within our psyche. We can notice these voices working in all aspects of our lives. For example they may tell us that we’re not good enough or to refrain from trying something new.
And these critical inner voices are not actual “voices” that speaks to us, rather they are the self-limiting and learned attitudes that keep us playing small.
While often these voices are mean or berating, they can also be soothing and calm. A voice may tell us to eat an extra piece of dessert, then begin yelling the minute we do for not having enough self control.
The Top 4 Critical Voices We Hear
We’ve asked Dr. Campbell to list the top 4 critical voices we may hear that can inhibit us from making positive changes to our health. Beginning to notice these voices as you work on your health goals is the first step toward reducing their power.
#1 “I’ll just disappoint myself again.”
This voice says: “I’ve tried to make this change so many times. What makes me think I’ll succeed this time?” This voice can quickly turn a few mistakes into a story that success is impossible and you are forever stuck where you are.
#2 “I’ll have more responsibility.”
This says: “I don’t want to spend all my time thinking about my health.” or “If I really want to be healthy then Ill need to learn to prepare my own food and that’s going to take so much time.”
This voice is motivated by the fear that if you grow up and actually become a more capable person, more will be expected of you. And this includes taking care of ourselves with good health practices. Making healthy food and exercising require effort and planning and this voice can scare us from taking action.
#3 “People won’t like me anymore.”
This voice says things like: “If I stand out from the crowd, if I actualize my full potential, this will make others feel uncomfortable or threatened. I just want to fit in.” Often you’ll have this inner voice if you were outstanding in some way in your earlier years—like maybe you were the smartest one in your class at school, and people avoided you since they did not feel much in common with you. And you interpreted their behavior as people not liking you.
Not being liked is also a common fear when we change our health. We imagine people will think we are strange or overly precious when we refrain from eating certain foods or drinking alcohol. Sometimes this occurs with friends, other times it’s with spouses or partners, particularly when doing the Cleanse.
#4 “I get along fine just as I am.”
This voice says: “I’ve managed this long doing what I’m doing, why do I need to do anything different?”
This is the voice of denial. Sure, you get along fine, but you know (when you’re honest with yourself) that your life would be a whole lot better if you could make a change. But you have a habit of denying and avoiding discomfort and clinging to things that are comfortable to feel and think.
When we begin to notice these voices and they lose some of their power, it’s not uncommon that people feel lonely or scared without them. Mistakenly, they believe that if they don’t follow these inner critics, they’ll start to behave poorly. The irony is that it is often these voices that are creating the self-limiting behavior in the first place.
3 Ways to Work With Your Inner Critics
So what do we do with the critical voices in our head? Here are three ways to work with your voices so you can make more of the changes you want.
#1 Track Your Voices.
This week, pay attention to the voices you hear and how they influence your weekly health commitments. What are they telling you? When you don’t follow through with a commitment, what are your voices saying? You don’t need to change the voices, just notice them and write them on your Health Commitment Worksheet. Bringing attention to our voices puts space between them and us. Most of the time, we immediately identify with the voices in our head. By noticing them, we recognize that we are more than just those voices.
#2 Do a Mind Dump.
At the end of the week, take a look at your Health Commitment Worksheet. How did it go? What were the voices that got in the way? Take one of those voices and write down everything it said (e.g. You will never succeed! You don’t finish what you start. You work too hard, why don’t you just relax.). Then respond to this voice from your perspective, line by line. Do you think differently than this voice? Explore your relationship with the voice and see what you uncover about yourself. By identifying the lies of your inner critic you will be able to clear your mind and start fresh the next week.
#3 Do the Opposite.
Often when we begin to challenge our inner critics, their attacks can become more intense. But the more we do the opposite of what they say, the more these self-limiting voices lose their power. If a voice is telling you that you won’t follow through or you’ve failed a million times before, notice it, and then follow through with your commitment. Keep doing the opposite of what they say and using your Health Commitment Worksheet each week.
Noticing the inner critics and self-limiting thoughts that control our behavior is a challenging process but it pays off over time. The more you simply recognize the voices, tag them, and do your best to continue your health practices, the more you’ll see positive life changes.
Going head-to-head with your inner critic is not always an easy process. But sticking with it will help you discover what makes you tick and what are the best ways for you to make healthy change happen.