dealing with the critical voices within you

Nobody wants to say mean things to themselves. It hurts.

But it happens, especially for folks who struggle with self-esteem.

In fact, negative self-talk is so insidious that you might not even be aware of how much it happens, unwittingly, inside your mind. Instead, it might be a subconscious loop of negativity that plays endlessly just for you to hear (how lovely,eh?). And because you don’t realize that it’s there, there’s no way for you to guard yourself against its attacks. You end up getting beaten up on a daily basis by an invisible bully who’s taken up residence in your mind. Oy.

The thing that’s really counterintuitive, and that you really need to know, is the the reason your inner critic is there in the first place is to guard you against threats. It’s one of our many internal self-protection mechanisms, and it functions by trying to prevent us from doing things that it perceives will harm us.

A lot of the time, this means the inner critic is trying to beat us into shape before someone else (or something else) has the chance.

The problem with this is that, in the process of trying to protect us, our critical voices actually hurt us more. So our goal when dealing with them is not to kill them or force them to go away before they’re ready.

Our job is to figure out how to achieve their goals in a more self-supportive way, therefore rendering them useless. 

Then, they can dissolve on their own with very little struggle.

So how do we do this?

1. First, we recognize that the critical voices are there, and we find out what they’re saying. (It’s very helpful to do this on paper, instead of in our head.)

2. Next, we find out what purpose they’re serving. Here are just a few possibilities:
  • To “prepare” you for hurtful words by saying them before someone else does
  • To “motivate” you to do “better”
  • To lower your expectations so you won’t be disappointed
  • To keep you from doing things that could result in embarrassment/pain
  • To “protect” you from being let down by other people
  • To prepare you for the worst possible situation
You’ll want to think of any possible purpose, at all, that these negative voices could be serving, and write them down. It’s possible that some of these purposes will sound downright ridiculous to you. But negative self-talk isn’t logical. Write down anything that comes to mind, no matter how seemingly absurd.

3. This next step is, in my opinion, the most challenging. We want to find a way to meet the purpose/need we just identified in a way that renders the critical voice useless. Here are some examples of how we might do this, based on the purposes identified above:
  • If the critical voice is trying to “prepare” you for hurtful words by saying them before someone else does, you might: acknowledge the pain there and write a supportive letter to the version of yourself who’s injured.
  • If the critical voice is trying to “motivate” you to do “better,” you might: ask yourself whether you really do need to “do better.” If the answer is yes, think of a way to motivate yourself that feels good and kind, and acknowledges that you’re doing your best.
  • If the critical voice is trying to lower your expectations so you won’t be disappointed, you might: acknowledge that disappointment is an inevitable part of a full life, and plump up your support ecosystem to make sure it can cradle you when disappointment happens.
  • If the critical voice is trying to keep you from doing things that result in embarrassment/pain, you might: create safety precautions that will help the situation feel more secure to you — and don’t proceed until you know you have the built-in safety and support that you’ll need to cushion the risk.
  • If the critical voice is trying to “protect” you from being let down by other people, you might: make sure that you have a wide variety of people around, so that even if something goes wrong with one, you have supports to hold you. You might also strengthen or expand the ways in which you give yourself internal protection.
  • If the critical voice is trying to prepare you for the worst possible situation, you might: acknowledge the fear and pain there, and find out if it’s possible for you to make room for the possibility of positive outcomes, as well.
Then, we continue to do this on a regular basis. We recognize the voices, discover their purpose, and meet the need in order to render the voices useless.

Critical self-talk does not disappear overnight. However, just like about 50% of the other stuff we humans do, negative self-talk is a habit. And every single time we bring awareness to a habit, or engage with it in a different way, we loosen its grip on us.

If you begin to engage with your critical voices in this way, you’ll transform the way you interact with them, and with yourself.

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