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Your Critical Inner Voice: Carrying the Torch and the Torture?

inner voice

We all want to give ourselves tough love, but are we beating ourselves senseless? 

“Are you really that stupid? What a loser!”

That’s what the voice inside of Jeremy’s head was saying to him. Why? 

Jeremy slipped up on taking his medication today. He was busy and forgot. It’s not that he isn’t fully aware that he needs to take it at exactly the same time every day, with his breakfast. His doctor has emphasized this with him repeatedly. And given him a good scolding when he admitted to going off schedule. When did Jeremy remember that he had forgotten to take his medication? At lunchtime, which caused him to have to run home in the middle of the day. 

Now, let’s talk about punishment. Like Jeremy’s inner voice. 

It’s human nature to be self-critical. Some of us are more critical of ourselves than others. And giving yourself some tough love, including a good talking to (yourself), can help to keep you on the road. But tough love can turn into being downright mean to yourself, like Jeremy’s self-critical inner voice.

All That Self-Criticism Hurts a Lot More Than It Helps. Ready to Lay Down the Torch? 

Let me tell you what I tell my clients. Setting limits with yourself to stay adherent with your self-care and treatment regimen is one thing. Constantly beating up on yourself is another thing altogether. Harsh self-criticism can have a negative impact on your self-esteem. It can make your self-care feel like an overwhelming challenge. And self-criticism can cause stress, which can in turn lead to anxiety and depression. Nobody benefits from beating up on themselves. 

So where does Jeremy’s critical voice come from? Well, probably a lot of places. Parents who frequently scolded him and told him to do better. Teachers and other adults who did the same.  And maybe a few health providers, including his doctor.

The result? Jeremy, like many of us, has internalized as those individual critical voices. They have become one collective holler that he carries around with him. Second-guessing him. Yelling at him. Calling him names. And otherwise making him feel unhappy when he isn’t perfect. You could say that Jeremy is carrying the torch for all the people in his life who have criticized him over the years.

And by carrying that torch, the unhappiness and blows to his self-esteem that result also means carrying the torture. 

And another thing to consider. If Jeremy is beating himself up over his adherence, chances are he is beating himself up over other things. 

What about you? Ready to tame your critical inner voice? Here’s how: 

Stop! Holler back at the voice of criticism by plain old telling it to shut up. This is called thought-stopping. You might be surprised at how effective it can be to tell that inner voice to lay off. Followed by shifting your thinking to something more positive. Quiet down all that noise so you can think.    

Get perspective. Okay, so you didn’t do as well as you would have liked. And maybe you let yourself down, as well as your doctor and anyone else who is rooting for you to be adherent with your regimen. No, that’s not a mistake you want to make again anytime soon. But it’s not a catastrophe. And it can’t be undone and redone. If you take a step back and gain a realistic perspective on whatever it is that you are criticizing yourself about, whether it’s a lack of adherence, like Jeremy, or something else you did or didn’t do. Having a realistic perspective will go a long way toward toning down that urge to self-criticize. 

Encourage yourself. Living with a chronic health condition like HIV is a lot to deal with. So a proposal: What if you cut yourself some slack? And replaced the next criticism you are about to lob toward yourself with a few words of encouragement. What if you said something to yourself like: “Living with this condition isn’t easy at times. I’m doing the best I can. But I’m human.” Yes, some self-forgiveness may be in order. 

Let go of the need to criticize. It often seems to me that my clients are of the mindset that if they aren’t consistently hard on themselves – including all that name calling – they will completely fall apart, as will their adherence. That’s kind of extreme, right? But it’s this mindset that can keep you carrying the torch. And at risk for feeling defeated. 

Resolve to do better. So you let yourself down. We all do it. Tomorrow’s another day. Get back up on the horse. 

Get specific with yourself. On what you can do to improve. A slip-up can be a great teacher. Why? Because you are reminded of what can go wrong, and how your mindset and/or your actions can contribute to that slip-up. So take the lesson and decide how you’ll apply it. Onward and upward – with a direction to follow. 

Get support. Sit down and talk with someone who can listen without judgment about that torch you’ve been carrying. If you’re not sure if you’re ready to give it up, they might give you a push in that direction.

You, your self-critical voice, and how you use it to punish yourself. Enough! You’re human. And all that self-criticism is hurting a whole lot more than it’s helping. So lay down the torch, along with the torture. Welcome the opportunity to learn from your mistakes. Get back on the road. And be kind to yourself.   

Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website, 

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