I was 25 years old and just beginning to see patients as a psychologist in training. I’ll never forget the moment I watched the first couple I would ever see as a marital therapist drive up to the clinic and walk in for their first appointment. The thing that struck me about this couple was how insanely successful they appeared. The husband stepped out of the biggest Mercedes money could buy and it was clear to me that he was at least twice my age. A silver fox that could easily have been running a fortune 500 company as CEO. His trophy wife was wearing high-end designer clothes that I could only dream of purchasing for my new bride. As I walked out into the waiting room to meet them I had a rush of insecurity wash over me. I tried to fake confidence as I threw my hand out towards my new clients. “I’m Mike, we spoke on the phone yesterday.” The husband looked at me in disbelief, looked at his wife and said, “here’s the big counselor you brought me to see, huh?” It was a humiliating moment in large part because I felt almost as if I agreed with the husband. That little voice inside my head was screaming negative messages about me, my value as a budding professional, and the reality that I was about to waste everyone’s time pretending to be a competent psychologist. As the session went on, my inner voice got louder and louder. “They see right through me.” “ Don’t blow this.” “I’m an imposter right now, who has no idea what to say next.” It was indeed a torturous 50 minutes of psychotherapy. I could not have been any more relieved when they walked out the door. What astounded me even more was the fact that they made another appointment. I had to go through all this again and that little voice inside my head would surely grow into a monster voice inside my head that would be ready to attack me for all my inadequacies and blunders.
Believe it or not, after that first session I used the husband’s condescending statement and my negative inner self-talk as motivation to learn everything I could about marital therapy. I was determined to utilize the same “succeed or suffer” mentality that had driven much of my success and self-discipline in the past. I’m sure that many of you have utilized the same critical voice as motivation for success in different areas of your life. How many of us have tapped that monster within to motivate us to train harder for athletics, or get through rigorous seasons in our professional life, or even commit to a difficult marriage? Many of us use our critical voice to help us hone in on our faults and weaknesses before other people have a chance to identify them and use them against us. And this is essentially the paradox of that monster within us all: it undermines and attacks us to protect us from feeling the shame of failure and criticism by other people. So over time, the voice of the monster within can essentially cripple us and our attempts to succeed and keep us stuck in an unhealthy pattern of negative self-talk and criticism.
There is a better way.
I spoke with my supervisor about the successful couple I saw for marital therapy and eluded to the fact that I was using my feelings of inadequacy as fuel to drive my success with the couple. “When he’s condescending again I will use that as motivation to study harder”, I said with as much bravado as I could muster. My supervisor immediately cautioned me with a warning about using the monster within for that purpose. “Mike, using those self-critical messages will ensure that you approach your profession driven more by fear of failure than by passion or inspiration.” His words struck me right between the eyes. I resonated deeply with the idea that real joy had almost become an elusive emotion since I started my training. I had traded my joy for anxiety and stress about my performance. Over the next several weeks I used my supervision time to develop some strategies to ensure that I no longer gave the monster within any leverage in my life. And sure enough, as I practiced these strategies the self-critical messages became less and less intense. Here’s the simple steps I used to crush the power of the voice of the critical monster in my head.
The solution to self-critical thoughts isn’t to attempt to shut down the monster’s voice completely. That will never work. The voice will only come back stronger and with more intensity. Trying to run from the emotions created by the self-critical thoughts will only create a negative cycle of rumination in which you feel the negative emotions, then spend inordinate amounts of time trying to examine why you are always so self-critical. When you practice the art of self-distancing you replace the first person pronoun “I” with pronouns that are more distant from you like “you” when you are talking to yourself. For instance, when the silver fox insulted me in the waiting room I rehearsed a thought that sounded something like this. “Why give another person the power to make you feel like a fake?” Or “ Why do you feel like such a sham now when you felt so confident in the classroom?” I know it seems too easy, but the first person thought mode actually feels very personal. Self distancing allows you to pause, step away from the situation, and intentionally consider a rational response as if it had happened to someone else.
Normalize the Monster’s Voice
When we find that we have entered the negative cycle of self-criticism, one of the best strategies we can employ is to normalize the idea of that monster’s voice in your head. “Oh boy, here we go again. That monstrous critical voice is at it again.” Positioning the self-critical voice as something that is likely to happen allows us to detach from the criticism instead of identifying with it and allowing it to dominate us in the moment.
Value the Process Over the Outcome
Once we begin to feel some distance from the monster’s critical voice, we can begin to change the story we are rehearsing about failure or inadequacy. If we can truly begin to believe that struggle and failure is a part of life then we are in a position to learn from whatever situation we find ourselves in. We can now rehearse new thoughts in the moment that become much more productive. For instance, with my couple in marital therapy I began to rehearse these messages: “ I can’t control whether or not this couple gets better. I can do everything possible to prepare for these sessions and just let my best effort be good enough.” “ I’m going to focus on doing the next healthy thing with this couple, and I can release the outcomes.” “ These are the moments that I am learning to deal with difficult clients who throw me curve balls in session. This is an awesome learning experience”. The key to choosing process over outcomes is based squarely on our willingness to embrace our own brokenness and to allow ourselves to exercise self-compassion.
The opposite of self-criticism is not affirmation, it is actually transcendence. That means that the real solution to an obsession with the voice of that critical monster in your head is to believe beyond any shadow of a doubt that we are a part of something bigger. In my work with the couple years ago, I intentionally rehearsed these kinds of transcendent thoughts in my preparation for the sessions with them: “ This couple is very different from me, but they have value and inherent worth and their marriage deserves a chance to thrive”. The outward focus of the inherent worth of my clients and the value of marriage as an institution in our culture set me free to get outside of myself and my own fear and to focus on the needs of the clients. That transcendent outward focus opened the door to my own self-compassion and it crushed the remaining power of the critical monster within me.