Your Inner Voice
By Andrea Owen
How to Stop Feeling Like Sh*t (Seal Press, 2018) is a straight-shooting approach to self-improvement for women, one that offers no-crap truth-telling about the most common self-destructive behaviors women tend to engage in. From listening to the impostor complex and bitchy inner critic to catastrophizing and people-pleasing, Andrea Owen–a nationally sought-after life coach–crystallizes what’s behind these invisible, undermining habits.
You look like death ran over you.
That’s cute that you think you’d be up for that promotion.
A bikini? Yeah, right. Not in this lifetime.
Have you ever been in a verbally abusive relationship? One in which the other person constantly criticizes you, thinks you’re never good enough, and always makes you feel terrible? A relationship in which you start doubting yourself and believing all the mean things the other person says to you and about you? Or maybe you haven’t been in this type of relationship, but you know someone who has?
And it was so excruciatingly painful to watch? And oh, how I wish I were talking about someone else. But I’m talking about the way you speak to yourself.
Even if you’ve never had someone speak to you in this manner, I will bet that you speak to yourself this way at times (or all the time).
That your inner dialogue is less than loving. For instance, how do you speak to yourself when you see your reflection after you step out of the shower? Or when you make a mistake? Or when you get passed over for a promotion? Or when you start comparing yourself to other women?
In those instances, is your self-talk kind? Compassionate? Like a warm blanket just out of the dryer that smells like love?
I kind of doubt it.
I chose to start my book, How to Stop Feeling Like Shit, with this topic because your inner voice—or what is often rightly described as your “inner critic”—is the most common behavior women engage in that makes them feel like shit.
Take Valerie, a thirty-one-year-old hairdresser:
I tell myself quite often that I’m fat and this is the reason I’m still single as my thirty-second birthday approaches. I’m constantly criticizing my food choices and second-guessing most of my decisions.
My friends are getting married and having kids, and I’m always comparing myself to them, feeling like I don’t measure up. If I were thinner, more outgoing, more “something,” I would have had a successful relationship by now. Part of my job is to look nice, and people tell me often I look pretty, but I never believe them. I feel like they’re just making polite conversation.
Valerie’s story is a common one—comparing herself to everyone else (that’s another chapter) and believing her happiness depends on something outside herself she needs to attain.
Sometimes, the inner critic can be extremely harsh, as in Suzanne’s case:
I spend most of my life in a place of wanting to take care of everyone else in the world, and to hell with me. I never feel as important. I speak to myself in a way that I NEVER would speak to another human being. Self-compassion and self-love are nonexistent. If I mess up in some way (as normal people do), it’s not just a mistake. I tell myself I am horrible, stupid, fat and ugly, and a total failure as a person, woman, wife, friend, sibling—you name it, I suck at it. I wallow in that awful place and take those words as absolute truth. My brain knows they aren’t true, but that makes no difference. The shame of those feelings, and then the self-destructive methods I have of burying that shame, is just an awful place to be, and I pretty much feel helpless to pull out of it, even with my therapist.
For the record, the inner critic doesn’t always sound like an actual inner monologue or articulation of thoughts. Some women report that their inner critic is more of an overall feeling of “not-enoughness.”
A nagging suspicion that everyone else has their shit together and they don’t. That wash of “I’m not like the others.”
If you can’t relate to the stories about internal monologues, then maybe this is you: when you think about going after something big, you automatically assume it won’t go well, so you don’t do it.
Maybe you compare yourself to other women without registering it in words or specifics. It’s as if this board of directors of your life that you didn’t appoint has come together to have a meeting about your value, and you believe their evaluation that you are suffering by comparison to others.
Where Does It Come From?
Where does this voice come from? The gutters of hell?
Well, actually, yes, it comes from a miserable little town in hell where the mayor is a jackass.
I’m kidding, of course. But read on to discover the most common instigators of self-criticism.
The first source of your inner critic is often your family of origin. Some of you may look back on your upbringing as a graveyard littered with painful memories, and others may not remember the kind of pain that brings you to your knees, but more subtle experiences.
Being a parent myself, I can absolutely see where this comes from. We want our children to fit in. We want them to achieve. We want them to feel confident. We want to help them escape as much pain as possible of the trials and tribulations of growing up. Right?
We don’t wake up every morning and think, “How can I make my kid not feel good enough?”
No, we’re well-meaning, and what ends up happening is that, in an effort to “help” them fit in and avoid struggle, we sometimes inadvertently make them feel inadequate as they are. Take Heather’s story, for example:
My inner critic comes out regarding body image and my physical appearance. I have struggled with this since I was a little girl. I grew up in a household where there was great emphasis on outward appearance. I remember being seven years old and hating my body. My mother (I don’t blame her—she was doing the best she could at the time) wanted to dress me, wanted to cut my hair, give me perms (yes, it was the 1980s), and totally against my wishes, I let her. I remember being very self-conscious about my appearance and extremely judgmental of myself. Selfcriticism was definitely in play as I reached my teens, and looking back, I realize that my worthiness as a person was completely contingent upon my physical appearance. I fed upon attention from anyone who thought I was attractive—especially boys. If someone thought I was pretty, I was worthy of love. It was intoxicating— that feeling of worthiness.
This is still a struggle in my forties So, when my inner critic speaks up, it’s the voice of fear saying, “You better lose five pounds and fix those wrinkles, or you are not good enough.” I know what I look like does not define who I am, but these fears and feelings are so ingrained that it takes daily reminders to change these thoughts and behaviors.
I want to emphasize the very last sentence Heather said about knowing logically that her appearance doesn’t define who she is, but needing to work daily on not believing it because her fears and feelings are so ingrained.
Y’all. The inner critic runs deep. That is why I go on and on and on (and on) about this work being a constant, daily effort and not just a one-night stand. It takes lots of practice to undo this.
Along with your family crap, or maybe instead of it, you may have inner-critic noise that stems from past (or even current) relationships. As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, verbally abusive relationships can stay with you long after you have broken up. Or, maybe your partner wasn’t necessarily abusive but made snide comments about your appearance, your intelligence, or anything about you. He or she may have passed the comments off as jokes or teasing, but deep down they’ve embedded themselves into your belief system.
The second place your inner critic stems from could be your culture.
This is one of those “Girl, don’t get me started” topics, but it must be addressed, because it’s just too powerful a force to ignore.
The truth is, we live in a culture that profits from women not feeling good enough, beautiful enough, thin enough, everything enough. Big companies make big money from this notion. It helps the economy. Many would argue that some religions prefer that women feel small and not enough as a way of keeping them in line.
Sometimes this is a class issue. In my early twenties I dated a guy who grew up in an affluent town near me. It was where the “rich kids” lived. He had graduated from the University of California at
Berkeley and was getting his MBA. Somehow the topic of work and what we wanted for our future came up, and I mentioned my associate’s degree in fashion merchandising. He chuckled and nonchalantly said, “Is that even a real degree?”
The look of horror on my face prompted him to quickly backpedal and apologize, but the message was clear: I wasn’t good enough for him or good enough at all. Even if he truly didn’t mean it (he did; he was an ass), in a culture that values things like where you come from and where you go to school, comments like that run deep, create beliefs about ourselves, and are hard to shake.
Things like the way we look create triggers for our inner critic, as do things like class and status. Equally as important but not talked about as much are ethnicity and sexuality. One of my colleagues,
Andréa Ranae Johnson, says, “In my experience, being black and a woman, some of the negative self-talk I’ve taken on is that I’m dangerous, being angry isn’t okay, and I should have everything together because that is what’s projected onto us from childhood on.”
Why Does it Even Matter How I Talk to Myself?
Maybe the negative self-talk has become second nature to you. You might be thinking, “So what? If I’m kind to other people, does it really matter if I’m kind to myself?”
In a word, yes. The obvious (or maybe not-so-obvious) reason is that when you aren’t compassionate with yourself—when you make it a habit to berate yourself and talk poorly to yourself—you feel like shit.
Maybe not a walking-around-with-your-head-down-and-tail-between- your-legs feeling, but if you beat yourself up on a regular basis, it takes its toll on your overall happiness, your self-confidence, and your self-esteem. Plus, it bleeds into other areas of your life and fuels the desire for perfectionism, the need for control, the desire to hide out, and many of the other habits you’ll read about in this book.
And if you have children, or are in a relationship, or have friends (that is, everyone), self-compassion is a tool that is universally necessary for having better relationships and, in my humble opinion, has the capacity to move mountains. If more people were nicer to themselves, the whole world would change.
How to Fix It
Now that you know what beating yourself up looks like, where it may have come from, and what it’s doing to you, you’re ready to move on with how not to be an asshole to yourself. It’s a longer process than we can go through here, and my book digs into each of the three steps below.
But in a nutshell, here is the process of practicing kindness and compassion toward yourself and moving your inner critic out of ruling you.
- Noticing the negative self-talk. (I know, duh. Bear with me here.)
- Knowing your triggers.
- Committing to the process, practicing the tools, and always being in the process.
The solution is to start with recognition. Recognize when your inner voice is being a prick. Hear it and see it. Awareness is half the battle. If you don’t know what is there and when it happens, you’ll just go on listening and believing. Once you identify the bullshit, you can put it where it belongs and flush it away.
Excerpted from How to Stop Feeling like Shit:14 Habits that Are Holding You Back from Happiness, by Andrea Owen. Copyright © 2018. Available form Seal Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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