That shrill little voice in our heads? We all know it well.
It’s the voice that berates, that tells us we’re not good enough, that ruminates over every embarrassing mistake we’ve made. In some cases, it can provide the caution we need before we hurtle headlong into a potentially hazardous situation. But in others, it can stop us in our tracks before we even dare to try for something better.
If it’s any consolation, our inner critic is more common than we think.
“It’s part of how our mind works,” explains Anthony Castro, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist with the University of Miami Health System. “It evaluates everything we do. It’s a part of how we make our decisions.”
The voice can anticipate and imagine the different outcomes of a potential move. It can also help us learn lessons from the past. “It helps us assess potential risks,” Dr. Castro adds. “It’s a way of reflecting and paying close attention going forward.”
At some point, however, the voice can become too loud.
It overpowers our thoughts. The negativity becomes an unhealthy pattern that influences our actions, our sense of confidence, and our choices.
Some people, Dr. Castro says, get stuck in an overly negative loop that weighs them down. Instead of moving on from their ruminations, they overanalyze every move. They continuously blame themselves for minor mistakes.
Much of that can be blamed on our caveman beginnings.
Focusing on what can go wrong and what we might learn from our mishaps was essential when danger lurked everywhere. It meant survival. Unfortunately, research has shown that we dwell on adverse events more intensely than on positive ones. It’s called negativity bias.
Negativity can also be learned behavior.
Growing up, we invariably experience hurtful acts and words. These can come from those closest to us, and we unconsciously merge this line of thinking into our thoughts. Sometimes the harsh words are so many and so constant that they become part of our identity.
“A lot of these patterns are developed early on when our minds are still getting a sense of how the world works and how we fit in it,” he says. “The messages we get in those formative years shape us in both content and process.”
That is why some people focus too much on the negative or punish themselves with debilitating thoughts. “I always get everything wrong.” Or, “I’m stupid.” Or, “Anyone but me could tackle this problem.”
When we don’t control our inner critic and allow it to take over, we impact our relationships and behaviors, preventing us from becoming and achieving what we want.
It doesn’t have to be thus.
Dr. Castro suggests several ways we can control our runaway thoughts:
Acknowledge the little voice — and then move on.
Granted, silencing the negativity is easier said than done, and it may take lots of practice to stop the pattern. However, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it.
Accept that hard work is part of the process.
“Some people think, well, we’re good at something, so it should be easy,’” Dr. Castro says. “Then they’re surprised when it isn’t, and they blame themselves for thinking there’s something wrong with them. But you have to work hard to produce a good work product.”
Don’t accept your knee-jerk reaction to an event or situation.
“Look around for other information that might provide more accurate details than the initial perception,” Dr. Castro adds. “Don’t settle for that first negative thought. You need to give yourself a broader picture.”
Write it down.
Seeing the criticism “in black and white helps you formulate an idea. It’s a way of working through the steps” that will hopefully provide you with more confidence, he adds.
Get enough rest.
There’s a reason why the old adage of Sleep on it is so helpful. The ability to reflect, analyze and reconsider is harder when we haven’t slept well or are physically exhausted.
Make friends with yourself.
“We’re nicer to others than we are to ourselves,” Dr. Castro says. “It’s important to look for a balance and ask yourself, ‘What would I recommend to a friend in the same situation?’”
Ana Veciana-Suarez, Guest Columnist
Ana is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at anavecianasuarez.com or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.
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