Psychology: The Enemy Within

Who needs enemies when you have a nag inside your own head? ANNA CAREY asks what we can do to silence the inner critic.

GDE307605 White Noise, 2007 (w/c on handmade indian rag paper) by Dean, Graham (Contemporary Artist); 77x91 cm; Private Collection; English,  in copyright PLEASE NOTE: The Bridgeman Art Library represents the copyright holder of this image and can arrange clearance.

I’m always trying to gag the little voice in my ear,” says teacher Charlotte O’Shea. “That little windbag that sits on my shoulder and tells me it will all go horribly wrong, I shouldn’t try, he will never like me, I may as well give up … ” Many of us know that little voice only too well. Who needs disapproving spouses, parents or obnoxious bosses when we’re so good at putting ourselves down? Ask around, and you’ll find that almost everyone is prone to “auto-bashing” – we’re all beating ourselves up about something.

While Charlotte’s “little windbag” is particularly vocal on her supposed lack of financial skills, publishing consultant Vanessa O’Loughlin is convinced she has no sense of direction. “I’ve learned to fight my internal voice, but it regularly says, ‘You’re lost, PANIC!’” she says. “Literally that. It’s like a little red devil poking me with his fork, telling me, ‘You’re rubbish at finding your way and now you’re lost – ha!’ It fugs my brain so I can’t think logically and find a solution.”

These messages can stick in our minds despite evidence to the contrary. Academic Anna Rafferty has acquired funding for her research and her work has been published – proof that she’s good at her job. And yet, she says, “I tell myself that I don’t know enough about the subject, that my writing style is unconvincing, that people will never believe me as an authority when I’m giving a presentation, that I’m doomed to disappoint everyone who has invested faith and funding in me.”

As the psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy points out, this sort of nagging internal voice can be hugely limiting. “It’s a very powerful demotivator,” he says. “It’s a real drag – it’s almost like you’re a trawler in the sea with massive net of negativity. If you could cut that net you’d be free, you’d be able to propel yourself forwards. But that net can be so full of negative critical thoughts, it stops you moving.” That’s the case for Jennifer Murphy, who works in publishing and says her internal voice constantly tells her “that I’m going to fail somehow. [So] it’s a big deal for me to put myself forward for new projects or areas of work.”

 

“It’s like a little red devil poking me with his fork, telling me, ‘You’re rubbish at finding your way and now you’re lost – ha!’ It fugs my brain so I can’t think logically and find a solution.”

 

Vanessa O’Loughlin’s problem may not seem so serious, and she’s learned to accept and live with it, but for years her fear of getting lost really affected her life. “I didn’t get nearly enough out of university life because I was subliminally terrified of getting lost. I could never find the bar so rather than venture out and try, I stayed in – what if I got lost and couldn’t find the way home? That was just too scary to contemplate.”

So where do these critical voices come from? For some, the roots lie in childhood. Dr Eddie Murphy says that many auto-bashers grew up with very critical parents who over-used “pressure words”, telling their children “you should, you ought to, you have to” do this or that. Some, like Charlotte, end up with partners who continue to drive that message home. Her mother told her she was a spendthrift, and she went on to marry a man who “always felt that I was wasteful with money. That because I didn’t write everything I spent down on a spreadsheet, I must be a bit careless and daft … I used to tell myself that it was better not to be involved in adult money decisions because I really didn’t know what I was talking about. My inner voice was like my mother and ex-husband: you won’t manage, you will fail, don’t try.”

So how can you silence that horrible little voice? “The first thing it to become aware of this voice – not everyone is conscious of it,” says Dr Eddie Murphy. Once you’ve isolated your critical thoughts, he says, you can examine them. What’s the evidence for this thought? Are there exceptions to this supposed rule? In most cases, there are – the bad navigator will remember the times she found her destination; the woman who feels she’s not up to her job will remember the times she successfully tackled career challenges.

After you identify this internal voice, says Murphy, the next step is “to convert that critical voice into a nurturing, supportive voice”. He suggests imagining what you’d say to a friend who was criticising herself. “Quite often people are really good at giving advice – they’re not going to tell their friend that they’re rubbish. They give a supportive response. This is good way of accessing an alternative view of your own situation.” You’d automatically remind a friend of her own strengths – so why not do the same for yourself?

 

“The bad navigator will remember the times she found her destination; the woman who feels she’s not up to her job will remember the times she successfully tackled career challenges.”

 

Writer Móna Wise tackled her own self-doubt through education. She was a confident, successful wedding planner, but the arrival of her children required a career change, and she suddenly found herself conscious of her lack of formal education. She wanted to be a writer, but felt she somehow lacked the skills. Help came through her mother, who “signed me up for an eight-week night class at NUIG with poet Fred Johnston at the helm. It is so easy to stop criticising oneself when you have someone like Fred telling you how it is.” But did it work? Well, her first book, a memoir with recipes called, The Chef and I, is published this month.

So no matter how harsh that nagging internal voice may be, you don’t have to listen to it forever. And when you stop listening to it, you may surprise yourself. When Charlotte’s marriage collapsed, she had no choice but to look after her own finances. “I was absolutely terrified,” she says. “But, what I discovered was that I was actually not a complete disaster.” After a rocky start, she gradually got her finances in order. And she discovered, to her own surprise, that her “little windbag” had been wrong all along. “I’ve managed a year on my own without getting into terrible trouble,” she says. “And it feels like a huge achievement.”
Contact Dr Eddie Murphy at www.dreddiemurphy.ie.

 

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