Talking To Your Critical Voices

by Cheryl Rainfield, 2002

Note: A revised version of this article appears in Healing the Hurt Within by Jan Sutton (ISBN: 1845280369).

Negative or critical voices can interfere with you feeling good about yourself—or feeling good at all. Sometimes those critical voices become so loud that they’re all you can hear—and you miss out on your beauty, your growth, and all the wonderful things you’re doing. Women, especially, are frequently barraged with negative messages from advertisements, television, and magazines. It’s hard to have a healthy self-image and not become self-critical, hearing those messages so often. And if you grew up with critical or negative parents, or are a survivor of abuse, you have an additional, painful layer of negative messages to deal with. You may have heard horrible things said about yourself so often that you came to believe them, or you may still have those messages running through your head like a tape player—so softly that you hardly hear them, but always there, or so loudly that they blot everything else out. At times those critical voices may overwhelm you, or make you feel like there is no escape. But there is a way to lessen the intensity of those critical voices, and to find some relief.

    • Notice the Critical Messages
      To help quiet self-criticism, you need to be able to recognize that this is what is happening. You may be putting yourself down or criticizing yourself without even realizing that that’s what you’re doing. You might even think they you’re being reasonable, objective, or humble. But criticizing yourself doesn’t help you—it just feeds more negative and self-harming thinking, and can hurt your self-esteem and self-image.So how do you pay attention?Try sitting quietly for a while, and listen to your thoughts—those in the foreground, as well as those in the background. If it helps to write them out, do that. Listen especially for phrases that include: “I’m too,” “I never,” “I always,” “I should/shouldn’t,” “I can’t,” “I’m just,” as well as the more obvious critical messages, put-downs, and insults.If you’re having trouble hearing the critical messages, you may want to think of the last time you were feeling depressed, ashamed, or angry with yourself, and see if anything comes up. If you really can’t hear your own critical messages, ask a friend or lover to point out when you’re criticizing yourself. However, you probably criticize yourself less frequently out loud than you do in your own head, so this is just a starting point.
    • Acknowledge Your Critical Voices
      Try to really listen to your critical voices, and find out exactly what they’re saying. The more we ignore something, the stronger it gets. It helps to acknowledge those critical voices, and to let them know you’ve heard them. Try sitting with those critical messages for a few minutes, just allowing them to be there, and really hearing them. Hearing exactly what your critical messages are can often help you to see how untrue or unrealistic they are, or how close they are to things you were told as a child.
    • Look at the Patterns
      Try to notice every time a new onslaught of self-critical messages begin inside you. Write down what was happening just before they started, and what you were feeling. Try to get more than the surface feeling; if you were feeling angry or impatient with yourself, what feeling was beneath that? Fear? Sadness?Notice what the trigger was—the incident or feeling that started off your self-criticism. Did you make a “mistake” and verbally slap yourself, or laugh at yourself before anyone else could? Did someone else say something that made you think they were putting you down? Did someone laugh at you when you were feeling vulnerable? Write it down.Try to become familiar with your triggers—what sets off that criticism inside you. Then try to recognize that trigger as soon as it happens, or as soon after it has happened as you can. When you see that pattern occurring—a trigger setting off critical messages inside you—try to step back and see yourself with compassion, the way a friend would. Remind yourself that you’re feeling particularly vulnerable, or hurt, or scared, and that you don’t need to be so harsh on yourself.
    • Trace the Messages Back to Their Root
      Look at the messages you hear in your head. Are any of them familiar? Did anyone tell you any of those messages when you were a child? Do they sound like your mother—or your father? Or maybe your babysitter, a classmate, a teacher? Try to figure out when you first started “thinking” those phrases. Sometimes knowing where those messages come from can decrease their intensity. (For example, “Ah ha — that’s something my mother used to say to me. But she’s not right! I don’t need to carry her voice in my head any more.”)
    • Have a Conversation With Your Critical Voices
      Have a conversation with your critical voices. It might help to do this by writing with pen and paper or at your computer so you can see it more clearly. Ask those critical voices what they need, and why they’re telling you such negative things about yourself. Ask them what they’re afraid of, and why they need to criticize you so much. If you’re feeling stuck, try writing your question and whatever pops into your head as quickly as you can, for two minutes without stopping. You may be surprised at how much comes up. Just let the answers rise to the surface and be there. Now is the time to listen.Try not to judge those critical voices. It may help to realize that critical voices are often created out of desperation and under duress—such as a little child blaming herself instead of the adults who were hurting her, because it was safer to think that way. Behind all those negative messages and criticism is often a lot of vulnerability, insecurity, and fear. If you can get in touch with that vulnerability, and understand where it’s coming from, you may find that the need to criticize yourself greatly diminishes.
    • Reassure the Critical Voices
      If you’ve discovered that those critical voices feel insecure, vulnerable, or are afraid of something, try to reassure those parts inside you. If you can meet the needs of those parts, the need to criticize you will decrease.
    • Recognize the Strength Inside You
      Critical voices are often created as a means of self-protection—as a way of coping or of surviving. For survivors of abuse and trauma, those critical voices may be the parts who absorbed all the negative messages, and allowed other parts of you to remain playful, hopeful, or loving. Or you may have tried to protect yourself by turning the critical messages on yourself instead of blaming the adults around you or the people you loved. Or you may use that negativity to suppress your inner beauty and uniqueness, to try to fit in better.But you don’t have to be smaller than you are. And hurting yourself doesn’t stop others from hurting you. Acknowledge the strength and help that those critical voices may initially have given you, and realize that you no longer need to use them the same way.
    • Give the Critical Messages a New Job
      Those critical messages may have helped you survive—but now it’s time for something new. Something that helps you now.Give those critical voices a new job they can do, instead of the one they originally took on. Talk to those critical voices, and thank them for the job that they did, protecting or helping you when you needed them to. Gently let them know that that job no longer helps you—but that you have a new job that you really need help with. A new job that only they can do: protecting you from others’ criticism and negativity; alerting you when people aren’t trustworthy, and helping you to trust your intuition; or whatever job you can think of that is meaningful and that will truly help you.The job you offer the critical voices has to be important; it can’t just be some willy nilly thing, or those voices won’t take you seriously. And this job has to be something positive, something that is vital to feeling good. Something that you couldn’t do alone.Your critical voices might not take you up on your offer the first time you talk to them. But if you let them know that they’re the only ones you think are strong enough to do it, or tenacious enough, or that they’re the ones who can do it best—and if you thank them in a real way for trying to protect you in the past, and let them know that this is the best way to protect you now, then those parts will, almost assuredly, come around. Then you’ll have a strong team on your side—because critical messages are very strong, but loving messages are even stronger.
    • Replace Those Messages With New, Loving Ones
      Criticizing yourself probably served a purpose when you were a child, maybe even helped you cope or survive. You may have thought that if you criticized yourself first, it wouldn’t hurt so much when other people criticized you. Or you may have thought it would make others criticize you less, if you were the one to do it. Or maybe you thought that the negative person in your life would like you more, or accept you, if you criticized yourself or reflected back to them what they said. You may have had no choice but to absorb some of the things that were constantly being said about you. Whatever the reason that you learned to criticize yourself, know that it doesn’t help you now; it hurts you. And you don’t deserve to be hurt. So try to give yourself new, loving messages. Make up some new messages for yourself—and remind yourself of them as often as you can.Every time you hear yourself start to criticize yourself, take a moment to notice that, and then give yourself a new, loving message. It can also help to write out those messages, and put them anywhere that you’ll find them. You can also ask a friend or lover to help feed back to you those loving messages. You may need to hear those new, loving messages from others for a while before you’re able to start giving them to yourself—but sometimes the most powerful messages come from yourself, so try to give them to yourself, as well. You can even make a tape or audio file of loving messages, and put them on a cd or onto your computer or mp3 player, and listen to them as often as you can.
    • Release the Critical Messages
      Try to release those critical and negative messages. You don’t deserve to be emotionally hammered. You deserve kindness, respect, and love—especially from yourself. Realize that playing critical messages over and over inside your head is a form of hurting yourself—and try to find the compassion for yourself to let go of those negative thoughts.Some people like to make a ritual out of it—a tangible act that helps them to let the critical messages go, such as writing out the messages and burning or tearing them up. Others like to visualize something that helps them to let the messages go, such as seeing the negative messages as red light (or whatever colour you choose), and then pushing that light out of their body. Try one of these suggestions, or come up with your own, whatever method works best for you.
    • Be Compassionate With Yourself
      More than anyone else in the world, you deserve your own compassion. You are the one who is always with you. And you are the one who, ultimately, can hurt yourself or heal yourself the most.Withholding compassion from yourself doesn’t help you—and it doesn’t help the people you love. The more compassion and love you’re able to give yourself, the more you’re able to give others—both from your heart, and from your example.You deserve your compassion and love. You truly do. You won’t make yourself a “better” person by criticizing yourself or being harsh with yourself. You won’t make people love you more by emotionally beating yourself up. But when you give yourself compassion, you allow yourself to be more of who you are—and in that blossoming, you encourage others to do the same. You may also find that you can give and receive love more easily—and that you feel better, happier, and more alive. Know that you are beautiful, and just right for how you need to be, the way you are.
    • Forgive Yourself
      Whatever you think you’ve done wrong, whatever you judge yourself for, you probably judge yourself far more harshly than anyone else ever would. Let go of that judgement. Forgive yourself for everything that you hold criticism for. We all make mistakes, every one of us. We all have times that we can’t live up to our ideals. Ideals are good things—when we remember that they are what we’re trying to reach, through practice and growth—and that we may not always be able to reach those goals.Let yourself know that you are doing your best—and in truly and wholeheartedly forgiving yourself, your critical messages will lose some of their power, and you will find that you are more beautiful than you thought.

    Letting go of critical messages can be hard to do—but criticizing yourself just continues the negativity that others taught you or forced onto you. It’s not the route to feeling good. Giving yourself love and compassion is.

    With patience and focus, you can find a way to lessen your self-critical messages, increase your loving messages, and eventually replace the old messages with new ones. You can make new patterns and habits, so that what becomes second nature is for you to praise yourself, to love yourself, to have compassion for yourself. Every little step you take along the way helps you, and shows the strength inside you.

    So next time you hear your critical messages, take a moment to breathe, and then let those messages go. Recognize the beauty in your soul—and give yourself the loving messages you need.

    ©Cheryl Rainfield, 2002

Written by Cheryl Rainfield, award-winning author of SCARS, STAINED, and HUNTED

If you like this article, you may post it on your website or use it in your print publication, as long as you provide a link back to my site (, and credit me. I’d also really like to know where you put my article, but you don’t have to let me know in order to use it.