Vinni Tayal, a businessman working in the national capital region (NCR) of India, is driving his car. He is in a hurry to reach his showroom because of some emergency. He is a law-abiding citizen who has never broken any traffic laws. However, on this particular day, he did break the law by running a red light. As luck would have it, he was stopped and asked to produce his driver’s license, which, in his haste, he’d left at home. He was, as expected, fined but more importantly, he was delayed by 20 minutes. Right after the officer let him go, Vinni started as internal dialogue, asking himself, “Why did I go through that light?” and “You are a fool! Can’t you wait for 30 seconds?” His distressing self-talk went on and on.
In another incident, a woman, Maya Raj, finds herself stuck in a traffic jam, getting late for an extremely important meeting. She is criticizing herself, wondering why she has taken a shortcut route knowing fully well of the usual traffic chaos on that route. She too is speaking to herself – harshly. Such incidents are not uncommon in our day-to-day lives.
We all are too familiar with the experience of silently speaking to ourselves. When we do something, stupid, forget to do something very important, or say something inappropriate or out of context, we are likely to follow up with scathing self-criticism. This common phenomenon is what psychologists call the “inner voice,” and they have been studying it for a long time. For some, this voice speaks up occasionally. For others, the inner voice comes more frequently. Also known as internal monologue, it is a verbal stream of consciousness – thinking in words. It also refers to the nearly incessant banter one has with oneself. Much of what people consciously describe as “thinking about” may be thought of as an internal monologue, a conversation with oneself.
There is evidence that inner speech/voice and speaking out loud utilise similar brain mechanisms. Since it is a private act, it is difficult to study or conduct research on others. Inner voice is completely natural and healthy. It is a mixture of our positive, negative, and neutral thoughts. This internal dialogue can influence our feelings and behaviour. When our internal voice is negative, harsh, or self-criticizing, we can expect it to exacerbate our stress. In silent self-talk, we are our own judge and jury. Many times, it amounts to a kind of mental torture. Most often, the quality of our inner voice is influenced by our parents, friends, and others.
It often happens that we argue with ourselves on contentious issues, analysing them from different angles, evaluating the choices we made or are going to make. Our inner critic encourages us to see the world through a negative filter. The critical inner voice, a concept generated by clinical psychologist and author Robert Firestone, is developed early in life, especially after stressful and traumatic events. According to Dr Firestone’s daughter, Dr Lisa Firestone, “Attachment and early-life experiences have significant impact on our development and our adult relationships. Just as positive childhood experiences lead to confidence ability, and optimism, negative experiences foster low self-esteem, self-destructive behaviours, and pessimism.” The critical inner voice is usually comprised of a stream of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others.
Dr Firestone (Lisa’s dad) further explains that “Destructive thought processes influence us to make decisions that are against our interests and to take actions that negatively impact our lives. Unfortunately, our critical inner voice is so well integrated into our thinking that it not only affects how we act, but also how we are treated by others. If we shut ourselves up and refuse to be social, people may perceive us as timid or unfriendly. These actions not only influence us, but help shape our relationships.”
Our inner voice not only includes negative thoughts but also our beliefs and attitudes that affect our self-esteem. It sometimes encourages and strongly promotes self-defeating and self-destructive behaviours. This judgmental advisor also warns us about other people, facilitates cynical attitudes toward others, and is likely to paint a negative picture of the world. Although most of us are aware of the machinations of this inner voice, many of our negative thoughts exist on an unconscious level. At times, we may recognise what our critical inner voice is telling us, while on other occasions; we may be unclear about our negative thinking and simply accept it as being true.
This doesn’t mean the inner voice is always negative in the sense that we criticize ourselves or passes judgments on the decisions, behaviour, or choices we make. There is a positive side to the inner voice too. Through inner dialogues, we analyse and evaluate the situation by speaking to ourselves. As in the above example of Vinni Tayal, immediately after realizing a mistake, he, and we, start to scold ourselves. The obvious benefit that we can see is that in the future, we will not recommit our blunder, regardless of circumstances. We learn lessons, and through the inner voice we reinforce our resolve. Most people do invoke inner dialogue quite often for positive purposes. The problem, however, is when we become too critical and negative about ourselves. Sometimes this tendency increases, and may get out of hand if we continue to indulge in such inner dialogues repetitively.
We are often unaware of the negative impact of such destructive thoughts on our emotions, actions, and the overall quality of our lives. To challenge this mental process, we have all the power to recognise and analyse our own critical inner voice, especially when destructive thoughts come to mind. Recognising this voice helps us to trace the origin of the negative aspect of inner voice. We should also learn to discern how and when these voices are triggered, and resist the temptation to get caught in a stream of negative thoughts.
Whenever we are caught by the critical voice, we should immediately become aware. Awareness is prerequisite to handling any problem. Once we’re fully aware of a situation, dilution of the negative voice will begin. Weakening of those thoughts will automatically begin. Increased awareness will refine and broaden our sense of self, outshining this internal critic. The better we know ourselves, the better able we are to make conscious choices and decisions about our lives. We can reshape our self-perception and understand who we really are and what we really want in our lives.