ned in my head-part 1: dealing with my inner critic
I’ve got this voice in my head. Well, maybe not a voice exactly, but not a thought either. Something in between? The “voice” functions like play-by-play analyst commenting on my life. There is a near-constant stream of it, so that I often don’t distinguish the voice from my regular thoughts. But oh, there is a difference.
For one, the voice is negative. That’s why some people call it the inner critic. Let’s say I’m in conversation with someone and I forget their name. My regular thought might say, I can’t remember their name. But the inner critic won’t leave it at that, How could you forget their name? Are you stupid? Or just lazy? Notice the use of the second person, the accusatory you. Notice also the disparaging evaluation: stupid and lazy.
There is another difference, too, and once you tune-in you can hear it. There is tone that accompanies the evaluation. Sometimes it’s mere disappointment, sometimes it’s unveiled contempt, but it’s always negative. Again, that’s why they call it the inner critic.
So there you have it, an accusatory, disparaging, and negative tone. And, oh yes, a constant stream of it.
I wonder, what is the cumulative effect of this voice in my life? Is the criticism ever constructive? Why do I let it talk to me that way? Do I have a choice about how I relate to this voice? What does God want to say to this inner critic?
Recently, I’ve decided to investigate. A little research turned up this suggestion: nickname your inner critic. For example, you could simply call it My Inner Critic. OK, that’s not very original, but it serves the purpose. The idea is to get a little objective distance from the voice. You want to hear it as distinct from your normal observations. For example, if your boss is grumpy one morning, observation would say, My boss seems grumpy. Fair enough. But My Inner Critic would say, He is grumpy because he doesn’t like you. Both these inner sentences would present to you as observational reality, but the Critic is clearly conjecturing. If you don’t have objective distance from the conjecture, you will take it as reality. You will shut down, get grumpy in return, or behave in some other defensive reaction. And—get this—the defensiveness will feel reasonable to you.
Well now. I, for one, don’t want to live that way. I want to live in the real world. If my boss is grumpy because of me, I’d like to face it, respond maturely, and move on. If my boss is grumpy for some other reason, I want to pray for them, help them if I can and otherwise move on with my day. Enough of this inner cycling.
So I’ve decided to name my inner critic: Ned. Ned-in-My-Head. Ned stand for negative-Edwards. I thought that was pretty clever, but then Ned-in-My-Head immediately commented, That’s pretty corny. So we’re working on that.
When I hear that non-productive voice, I want to say, “Hmm…that sounds like Ned talking.” Maybe with just that little bit of distance, I might be able to more accurately discern the situation: Am I really dumb? Or did I just make a mistake?
Think about that. Perhaps, you’ve been hounded by a critical, shaming voice for years. Could a simple choice like this begin a path toward freedom? Is it possible to choose to relate to yourself differently? That critical voice isn’t the voice of God; it usually isn’t even a voice of reasonable truth. It’s a construct. Somewhere along the way, you’ve created a condemning (less-than-truthful) inner voice. But if it is a construct, then it can be (with time) de-constructed. Perhaps it can be rebuilt in a more honest and mature way.
So how to remodel my relationship with Ned?
First, I have to recognize that Ned is there. Naming him is a good start. I’ll have to notice and be able to discern the difference between my thoughts (observations) and Ned’s negative evaluation (naysaying).
For example, I might have a thought, There is an oak tree. Quickly, Ned speaks up, Of course it’s an oak tree, you idiot. It is difficult to differentiate these two internal sentences. But I remember, a thought is merely observing, but Ned’s voice is usually a personal insult. A thought is simply bringing something up, Ned is usually putting me down.
So, the first step is noticing that Ned is there and has an agenda. Ned, for some reason, wants to condemn me. But I’m onto him.
This first step takes practice and a detached listening ear. But mostly it takes faith. Faith that when God says He loves you, He means it. And if God is willing to love me, then He wants something better for me than non-constructive criticism. He wants to build me up, not tear me down. He doesn’t want me to give up on myself but to learn to value giving myself.
So, I’m going to get to know Ned-in-My-Head, then introduce him to God and see what happens.
(Look for Ned-in-My-Head Part 2 for the second step in dealing with your inner critic.)
Roger Edwards joined The Barnabas Center in 1991. He works with both individuals and couples, helping people confess their need and embrace their available choices to lead healthier lives. Roger also teaches and leads discussion groups and retreats applying the Gospel to everyday life. He is a licensed clinical mental health counselor (LCMHC), holds a master’s degree in biblical counseling from Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana and a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He is married to Jean; they have seven children and nine grandchildren.