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The Learning Curve

What to do if your inner voice is cruel

The golden rule of self-compassion: Treat yourself with the same kindness you treat others.
Credit: Annelisa Leinbach
Key Takeaways
  • Our inner voices can be incredible problem-solvers or harsh critics.
  • To make our inner voices less cruel, we need to cultivate our self-compassion.
  • Practices such as distanced self-talk can help us place our challenges in the larger context of the human experience.

Our inner voices are incredible problem-solving tools. Just ask anyone who has spent time in the presence of a toddler. Because toddlers haven’t fully internalized their self-talk, you can hear how it assists them in navigating the world. They use self-talk to work out the solutions to shape-sorting puzzles. They narrate their emotions and daily adventures like storytellers. And when they approach a stove, they warn themselves of the dangers by expressing that it is “Hot! Hot! Hot!”

Our adult inner voices may be quieter, but they’re no less important. They help us regulate our emotions, learn from past mistakes, plan future events through simulation, and construct meaning and values from our experiences. This power, combined with its early development, has led many scientists to hypothesize that our inner voices evolved to give humanity a survival edge during its own toddlerhood in the African savannah.

Yet, despite this cognitive bounty, many of us also know that our inner voices can be exceedingly cruel.

Psychologist Ethan Kross calls this dark side of our minds “chatter.” As he writes in his book exploring the subject: “Chatter consists of the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing. It puts our performance, decision-making, relationships, happiness, and health in jeopardy.”

While some people are more susceptible to chatter than others, there are steps we can all take to subdue it and reestablish caring, productive partnerships with our inner voices. But first, we need to better understand the concept of self-compassion.

The science of self-compassion

What would you do if you saw a friend or loved one in distress? Would you berate and condemn them? Ruminate endlessly on their shortcomings and failures? Catastrophize the situation or express your disapproval of their best efforts? 

I’m guessing the answer to each is a resounding “No!” Most people wouldn’t dream of inflicting such callous verdicts on anyone, much less someone they care for. Our compassion leads us to not only empathize with the person but seek a means to alleviate their suffering and help them grow. (In fact, the word compassion comes from the mid-14th century compassioun, meaning “a suffering with another.”)

Self-compassion is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the process of turning that compassion you feel for others inward.

In 2003, psychologist Kristin Neff developed a scale designed to assess self-compassion. She included three necessary elements: self-kindness (being warm and understanding toward yourself), mindfulness (neither exaggerating nor suppressing negative emotions), and common humanity (realizing challenges and imperfections are a shared human experience).

Neff’s initial two studies exploring this self-compassion scale — both published in Self and Identity — found that self-compassion was associated with greater life satisfaction and improved mental health. This was not true for people on the other end of the scale — that is, those with a tendency toward self-judgment, a sense of isolation, and an over-identification with their negative emotions. 

“Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings — after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” Neff writes.

However, she is quick to point out that self-compassion is not about always feeling good. Rather, it’s a “practice of goodwill.”

Self-compassion doesn’t mean ignoring your faults and shortcomings, but accepting them with the same kindness you would those of a friend or loved one. Similarly, a desire to change and improve shouldn’t come from a sense of worthlessness. It comes from a need to grow and explore the bounds of your skills and talent — just as you would encourage anyone to do.

“Things will not always go the way you want them to. You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals,” Neff adds. “The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.”

Self-compassion vs. psychological distress

The research into self-compassion is still immature. Researchers are only just understanding how self-compassion neurally occurs in the brain. There is an open question as to whether there are additional components to self-compassion than Neff’s original three. And we’re still learning how effective self-compassion can be as an intervention for conditions such as traumatic stress.

With all that said, the research literature is growing, and as a whole, it suggests a link between self-compassion and psychological health.

For example, a meta-analysis consisting of 130 studies found a positive correlation between self-compassion and beneficial coping strategies — practices such as acceptance, positive reframing, and emotional support. Conversely, self-compassion correlated negatively with harmful coping strategies such as denial, self-blame, and rumination. In other words, the more self-compassion people demonstrated, the more likely they coped with life’s challenges and adversities in ways that promote psychological health.

While that meta-analysis focused mainly on European countries, another meta-analysis looked at self-compassion across 27 cultures. It presented similar results. Among its studies, self-judgment, a sense of isolation, and emotional over-identification were associated with psychological distress, while self-compassion was linked positively with well-being.

Finally, a systematic review found that people with psychopathological symptoms — such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD — displayed lower self-compassion than those without. To be very clear: That’s not to say that self-compassion is the root cause of such symptoms or a panacea for them. The researchers could not determine causality — that is, whether low self-compassion was the result of these symptoms or made someone more vulnerable to them.

However, the studies in their review did suggest that compassionate mind training could be a valuable tool in therapeutic approaches — especially for people suffering such symptoms in tandem with severe self-judgment and self-criticism.

A man speaking in public
Kross and his team found that public speakers who used distanced self-talk experienced less shame and embarrassment and ruminated less on their performances. (Credit: Will Kell / Unsplash)

Getting distance from your chatterbox

Which brings us back to our inner voices. The research outlined above suggests that self-compassion isn’t an inherent trait but a skill we can hone. Granted, some people’s inner voices will be more naturally self-compassionate, while others will be predisposed to self-flagellation. But whatever our starting point, we can learn to quiet our chatter through self-compassion practices.

In his book, Kross offers us several tools to help in this endeavor. I will highlight two: distanced self-talk and reframing your inner voice to match advice you’d give a friend. Let’s start with the latter. 

When trying to think through our own problems, we can often become roiled in the associated emotions and social dangers. This can lead us to forgo our best judgment and lash out internally. Our inner voices become insulting  — “I’m so stupid!” — or they ruminate endlessly on a painful moment — “I can’t believe I did that in front of everyone!”

To short-circuit this internal criticism, you can try reframing your internal messaging. Phrase your thoughts with the same kindness and emotional balance you would offer to a friend. For example: “Everybody makes mistakes, but I can fix this if I try.”

But sometimes, we become too immersed. We begin to over-identify with our emotions and problems. At such points, we need to develop some distance from both, and this is where Kross’s second strategy comes in.

Distanced self-talk is when you speak to yourself — whether aloud or in your head — as though you are speaking to another person. So, instead of asking, “Why did I get so angry with my son over that remark?” — the thought would be reworded as, “Why did Kevin get so angry at his son over his remark?” This phrasing leads your brain to not identify as strongly with the problem.

“There is a potent psychological comfort that comes from normalizing experiences, from knowing that what you’re experiencing isn’t unique to you, but rather something everyone experiences — that, unpleasant as it is, it’s just the stuff of life,” Kross writes.

In one study, Kross and his team asked two groups of participants to deliver a speech in front of a panel of judges. The speech was on why they qualify for their dream job, and each participant was given a paltry five minutes of prep time. 

Before giving their speech, both groups were given time to reflect on their fears. Participants in the control group reflected as they normally would (using first-person pronouns such as “I” and “me”). But the experimental group was instructed to voice their fears in the third person (using their own names and non-first-person pronouns).

After the presentations, participants in the experimental group reported they experienced less shame and embarrassment. They also ruminated less about their performance or nervousness. The judges also indicated that members of the experimental group gave better presentations overall.

The “universal you” and you

Now, if speaking to yourself in the third person makes you cringe — and yeah, I get it — Kross has a solution. You can still engage in distanced self-talk by utilizing what he calls the “universal you.”

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This you doesn’t only stand in for the person you are directly speaking to but anyone for whom the statement may be true. This is why the universal you is the subject of many adages, maxims, and proverbs. “You’ve got to get back on that horse.” “You’re never too old to learn.” “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”

The power of such statements is found in the very same reason they’ve grown cliche. They don’t advise only you but everyone. They represent a general truth of the human experience — which, as we saw, was an important element in self-compassion.“Other experiments have shown that distanced self-talk allows people to make better first impressions, improves performance on stressful problem-solving tasks, and facilitates wise reasoning, just as fly-on-the-wall distancing strategies do,” Kross writes in Chatter.

“Are you weaker for experiencing chatter? Absolutely not! You are a human for experiencing chatter, so welcome to the human condition.”

– Ethan Kross

Quelling your cruel inner voice

Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to chatter, nor will any one solution forever subdue the cruelty of your inner voice. We all get upset with ourselves. We all ruminate and catastrophize from time to time. And failure is as disappointing for you as anyone else.

The challenge, then, is to develop the techniques that can help us cultivate inner voices that err on the side of kindness. Toward that goal, Kross has developed a whole set of mental tools people can experiment with. He calls these his “chatter toolkit,” and he details them at length in his book.

In addition to self-talking strategies, they include reframing experiences, normalizing your experiences, expressive writing, developing rituals, building a trusted advisors board, creating ordered environments, and even helping others. (Sometimes, the best way to realize you aren’t alone is to reach out to others.)

While research has shown each tool to be effective in isolation, Kross notes, any one of which may not be best for you. Discovering which combination of these practices (or others) work best for you is a necessary step in cultivating self-compassion and setting yourself up for success.

Whatever practices you choose, remember that they should focus on the golden rule of self-compassion: Treat yourself with the same kindness you treat others with. And if you need help seeing that in action, just spend some time in the presence of a toddler — they’re really good at this kind of thing.

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