I write a fortnightly column for the Great Eastern Mail. Missed an edition? Here I share past letters for you.

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Dear Emma, I have a loud inner voice that is always bringing me down. I can’t seem to shake the negative thoughts in my head. I have tried thinking positively and it just doesn’t stick. How can I learn to be kinder to myself and really believe it?

Thank you for writing in. This question is so beautiful because its vulnerable and something we all can relate to because we all have an inner critic. Our inner critic’s voice can be loud and negative. The truth is, we are never going to completely silence our inner critic. Let’s get that unhelpful expectation out of the way. But the good news is that we can learn to reframe the thoughts so that it’s not so loud or negative in our head!

The first step is to realise your thoughts are not facts. You see, thoughts are simply events that pop up in our minds, rather like ads on a website. We don’t always ask for them to be there. Not every thought we have is true or accurate, so how we respond to those events (thoughts) matters. Do we see every event (thought) as truth, or can we learn to pause and process them before accepting them?

Here are four simple questions provided by Elisha Goldstein his book, Uncovering Happiness, that we can ask ourselves to help with that process.  

  • Is this thought 100% accurate? This question helps us to learn to see the thought in different ways from how it presents itself.
  • Can you add the word ‘yet’ to the thought? For example, ‘I can’t do this’ becomes “I can’t do this yet’. This question helps create perspective.
  • How does the thought make you feel? This question teaches us to notice any bigger narratives about ourselves that we may be holding onto and to name our feelings.
  • What would things be like if you didn’t hold this belief? This question helps to redirect our thoughts by having us imagine a future without this thought and how this would look in your relationships, energy levels and motivation

The second step is to befriend your inner voice. Now that we have understood that what our inner critic is saying is not necessarily a fact or a truth, we can learn to respond to it better. We can talk to our inner critic as a younger you who you want to be friends with. Responding with kindness certainly takes the wind out of its sails. After all, if you wouldn’t say it to a friend, why say it to yourself?

A useful tool to practise this would be to write down your inner critic thought and your response. Here’s an example:
Inner critic: ‘I can’t believe you did that. You never do anything right!’
Kind response: ‘You made a mistake, but you can learn from this. It is not the end of the world.’

Then finally, learn to have empathy for your inner voice. The key to kindness is understanding. Your inner critic is doing its best to protect you from feelings of fear and shame. In its own way, it’s trying to help, although it’s just not going about helping in the best way. Knowing this can change how we perceive and relate with our inner critic. It frees us to acknowledge and respond to our inner critic with empathy.

For example, staying with the above thought used earlier it would look like this:
Inner critic: ‘I can’t believe you did that. You never do anything right!’
Kind response: ‘Oh, hi inner critic. I know you are trying to protect me from feeling embarrassed and vulnerable but it’s really okay. Mistakes are part of learning. I can grow from this.”

To have empathy is to understand the feelings of another. It does not mean you become their thoughts or feelings but rather that you can see why they are there. Teach  your inner critic as you teach yourself and you will find yourself on a pathway to kindness and freedom.

Ultimately, the key to treating yourself with kindness is really in listening to yourself in love and without judgement. Pay attention to yourself. You truly deserve to be listened to and treated with intentionality and kindness. Hope that helps, Emma

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