The Inner Critic
"I think I can. I--think--I--can.
I ---think--I—can” are the famous words from the American fairy tale The Little Engine that Could. This is the well-known story that encourages the values of optimism and hard work and in 2007 it was voted into one of the top 100 books for children by the American National Education Association. Of course, I am a fan of positivity and effort but only if it is authentic. The reason I cite this work is to illustrate the influence of the thoughts, the words have on the outcome; the little engine succeeds in the end.
This Newsletter follows the previous one (See Conversations 10th March 2020) and continues to examine the power of words!
Just what is self-talk or our inner voice? It is what we experience when we are thinking, that verbal dialogue when we are conscious of our thoughts. In its developed form it takes place as a dialogue between two or more assessments of a situation. In our model it is the process of making-a-decision on how to act to maintain our homeostatic equilibrium, to feel satisfied and safe. The words we use reflect the internal state of our memories about this or similar situations, they are learned. However, our ability to ‘try out’ different scenarios to solve a problem in our heads depends on what we have accumulated from our existing environment.
Since the advent of modern functional imaging of our brains we have been able to take a closer look at the process. For the most part the same parts of the brain are activated when you are having a conversation with another person as happens when you are engaging in self-talk. The areas of the brain are Broca’s area with the inferior frontal gyrus and the superior temporal gyrus but the internal dialogue activates more neural areas. This reflects the two conditions; when talking to another we primarily act on our perception from the outer world while during self-talk our perceptions are internally generated and are less prescriptive, that is we are exposed to a range of options.
Like all behaviours and the memories that underpin them, self-talk is a learned practice. From as early as the 1920’s Russian psychologist L.S. Vygotsky recognised this internal, private voice and hypothesised that this private speech developed out of the child’s social dialogue with parents or primary caregivers. Recently it has been established that the internal dialogue becomes dominant at about age four, almost coincidently with the emergence of the child’s theory of mind and sense of separation; that is, they are aware they are unattached from others and their thoughts are private. In a sense this is the beginning of Freud’s Super Ego the critical, moralising self that judges us relative to cultural expectation.
During these Newsletters we have discussed the type of development young children who are raised in abusive/neglectful environments experience. This is summed-up in the type of dialogue used by those who suffer Toxic Shame (see Newsletter Toxic Shame 3rd July 2017). The narratives they learned, ‘you’re useless’ – ‘you are hopeless’ – ‘don’t do that’ – ‘you can’t do that’ become the storyline of their internal voice. Changing this, to become like the Little Engine is difficult because, paradoxically there is a soothing quality to these messages. The child is at least familiar with these words and has some knowledge of how to deal with them albeit this acceptance impedes efforts to make a change for these kids. This is at the heart of the struggle in helping to make a change.
So, what to do?
As becomes evident in this work, teachers have to present an environment that allows the children to develop behaviours that suit that environment and let go of those evolved during their dysfunctional past. In this case we have to provide the storyline we want them to adopt. When talking to them replace their shame-based comments self-talk with more appropriate remarks, instead of their ‘I’m useless’ say ‘I know this is hard but you can do this’.
Never be afraid to teach children about how their thought processes work – this will empower them, and as an aside it is important you understand your own potential inner critic. We live in a ‘thou shall not’ type of world and working with these kids is hard enough without the burden of your own destructive self-talk! So, teach them:
- They have the power to manage their own thoughts
- They can treat the internal critic as a competitor to be ignored or overcome – answer back with a positive, counter assertion
- Take a reality check, just what is the internal voice telling you. You can’t change if you don’t know from what
- Recognise where these thoughts come from, they are memories of past experiences that do not have to be repeated
- Have a goal, if we want to replace the negative past we have to have an imagined future. Setting goals gives our behaviour a purpose and shapes our new self-talk
Finally, and most importantly when you script a positive self-narrative never refer to yourself in the first person, never ‘I’ or ‘Me’ but speak of he, she or use your name. A great illustration of this occurred when Le Bron James, the famous basketball player was contemplating a change of teams on 2010. He was quoted as saying “one thing I didn’t want to do was make an emotional decision, I wanted to do the best for what Le Bron James wanted to do and make Le Bron James happy”; this is not a sign of egotism but of taking the emotion out of the decision. We are all very good at giving others calm good advice. It is time to do the same for yourself.
Self- talk can be a destructive force in all our lives but the kids we focus on, those very difficult ones really suffer from a constant, internal critic that is the voice of their past memories and emotions that in turn, drive their dysfunctional behaviour. By providing them with an alternate narrative and reinforcing this by teaching them how to use another supportive dialogue you can help them regain control over their behaviour.
Just as a post-script, it probably is unhealthy for any of us to have a 100% positive spin on life. We are human, we have limits and we certainly make mistakes. I can say ‘I think I can ... I know I can … ’ about lots of things that are well beyond my abilities. This doesn’t mean I’m a failure, it means I’m human and that’s good enough for me and should be for everyone else. But, I should know that I deserve to have every opportunity in this life and so do our kids!