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Self-Knowledge • Emotional Skills


The Inner Voice

Somewhere in our minds, removed from the day to day, there sits a judge. They watch what we do, study how we perform, examine the effect we have on others, track our successes and failures – and then, eventually, they pass a verdict. So consequential is this judgement, it colours our entire sense of ourselves. It determines our levels of confidence and self-compassion, it lends us a sense of whether we are worthwhile beings or conversely, should not really exist. The judge is in charge of what we call our self-esteem.

The verdict of the judge is more or less loving, more or less enthusiastic, but not according to any objective rule-book or statute. Two individuals can end up with wildly different levels of self-esteem even though they may have done much the same things. Certain judges simply seem more predisposed than others to lend us an essentially buoyant, warm, appreciative and generous view of ourselves. Others encourage us to be hugely critical, often disappointed and sometimes close to disgust.

The origins of the voice of the inner judge is simple to trace: it is an internalisation of the voice of people who were once outside us. We absorb the tones of contempt and indifference or charity and warmth that we will have heard across our formative years. Our heads are cavernous spaces and pretty much all of us have voices echoing within them. Sometimes, a voice is positive and benign, encouraging us to run those final few yards: ‘you’re nearly there, keep going, keep going’. But more often, the inner voice is not very nice at all. It is defeatist and punitive, panic-ridden and humiliating. It doesn’t represent anything like our best insights or most mature capacities. We find ourselves saying: ‘You disgust me, things always go to shit with someone like you.’

An inner voice was always once an outer voice that we have – imperceptibly – made our own. We’ve absorbed the tone of a kind and gentle caregiver, who liked to laugh indulgently at our foibles and had endearing names for us. Or else the voice of a harassed or angry parent; the menacing threats of an elder sibling keen to put us down; the words of a schoolyard bully or a teacher who seemed impossible to please.

We take in these voices because at certain key moments in the past they sounded so compelling and irresistible. The authority figures repeated their messages over and over until they got lodged in our own way of thinking – for better and for worse.

Exercise: An Audit of Our Inner Voice

We can catch the sound of what our inner voice is like when we prompt ourselves to finish certain sentences:

When I do something stupid, I usually tell myself…

When I succeed, I usually tell myself…

When I’m feeling lazy, my inner voice says…

When I think of what I want sexually, my inner voice says…

When I get angry with someone, my inner voice says…

Does the inner judge strike you as kindly or punitive?

Whose outer voice became your inner voice in the context of each question? (write down their names)


Why the Inner Voice Matters

Our level of self-love is very consequential across our lives. It can be tempting to suppose that being hard on ourselves, though painful, is in the end quite useful. Self-flagellation can feel like a survival strategy that steers us clear of the many dangers of indulgence and complacency. But there are equal, if not greater, dangers in an ongoing lack of sympathy for our own plight. Despair, depression and suicide are not especially minor risks.

Afflicted by a lack self-love, romantic relationships become almost impossible, for one of the central requirements of a capacity to accept the love of another turns out to be a confident degree of affection for ourselves, built up over the years, largely in childhood. We need a legacy of feeling that we in some basic way deserve love in order not to respond obtusely to affections granted to us by prospective adult partners. Without a decent amount of self-love, the kindness of another will always strike us as misguided or fake, even as strangely insulting, for it suggests that they haven’t even begun to understand us, so different are our relative assessments of what we happen to deserve. We end up self-destructively – though unconsciously – disappointing the intolerable, unfamiliar love that has been offered to us by someone who clearly has no clue who we are.

We are highly alert to the dangers of people who have too high a regard for themselves. It is a serious put-down to suggest that someone may be ‘in love with themselves’. Self-love seems connected up with narcissism, vanity, selfishness and a blindness to the needs of others.

But for the most part, our real problems lie in a very different direction: with tendencies to be deeply and unfairly hostile to ourselves, with a habit of taking exhaustive stock of our failings, of refusing to forgive ourselves for idiocies and of being suspicious of anyone strange enough to think well of us. If we saw someone else treating us the way most of us treat ourselves, we might think them despicably cruel.

For the most part, it just feels more normal and therefore oddly more comfortable to be disliked or ignored. We seek out partners who will do us the favour of not thinking any better of us than we think of ourselves. The contempt isn’t necessarily pleasant, but at least it feels familiar, and in some ways right. If we are not modestly but genuinely convinced of our own lovability, receiving affection will just simply feel like being bestowed a prize for an accomplishment that we haven’t ever earned. People unfortunate enough to fall in love with self-hating types must brace themselves for the recriminations due to all false flatterers. We will know there must be something wrong with anyone who has the bad taste to get enthusiastic about someone like us.

Without the sufficient ballast of self-love, we will go on to reject positive treatment across a range of areas: offers of friendship, of professional promotions and of praise will all set alarm bells ringing. We will blunder in interviews, sabotage our work opportunities and grow strange and rude around possible new friends – in attempts to bring our outer reality back into line with our inner assessments.

Changing the Inner Voice

It may, at this point, be tempting to say that we shouldn’t judge ourselves at all. We should simply approve and love. But we should determine that a good internal voice is rather like (and just as important as) a genuinely decent judge; someone who needs to be there to separate good from bad but who can always be merciful, fair, accurate in understanding what’s going on and interested in helping us deal with our problems. It’s not that we should stop judging ourselves, rather that we should learn to be better judges of ourselves.

Part of improving how we judge ourselves involves learning – in a conscious, deliberate way – to speak to ourselves in a new and different way – which means exposing ourselves to better voices. We need to hear constructive, kindly voices often enough and around tricky enough issues that they come to feel like normal and natural responses – so that, eventually, they become our own thoughts.

One approach is to identify a nice voice we knew in the past and give it more scope. Perhaps there was a kindly grandmother or aunt who was quick to see our side of things and who would offer us deft words of encouragement. If we knocked our orange juice all over the carpet, they’d remind us that accidents can happen to everyone (last week they themselves spilt a cup of coffee over the sofa). Instead of promoting a punitive, critical voice, they represent a calm, understanding way of addressing failings. We can try to focus on this kind of supportive approach and summon it on a regular basis; rather than waiting for it to pop (as it rarely does) into our heads we can deliberately nurture and train it. When things don’t go as we want, we can ask ourselves what this person would say – and then actively rehearse to ourselves the words of consolation they would most likely have offered (we’ll tend to know immediately).

Traditionally, religions have attempted to help us in the task of providing us with benevolent voices. They have lent us reassuring, kindly often maternal figures whose voices they suggested we absorb into our own minds. Buddhists, for example, were introduced to the goddess Guanyin, a reassuring deity a little like the Virgin Mary who could hear us in our distress, meet us with tenderness and strengthen us to face the tasks of life. Guanyin’s implicit thesis is that being loved and worldly success are two separate things. You deserve compassion not because of the excellence of what you do, but because you exist. Achievement should not be the currency of kindness. The root of extreme stress is usually not purely the fear that one might fail. Rather it is the incendiary thought of what failure will mean: that we deserve to be ridiculed and abandoned. When the threat of that emotional catastrophe is lifted, one is better placed to get on and cope with the practical tasks before us.

The other major strategy for changing the voices in our heads is to try to become an imaginary friend to ourselves. This sounds odd, initially, because we naturally imagine a friend as someone else – not as a part of our own mind. But there is value in the concept because of the extent to which we know how to treat our own friends with a sympathy and imagination we don’t apply to ourselves. If a friend is in trouble our first instinct is rarely to tell them that they are fundamentally a shithead and a failure. If a friend complains that their partner isn’t very warm to them, we don’t tell them they’re getting what they deserve. We try to reassure them that they are essentially likeable and that it’s worth investigating what might be done. In friendship, we know instinctively how to deploy strategies of wisdom and consolation that we stubbornly refuse to apply to ourselves.

There are three key moves a good friend would typically make which can provide a model for what we should, with a new commitment to self-love, be doing with ourselves in our own heads. Firstly, a good friend likes you pretty much as you are already. Any suggestion they make, or ambition they have about how you could change builds on a background of acceptance. When they propose that you might try a different tack, it’s not an ultimatum or a threat. They’re emphatically not saying you have to change or be abandoned. The friend insists we are good enough already. But they want to join forces with us to solve a challenge they feel we would properly benefit from overcoming.

Without being flattering, good friends also constantly keep in mind certain things we’re getting right. They don’t think anything wrong with the odd compliment and emphasis on our strengths. It’s quiet galling how easily we can lose sight of all of our good points when troubles strike. The friend doesn’t fall into this trap; they can acknowledge the difficulties while still holding on to a memory of our virtues. The good friend is compassionate. When we fail, as we will, they are understanding and generous around our mishaps. Our folly doesn’t exclude us from the circle of their love. The good friend deftly conveys that to err, fail and screw up is what we humans do. We all emerged from childhood with various biases in our character which evolved to help us cope with our necessarily imperfect parents. And these acquired habits of mind will reliably let us down in adult life. But we’re not to be blamed – because we didn’t deliberately set out be like this. We didn’t realistically have a lot of better options. We’re indelibly required to make big decisions before we ever really understand what is at stake or how our choices will play out. We are steering blind in all our large moves around love and work. We opt for a move to a different city – but we can’t possibly know whether we’ll flourish there. We have to select a career path when we’re still young and don’t know what our later needs will be. In long-term relationships we have to make a commitment to another person before we understand what it will be like to tie our lives so deeply to theirs.

The good friend knows that failures are not, in fact, rare. They bring, as a starting point, their own and humanity’s vivid experience of messing up into play as key points of reference. They’re continually telling us that our specific case might be unique but that the general structure is common. People don’t just sometimes fail. Everyone fails, only we don’t know about it.

It is ironic – yet essentially hopeful – that we usually know quite well how to be a better friend to near strangers than we know how to be to ourselves. The hopefulness lies in the fact that we do actually already possess the relevant skills of friendship. It’s just we haven’t as yet directed them to the person who probably needs them most – namely, of course, ourselves.  

Another strategy behind self-love is to rethink our attitudes to self-pity. We learned self-pity when we were young. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon; you were nine years old. Your parents wouldn’t let you have any ice cream if you didn’t do your maths homework. It was achingly unfair. Every other child in the world was playing football or watching television. No one else has such a mean mother. It was just awful.

We’re all – in theory – dead against self-pity. It seems deeply unattractive because it reveals egoism in its most basic form: the failure to put our own suffering into proper perspective against the larger backdrop of human history. We lament our tiny disasters and look coldly on the grand tragedies of the world. A problem with one’s fringe or a wrongly cooked steak dominates the mind while we ignore work conditions in China and the Gini coefficient of Brazil.

No one likes to own up to self-pity. And yet, if we are honest, it’s something we feel quite often. And in fact it’s often a rather sweet emotion.

The fact is we do deserve a great deal more pity than other people are ever very likely to bestow upon us. Life is, in truth, horrendously hard in many ways – even if one does have a top notch data plan and an elegantly designed fridge. Our talents are never fairly recognised, our best years will necessarily drift away, we won’t find all the love we need. We deserve pity and there isn’t anyone else around to give it to us, so we have to supply a fair dose of it to ourselves. The operative cause might from a lofty perspective seem ridiculous – poor me, I’ll never drive a Ferrari; it’s so sad, I thought we were going to a Japanese restaurant and they’ve booked a pub. But these are just the convenient opportunities for immersing ourselves in a much bigger issue: the fundamental sorrows of existences, for which we do – genuinely – deserve the most tender compassion.

Imagine what things would be like if we couldn’t pity ourselves. We would be that far worse category of mental discomfort: depressed. The depressed person is someone who has lost the art of self-pity, who has become too rigorous with themselves. If you think of a parent comforting a child, they often spend hours on a very minor thing: a lost toy, nonou’s broken eye, the children’s party to which one was not invited. They are not being ridiculous, they are, in effect, teaching the child how to look after themselves – and giving space to the important idea that ‘small’ upsets can have very large internal consequences.

Gradually we learn to mimic this parental attitude with ourselves and come to be able to feel sorry for ourselves when no one else will. It’s not necessarily entirely rational, but it’s a coping mechanism. A first protective shell which we develop in order to be able to manage some of the immense disappointments and frustrations that life throws at us. The defensive posture of self-pity is far from contemptible. It is touching and important. Many religions have given expression to this attitude by inventing deities who look with inexpressible pity upon human beings. In Catholicism, for instance, the Virgin Mary is often presented as weeping out of tenderness for the miseries of the normal human life.  Such kindly beings are really projections of our own need to be pitied.

Self-pity is compassion we extend to ourselves. A more mature aspect of the self turns to the weak and lost parts of the psyche and comforts them, strokes them, tells them it understands and that they are indeed lovely but misunderstood. It allows them to be, for a while, a bit babyish – since that is actually what they are. It provides the undemanding, confirming love every baby, but far more importantly, every adult, needs to get through the anguish of existence.

We can connect ourselves more regularly to models of a good inner voice, that is wiser, more constructive and more nuanced than the one we currently posses. If the existing voice is like that of a dismissive and hard to impress father or an impatient, censorious mother we might turn instead to the voice of a more kindly and sympathetic, such as that of the mind-twentieth Century British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott. Winnicott was especially interested in people who are hard on themselves and who feel they are always failing to live up to ideal standards. He often worked with parents who in reality were trying very hard to look after their children as well as they could but who were very anxious and distressed that they still weren’t doing a good job. Winnicott encouraged them to think in terms not of being an ideal mother or father but of being ‘good enough.’ He was seeking to provide these parents with a more sane and appreciative inner voice that could be fair to the great efforts they were really making and be more forgiving to their inevitable mistakes. So that they would – in consequence – be nicer for their children to be around. Winnicott was picking up clearly on the terrible irony at the heart of a punitive inner voice. It says it’s trying to make us better. But actually the burden of being constantly criticised from the inside has the opposite effect.

It’s not that we have to turn specifically to Winnicott. We might locate the inner voice we need in a generous and encouraging writer, in a benign grandmother or a good friend. We need to continually ask ourselves: what would they say to me now? How would they judge me – in a way that’s nicer than the way I judge myself. We are setting out to deliberately internalise the better voices we have encountered, so that they become the ones we hear in our times of need.

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