By Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D.
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 41 seconds.
Our life is what our thoughts make it.
~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The critical inner voice is made up of a series of negative thoughts and attitudes toward self and others, which is at the core of a person’s maladaptive behavior. It can be conceptualized as the language of a defensive process that is both hostile and cynical. The voice is not limited to cognitions, attitudes, and beliefs; it is also closely associated with varying degrees of anger, sadness, shame, and other primary emotions. It can be thought of as an overlay on the personality that is not natural or harmonious, but rather learned or externally imposed.
The voice is a form of internal communication – usually critical, yet sometimes self-nurturing and self-aggrandizing, but in either case opposed to one’s self interest. It is experienced as though one were being spoken to. It includes attacks such as, “You’re so stupid!” “You’re a failure!” “No one could ever love you.” “You can’t trust anyone.” “They don’t appreciate you.”
Critical inner voices are often experienced as a running commentary that interprets interactions and events in ways that cause a good deal of pain and distress. The voice defines situations in alarming and pessimistic terms. It is analogous to a lens or filter that casts a gloomy light on the world which, in turn, has a profound negative effect on one’s mood and feelings.
The critical inner voice can be distinguished from a conscience or constructive moral influence because it interprets moral standards and value systems in an authoritarian manner, in the form of strict “should,” that leads to harsh criticism and self-recrimination. It increases one’s self-hatred, rather than motivating one to alter behavior in a constructive manner. Seemingly positive, self-nurturing voices that appear on the surface to be supportive, can be hurtful, misleading, and dysfunctional. Self-aggrandizing voices encourage an unrealistic build-up that sets the stage later for attacks on the self.
The voice not only serves the function of attacking the self; it is also directed toward others. These oppositional viewpoints are symptomatic of the deep division that exists within all of us. Sometimes people view their loved ones with compassion and affection, but other times they think of them in cynical or disparaging terms.
Voice attacks are sometimes consciously experienced, but more often than not, one experiences them partially conscious or even totally unconscious. In general, people are largely unaware of the extent of their self-attacks, and the degree to which their behavior is influenced or controlled by the voice.
Critical inner voices vary in intensity along a continuum, ranging from mild self-reproach to strong self-accusations and suicidal ideation. They precipitate a wide range of self-limiting, self-destructive actions, from giving up on goals, to physically hurting oneself, or even committing suicide. In a very real sense, what people tell themselves about events and occurrences in their lives is more damaging and contributes to more misery than the negative episodes themselves.
Early Investigations into the Critical Inner Voice
In early investigations of the voice, participants in our pilot study attempted to express self-attacks in a rational, cognitive manner and tone. They articulated self critical thoughts in the first person, as “I” statements about themselves. For example: “I am so stupid.”; “I can never get along with people.”; “I am no good.” Etc. So I suggested that they verbalize these same thoughts as statements spoken to them in the second person, “you” statements, such as, “You are so stupid.” “You never get along with anyone.” “You are no good.” When the participants complied with this new method, I was shocked by the malicious tone of their self-attacks, and the intensity of the anger with which they condemned themselves. It was surprising to observe even mild-mannered, reasonable individuals being so intensely self punishing and cruel.
The second-person dialogue technique is what brought these powerful emotions to the surface. The participants were able to separate their own viewpoint from the internalized negative parental view of themselves that has been superimposed on their self-image. In addition, the emotional release that accompanied the expression of the voice uncovered core dysfunctional beliefs and brought about a more positive feeling and compassionate attitude toward self and others.
The Development of the Self System and Anti-Self System
As children develop expressive language and verbal skills, they attempt to give meaning to, or make sense of, the primal emotions they have internalized (Tronick & Beeghly, 2011). They apply negative labels and specific verbal attacks to themselves, based on their interpretation of painful interactions they experienced early in life. This internalized voice becomes a fixed part of the child’s core identity and labeling his or herself, even though initially there was no essential validity to the label. As children continue to grow and develop, they refine and elaborate on their self-critical attitudes and thoughts, and apply new labels to themselves. These destructive attitudes or voices form a distinct and separate aspect of the personality that I have termed the “anti-self system.”
The anti-self system is composed of an accumulation of these internalized destructive thoughts, attitudes, and feelings directed toward the self. When children are confronted with hurtful experiences in the family, they tend to absolve their parents or other family members from blame, and take on the attitude that they themselves are bad, unlovable, or a burden. Gradually, personal trauma and separation anxiety combine to turn children against themselves. The anti-self can be characterized as the “enemy within.” (Firestone, 2018)
In contrast, the self system is made up of one’s biological temperament, genetic predisposition, parents’ admirable qualities, and the ongoing effects of experience and education. Parents’ lively attitudes, positive values, and active pursuit of life are easily assimilated through the process of identification and imitation, and become part of the child’s developing personality. In addition, the self system represents a person’s wants, desires and goals, and his/her individual manner of seeking fulfillment. Throughout life, these two systems become well-established and are in direct conflict. How this conflict is resolved over time powerfully affects the course of the individual’s life and his or her happiness or unhappiness.
To summarize, the voice consists of: (1) the internalization or introjection of destructive attitudes toward the child held by parents and other significant adults in the early environment; (2) a largely unconscious imitation of one or both parents’ maladaptive defenses and views about life; and (3) a defensive approach to life, based on emotional pain experienced during the formative years. The greater the degree of trauma experienced in childhood, the more intense one’s voice attacks become.
Voice therapy is a cognitive/affective/behavioral methodology that brings internalized destructive thought processes to the surface with accompanying affect, in a dialogue format that allows a client to confront alien components of the personality. The method involves expressing one’s self-attacks and the accompanying feelings, developing insight into their causality, answering back to self-attacks from one’s own point of view, and collaboratively planning strategies with the therapist to counter specific voice attacks.
With its focus on emotions and on the expression of deep feelings, voice therapy differs significantly from other cognitive-behavioral models. The methods are aligned with certain aspects of emotion-focused therapy (EFT), which primarily concentrates on eliciting emotion by directing clients to amplify their self-critical statements (Greenberg et. al., 1993). Voice therapy is also more deeply rooted in psychoanalytic/ psychodynamic approaches than it is in a cognitive-behavioral model.
In conclusion, the purpose of voice therapy is to help individuals achieve a free and independent existence, remain open to experience and feelings, and maintain the ability to respond appropriately to both positive and negative events in their lives. The process of identifying the voice and its associated affect, combined with corrective strategies of behavioral change, significantly expand the client’s boundaries and bring about a more positive sense of self.
Firestone, R.W. (2018) The enemy within: Separation theory and voice therapy. Phoenix. AZ: Zeig, Tucker, & Theisen, Inc. Publishers.
Greenberg, L. S., Rice, L. N., & Elliott, R. (1993). Facilitating emotional change: The moment-by-moment process. New York: Guilford Press.
Tronick, E., & Beeghly, M. (2011). Infants’ meaning-making and the development of mental health problems. American Psychologist, 66(2), 107-119. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0021631