It's Not an Inner Critic. It's a Habit.

I don't like the phrase "inner critic."

I'm not into gremlin, vampire, or judge, either.

Am I just being contrarian? Maybe. Is it my inner critic? My outer critic?

Or maybe I just think of this very human phenomenon a little differently. If you're into gremlins and inner critics, I don't want to poo-poo your experience. But I will open a different door that goes into the same house.

For the purpose of this article, I gotta call that limiting internal voice something, but I'm not into personifying it into a creature. Or something external. More than anything, it's a habit. I don't externalize procrastination or not eating enough vegetables. So this internal voice is not so special that it gets it's own thing. Sorry, dude. You're not a dude, you're a habit!

So I'll go with calling the experience of saying mean things to myself inside my head my Shitty Greatest Hits (SGH for short). It's a thought sequence that gets triggered in my brain. And it's the same ole lame lines of dialogue repurposed over and over again for different situations. It's a terribly limited playlist.

My Shitty Greatest Hits include predictable titles like:

  • You can't do that.
  • You'll look stupid.
  • What if you mess up?
  • It'll never work.
  • He doesn't really love you.
  • You don't know enough.
  • You aren't enough.

I bet some of these are on your personal playlist as well.

And they can be more than thoughts; sometimes I can feel them deeply. Sometimes as resistance, and sometimes as despair. I can feel them in the pit of my stomach, and they can push tears out my eyes. But it starts with a habitual thought.

I've come to learn that my SGH are almost guaranteed to play under certain circumstances. The more familiar I get with what triggers them, the easier it is to say, "Oh...that's why I'm thinking these thoughts. They're not actually true, but they sure feel true because [insert trigger here]."

Here are some of my common triggers and the counteractions I can take to change the music:

Trigger: Hunger Feels like: I get grouchy when my blood sugar starts drooping. I feel less energized and less capable. Action: Eat something. Drink water. Is there chocolate in the house?

Trigger: Loneliness or Isolation Feels like: When I feel disconnected or lonely, sometimes I shrink. I doubt my abilities. I doubt that others accept me. Action: Talk to a friend. Play with a pet. At the very least, get on Facebook and say hi to friends.

Trigger: Tiredness Feels like: No. Will. To resist. SGH. I feel hopeless and incapable. Action: Nap. Quiet time. Meditation. Bath.

Trigger: Over-Scheduling Feels like: I feel out of control. I might get resentful of commitments I made. I feel like I can't get off the ride. Action: Drop the ball somewhere. Say no to all new commitments. Focus on my basic needs like healthy food and sleep. Schedule some open windows of time. Ask for help.

Trigger: Perceived Rejection Feels like: I feel invalidated or insulted by someone else. Maybe I get defensive, maybe I shut down, maybe I cry. Action: Reject other-esteem and embrace self-esteem. Replay the incident from a neutral viewpoint. Decide to not take it personally.

Trigger: Fear of the Unknown Feels like: Impending failure. Like no decision will be a good decision. I feel vulnerable. Action: Think about my past successes and fun experiences. Talk with someone who believes in me. Read or watch something inspiring.

Trigger: Hormones Feels like: I feel like my brain and body have been hijacked against my control. Action: Acknowledge it and ride it out. Forgive myself for crazy thoughts and feelings. Remind myself that it will pass. Laugh at myself.

Trigger: Personal or Professional Growth Feels like: It feels like uncertainty and outside my comfort zone. Naked. Exposed. Uncomfortable. Action: Let myself feel weird, knowing that it's a symptom of growth. Allow myself to celebrate mistakes and wins.

My SGH always spin in reaction to a trigger. There's never a new, brilliant song that comes out of nowhere and propels me toward something great. As a habit, my brain reacts to my triggers in a way that limits me. But bringing awareness to the triggers, the SGH, and practicing contrary actions actually rewires my brain little by little.

I don't think I'll ever be totally free of my SGH, but I know they can play softer and skip towards to end of the track faster with my continued conscious watchfulness and action. They might start to play automatically, but once the needle hits the disc (old school!), it's my choice if I wanna dance to the beat.

Your turn. In the comments, let me know...

What are some of your SGHs and their triggers?