I was going nuts. It felt like I was losing my mind. I can’t take this anymore, I told myself.
Maybe I am just wasting my time. Maybe I should just quit.
It was a few months into my “mental health” start-up. Ironically, my mental health seemed to be in “crisis”. Entrepreneur life is difficult, I knew that. I was prepared for that. What I did not prepare for was the continuous “negative talk” I indulged in.
This will not go anywhere. There is no point in doing this. All this is just a waste of time.
And on and on. There was no let go. There was no end. The rambunctious little voice never stopped.
I always assumed that these negative thoughts were part of my intelligence, that there is something of value in all this. Maybe this is the way my mind helps me prevent bad things from happening, I told myself. But it was so exhausting. It felt like carrying tons of load on my back, all the time!
As I was looking for ways to tackle this, I found that a lot of others go through the same problem and they called it “the Inner Critic”. There are several talks on the subject asking us to be aware, catch the thoughts and positively re-phrase them. I have been there, done that before — works for a few days and then it doesn’t.
Then I came across this suggestion to treat “the inner critic” as a third person. I decided this is it, I need to try this on myself. But for this to work, it needs to be more than a mental exercise. It needs to be more real. So, that’s when I gave my “inner critic” a name. And a face. And I journaled every thought of Becker - my Inner critic, for the next few weeks.
Becker, my “inner critic”
This is what I found
Becker was “surprisingly” consistent. He was caustic, negative and focused on how everything will ultimately go wrong.
Becker kept pointing out at my weak points. He kept telling me that what I am doing will not work, that my condition is hopeless and that everything I try will fail somehow!
It was impossible to convince Becker even when I had reasons. It was tough to lower his voice once he goes “crazy”.
At times when things seem like they work, Becker would disappear for a short time only to come back more strongly than ever. And every time this happens, I lost hope and it hurt!
A few weeks into journaling, I slowly became aware of this “mindless” negative voice that previously seemed so difficult to get away from. Every time I felt very negative, Becker’s image would immediately spring up in my head.
Distancing my inner critic Initially, all the thoughts were in the first person like “I am a failure”, “I am bad”, etc. While journaling these thoughts, I changed them to the second person narrative (“You are a failure”). Then I changed them to the third person narrative (“Becker says that you are a failure”). The more I did this, the lesser impactful Becker’s voice became.
There is a science behind Becker Recently, researchers at Royal College London used digital avatar to help patients suffering from Schizophrenia to tackle their “auditory hallucinations”. Also, many positive psychologists propose ways similar to what I have suggested here, for fighting our anxiety.
Why did it work? By naming my negative thought patterns and giving it a face especially, I was able to visualise my inner critic.
By doing so, I was able to put a face to these thoughts whenever they occur, similar to how we put people’s faces to their opinions.
By making this differentiation, I did not have to react to every negative thought as if it were “truth”.
Sometimes, I even told Becker to shut up. I talked to him as if he were a stranger, told him to tell me something new, to tell me something useful.
Balance returned. In a week or so, I started ignoring Becker sub-consciously, without having to put my direct attention to it.
Few final thoughts
The biggest wasteful advice for tackling our anxiety is that “everything happens inside our head” and we have to just“ignore them”. Well, if only it was that easy!
A good percentage of the human population is highly sensitive. These are the people for whom emotions are magnified several times inside their minds and bodies, compared to others. It is just not possible for them to ignore negative sensations, that’s their reality.
Contemporary solutions for anxiety focus on “awareness”. We need to be aware, catch these thoughts as they happen and fight them. This approach works only for a short period. And even when it works, it is very exhausting.
Fighting the inner critic does not mean I completely ignore negative consequences. I can’t. That’s part of my work. The only difference is that these negative consequences don’t feel like the “ultimate truth”. There is no more “fight or flight” response every time Becker opens his mouth.
I stopped journalling actively after a few weeks but I still do sometimes when things get crazy. Becker is not completely gone and I don’t think he should. It is important to have a balanced perspective on things and negative thinking is a part of it. But, when he does show his face (literally!) though, I now know who’s talking.
Based on my learnings from the “Becker experiment”, I then tried “the Inner Hero experiment” to see if there is an anti-thesis to Becker. The results were more astounding.