I have another job apart from running girls’ circles. I’m an editor and proofreader. A while ago I received an email from someone alerting me to the fact that I had an enormous typo in the copy that shows up in the search engine entry for my website. Just great! An editor with a glaring typo! Can you imagine the conversation in my head?
“I am so stupid! I am absolutely useless. I might as well just give up. I’m a failure, a fraud, no-good, terrible, bad, bad, bad editor. I am an embarrassment.”
These excruciating phrases circled around my mind like an eagle circling its prey, ready to take me out and force me to give up my red editing pen. Forever.
But then another kinder voice chimed in. “I’m only human. We all make mistakes. I can fix it. I can move on and check and double-check my website. I forgive myself. It’s OK. No one died.”
I thanked the person who emailed me. I did fix it and I still edit. No one died. I still cringe a little, but I know that I’m neither stupid, bad nor useless.
Happily, I’m a grown-up and used to self-reflection, meditating, and journaling to bring me back to a place of self-love and acceptance. But what can children do when they experience their inner critic?
At the end of last year, a wonderful woman offered us the opportunity to collaborate on a new workshop idea called Critical Critters. She had committed to running a series of workshops, but then her move overseas got bought forward and she asked us to pick up the reigns. We had a juicy and creative time writing the program with her, which we have now run in several Perth primary schools.
The theme is one that is familiar to us all—our critical inner voice. That nasty mean little Critter who says, ‘I’m not good enough', ‘I’m ugly’, ‘I’m a horrible, terrible person’ and many more similarly hurtful phrases.
Where does it come from?
Our inner critical voice comes from listening to outer voices. These voices may say downright mean things. For example, a sibling who constantly calls their brother or sister stupid can make the child believe they are stupid. Or it could be how we have interpreted things people have said. For example, a busy Mum who says she hasn’t time to play/listen to/read to her child may lead them to believe they are not important or worthy of Mum’s attention, construing inner statements like “I’m not good enough” “I’m not lovable” etc. A passing curt remark or well-meant joke from a stranger can also have lasting negative impressions on our young and vulnerable psyches. The fact is, few of us grow into adulthood unscathed by what we hear and consequently making it mean something (usually negative) about ourselves. And the more we listen to that phrase, the more we believe it until it becomes a crusted-in truth.
How does the inner critic impact us?
When we have a story going on, such as “I’m a failure” or “I’m stupid” like I did, it means that we allow ourselves to miss out on experiences and growth. If I had listened to my Critical Critter, I would have given up a job I love. Other times, we may stand on the sidelines of life watching—possibly saving ourselves from failure or embarrassment—but playing small. If we do try something new, we may give up or not finish. Listening to this voice impacts our confidence and self-esteem. We stop liking who we are, suffer from anxiety, fail to speak up and find it hard in social settings.
What can we do about it?
The first step is to recognize that we have this voice and that it is a normal phenomenon. Sometimes we are so familiar with its incessant chatter, we don’t even know it is there.
In our workshop, we start with a game that may trigger the children’s Critical Critter. We guide them to identify what they are saying about themselves in their minds. It is heartbreaking to read some of the comments these young children stick onto our giant Critical Critter posters.
One study by Robert W. Firestone asked participants to write the script in second person. For example, “I am stupid” to “You are stupid.” This highlighted the intensity and aggression of these phrases, bringing emotions to the surface and separating them from their opinions about themselves.
We encourage the children to give their Critters a name and our posters give the Critical Critters a fun but ugly monster image.
Once we recognize it, we can STOP it in its tracks. We can listen instead to the other voice in our head, what we call the Inner Nurturer. This is the voice that we may use when comforting or supporting a friend. For example, in my editing faux pas I forgave myself. I told myself I could do better next time, and that I could learn from this mistake.
We can reframe these phrases or flip the script—“I’m scared” to “I am brave”, “I’m stupid” to “I am smart”. If that is too much of a leap, children can tell themselves that they are not good at maths/running/drawing yet. They can say “It’s alright to be where I’m at” or “It’s OK to fail”, “I learn by trying”. The Inner Nurturer is accepting and loving.
Thankfully, children are young enough to learn how to turn those phrases around before they become too ingrained, but it’s not too late for adults either. However, it can be hard to acknowledge our strengths after a lifetime of external and internal putdowns. It’s not easy to flip the script and identify and own our strengths.
In schools, we finish the workshop with an honouring circle. Each child has an opportunity to hear a few of their classmates tell them how awesome they are. It is beautiful to see hands shoot up for each and every child, bursting to tell their peers what a great friend they are, how inclusive/generous/kind they are, how skilled they are at sport/art/maths, etc.
Adults can do this more privately by journaling or could ask friends what their strengths are. I always like to put a few words of appreciation in birthday cards. It’s really special to read what your friends and family love about you.
So next time you catch yourself saying “I’m such an idiot”, “I’ll never be a success” or whatever your theme of negative self-talk is, recognize it, stop it, turn it around and remember how awesome you are. Listen out for that Inner Nurturer.
And if you see any typos in this blog, please join me in forgiving me. I’m only human!
Thanks to Tunia Zagorska, our co-creator and Maria Hildrick for the fabulous Critical Critter posters.