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Taming the Inner Critic - How to Calm the Inner Voice with Mindfulness

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

My husband and I were recently talking about a rare phenomena called "aphantasia" - an inability of a small portion of the population (1-3%) to form visual imagery. Being a mindfulness coach, I find it fascinating to know how the human brain works, so for me this was an interesting discovery. It's what he next said that stunned me into silence.

"It must be similar to having no inner voice."

My next thought was, "Wait. WHAT?

Did you say no inner voice???"

"Yeah," he said, "I don't have an inner voice."


Followed by a barrage of questions: "How do you think without hearing yourself speak? When you read, do you hear a voice in your head saying the words? How can you read if you don't ? You mean there's no voice in your head rehearsing a future conversation, or mulling over a past mistake? There's no voice telling you how you're a failure, or should have done better?" And on, and on, and on. I just could fathom what it would be like to have no inner monologue. At first I didn't even believe him.

It took a quick Google search to plug in "no inner monologue", and finding actual entries under it before I believe is was true. I felt as though I had discovered some new mystery of the universe, like gravity. Because, like many, my internal voice is one that talks - and talks a lot!

From then on I began asking everyone I know whether they have an internal monologue - (clients, friends, family), and sent my husband on a quest to ask the same of his circle. People with an active voice would say, "What?", quickly followed by, "That must be so peaceful." Exactly. And I discovered in my anecdotal "sampling" that there seems to be a continuum along which people experience an auditory component to thought. It's not always cut and dry, yes or no. Sometimes it is, but not always too.

The next question for me then became, "How does having an internal monologue affect mental health? Surely they're linked." Coming from personal experience with my own voice and depression, it has not been easy. And I always wondered how it was that my husband seems to not really worry. He doesn't ruminate. (It's even been maddening at times, I'll admit, how he doesn't seem concerned about something that I couldn't imagine not being worried about!) It came as no surprise that everyone I spoke to dealing with mental health issues also seemed to have an internal voice. And, yes, all of this has indeed been backed up by actual research. [A good go to is the book "Chatter", by Ethan Kross.]

While we might want nothing more than to turn off this 'monkey mind' (I wish I had a magic wand sometimes), that just isn't how the thinking mind works. And the inner voice does have many benefits too. But, we can use mindfulness as an effective intervention when the inner chatter runs amok - it has embedded within it many tools that can significantly shift our perception of this voice for a healthier relationship with it.

Here are some practical mindfulness tips to tame the inner voice and bring it down from a raging lion to a domestic feline with a healthy hint of attitude.

Making friends with your inner voice

1. Don't believe everything you think!

Imagine this simple scenario - you're in traffic, late for an important engagement, and the first thing that comes to mind is how this is going to ruin your day. Your body starts to feel hot, and you recognise the familiar feeling of anxiety building.

Someone in the car behind you is also late. But they're feeling pretty calm because they're thinking, "I'll get there when I get there. There's really nothing I can do about this." Same situation, different thoughts and experiences.

What's objectively true here? Who's right?

From a mindfulness perspective, we might say that no one is right or wrong. There is only what is helpful, and what is not. Put another way, there is what is aligned and flowing with life as it is, and what is fighting that same flow.

Just because you have a thought does not make it true. So you don't have to believe it! The next time you feel that anxious sensation in your body, ask yourself what your inner voice is saying and question it: "Is what I'm thinking really true? And is there another way to see this that actually helps me?"

2. Journal (Yes, I know - but this time it's different)

Take a few minutes to write down your inner monologue - no editing or holding back. This simple exercise can be quite revelatory.

As Michael Singer, author of "The Untethered Soul" says,

"Problems are generally not what they appear to be. The real problem is that there is something inside of you that can have a problem with almost anything."

Bringing this inner chatter into the light of day by writing it down can help you see through the ruminating voice, maybe even illustrating the absurdity of this internal critic. Writing it all down allows us to gain space from our thoughts, and brings them into conscious awareness. Simply being aware of the type of thoughts you have by visually seeing them before you can help you see how your beliefs are unnecessarily breeding fear - help you see through them.

3. Invite in an Opposite Thought

Before discovering mindfulness, I was the sort of person who would easily take things personally, regurgitating what someone had said to me over and over again, so that I'd be affected by it for days, weeks, even months. I was often mired in my thoughts, and couldn't see my way out of some of them. Then I found iRest Yoga Nidra.

One potent iRest tool is to welcome in a thought you're having about a situation, and feel how it shows up in your body as sensation. But then (and here's the key), you also invite in an opposite. By asking yourself, "What else is possible here?" or "If this weren't here, what else might be here instead?", we gain access to new neural pathways in the brain beyond the default mode network which can usher in a sense of hope and possibility that we just couldn't see before.

This can offer valuable insight and perspective, and, as I discovered with this practice, a world of compassion that wasn't available to me before - compassion for myself and the other person who I previously believed just had it in for me.

4. Step Back and Zoom Out

One effect of getting caught up with your inner voice is that it zooms us into what feels like a very small space - locked into a self-doubting, self-sabotaging place where fear easily takes hold. This is a hallmark of depression and anxiety, and why they are so challenging to live with. We lose the sense of a wider perspective that comes naturally when the nervous system is more balanced and calm.

When you're feeling at ease, maybe in bed at night, you can practice taking a step back from your day, and ask yourself how it feels when you do. Zoom out from it, making it smaller and smaller to get distance from it, maybe even some insight. You ask what you've learned from this day, what you might do differently tomorrow that feels more aligned with your deeply held values. Practicing this kind of technique when you feel settled, and, as neuroscientist Dr. Rick Hanson suggests "little and often", makes it easier to access when you're feeling distressed by that critical inner voice.

You can also step back and zoom out by choosing different language in your self-talk (eg. rather than "I am sad" or "I am anxious", try "sadness is here", or "anxiety is here.") It's an easy way of putting some distance between you and these thoughts.

5. Find Your Centre

A natural opposite to the distressing inner voice is the present moment experience.

Try reading that again for emphasis. Really.

The present moment experience - just being - i.e. feeling your breath, feeling your hands, smelling that coffee, or really tasting the chocolate as you swallow... absolutely all of it - has the power to take you out of the turmoil of the inner voice, into a tangible felt sense of calm.

Meditators have known for centuries what neuroscience is now confirming - being in the present moment literally changes your brain. It's the ultimate aloe vera for a soul that needs soothing, and is yours, just as you are.

Summing Up

Finally, remember there's nothing wrong with having an active monologue. It can even help you plan ahead, and internally work through life dilemmas. But, when we get drawn into that voice, living in a state of chronic fear, anxiety or depression, then we know it's time to move into a wider perspective.

Sometimes we need to draw on resources outside of ourselves for help with this inner critic. Reach out to friends or family, or seek out professional advice. Be reassured that you already have everything you need to make friends with this voice, but sometimes we just need help finding it.

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