Yes, the one that tells you that you’ll never be good enough, no matter what you try, or the one that tells you that you’ll never have a close relationship because there’s nothing about you that’s even remotely lovable. Or that the worst-case scenario you’ve been worrying about at work is definitely going to happen because why would anyone think you have something to offer? Or the one that whispers that you’re a fraud and everyone’s going to know it soon enough.

Children who haven’t had their emotional needs met in childhood, who haven’t been loved and supported consistently or at all, begin to absorb the messages communicated by their mother or father (or both) at a young age, long before they have developed defense mechanisms. Unlike children with supportive, attuned, and caring parents who grow up feeling confident about themselves and other people, who have positive visions of relationships, and who are resilient enough to bounce back from mishaps, these children approach life and its challenges very differently, much to their detriment.

Children who have been marginalized in childhood or devalued in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways—being mocked or ignored, being taunted or told that they’re stupid or lazy, or constantly criticized for apparent failings both large and small—internalize what’s said to them as self-criticism. They’re not aware that they’re doing it, of course—it’s an unconscious thought process that results from being emotionally and verbally abused—and it becomes the default position when they are stressed, afraid, have failed at something or encountered a setback. They blame themselves, thinking “It’s me. I’m bad.” There is research suggesting that the “I’m bad” position is actually psychologically easier for a child than confronting the reality which is incredibly painful and frightening, even unbearable for a young child or adolescent to countenance. Recognizing that the person who’s supposed to love you doesn’t is a devastating truth.  Given that many adult daughters (and sons) make excuses for their mothers (and fathers, as it happens) for decades to avoid that painful truth—what I call The Dance of Denial—this makes perfect sense.

The internalized voice becomes a much-played tape without an off button.

About the tape and its constant rewinding

What is self-criticism? It’s the mental habit of ascribing outcomes—mainly bad but sometimes also good ones—to fixed and basic flaws in character, rather than circumstances or a more complex and nuanced understanding of why things happened as they did. A securely-based person looks at failure differently, using emotional intelligence to inform his or her thinking, in a relatively even-handed way. Needless to say, this habit of mind not only bolsters resilience in the wake of a setback—whether that’s a failed relationship, a rejection from an employer, or any other goal that wasn’t met—but also permits him or her to move forward with a Plan B.

That’s not going to happen if you ascribe anything and everything that goes wrong to what’s wrong with you.

The critical tape may also chime in when things go right, reminding you that you only succeeded because you were lucky or that the goal you achieved wasn’t very hard and that just about anyone who wasn’t a total idiot could have done what you did. This is how emotional and verbal works when it’s internalized.

Your beliefs about the self are a factor too

The self-critical tape becomes more powerful if you believe that the characteristics of the self—call it your personality, if you wish—are fixed, rather than malleable, as the work of Carol S. Dweck and others has shown. If you believe that the self can be changed and the internal growth is possible, you’ll be much more resilient when it becomes clear to you that in order to be happier or achieve your goals, change will be necessary. The belief that the self is set in stone, on the other hand, leaves you no options and will actually turn the volume up on self-criticism.

5 steps to toning down and then shutting the tape off

Some of you reading this may be aware of the critical tape and its default position in your mind while others may not be. Becoming consciously aware of how your childhood experiences have affected not just how you see the world but your vision of yourself is key both to healing from your experience and specifically dealing with that self-critical voice.

  1. Recognize the voice

Realizing that you devolve into self-blame every time something goes wrong is a first step. Paying attention to whether or not you’re always apologizing to others—taking the blame even when it isn’t called for—is another. Focus on the situations that trigger your self-blaming so that you can unlearn those responses and begin to learn new ways of reacting.

  1. Recognize its provenance

Do your thoughts echo what was said to you in childhood? Who said the words? You need to bring harsh criticism and verbal abuse into the light where you can see them and examine the motives of the person who uttered them. Being able to see that these statements weren’t observations but tools to manipulate and marginalize you is how you begin to dismantle the voice’s power, as one daughter recounted:

I was almost forty when it finally dawned on me that my mother’s barrage of put-downs affected almost everything in my life and continued to. The more I achieved, the harder her efforts to make me feel small. It was eye-opening and I realized I saw myself as she did.

  1. Challenge it

Yes, talk back to it, either aloud if you’re alone or silently. Use journaling to remind yourself of your strengths and gifts and make lists of all the things the voice ignores about your true self. Talk to close friends about how they see you and what they love and like about you. Over time, you can rob the voice of its power.

  1. Examine your beliefs

Do you believe that you can change and grow? Bringing your thoughts to the surface where you can examine them is another way of disconnecting the tape. Remind yourself that nothing is set in stone and what was learned can be unlearned. There’s lots of research to back that position up.

  1. Practice self-compassion and self-talk

Yes, learn to be your own inner cheerleader and stop being such a harsh taskmaster. Feel compassion for the child you were and be empathic toward your adult self, reminding yourself that mistakes get made, things go wrong, and that’s just how life is. Bolster your belief in yourself by reminding yourself of the things you’ve done right while being more accepting of the things you might have handled better. Set goals for yourself because, yes, change is possible.

No one has to remain a hostage to childhood abuse.


Photograph by Menash. Copyright Free.

Dweck, Carol S., “Can Personality Be Changed? The Role of Beliefs in Personality and Change,” Current Directions in Psychology Scie