At The Invisible Scar, we’ve received myriad emails and comments regarding how to deal with one’s harsh inner voice, which hounds adult survivors of emotional child abuse.
To answer questions from readers, we turned to Dr. Lisa Firestone for her professional insight.
Lisa works as the director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association and a senior editor at PsychAlive.org. She has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), and Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003).
1. What’s the correlation between emotional child abuse and the critical inner voice?
The critical inner voice is not only correlated with emotional abuse, it is also correlated with, and is the result of all forms of child abuse, neglect, and other traumatic events we experienced in our childhood. We treat ourselves in much the same way we were treated [or mistreated] as children. The critical inner voice controls the ways in which we mistreat ourselves as well as the negative stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, and about the world.
In Compassionate Child-Rearing (1990), Robert Firestone (my father) described how “all children, to some extent, suffer trauma and rejection during their formative years. They incorporate an internal parent in the form of a destructive thought process or ‘voice’ and carry it with them throughout life, restricting, limiting, and punishing themselves.”
Another source of the critical inner voice can be found in some of the lessons we learned from our parents about their defensive ways of coping with life—their negative prescriptions for living. The critical inner voice also reflects many of the negative attitudes our parents held toward themselves, which we internalized and took on as part of our negative self-image.
2. What are the long-term effects of emotional child abuse on one’s inner voice?
One particularly damaging long-term effect of child abuse on a person’s critical inner voice is that it contributes to the formation of the negative self-image and feelings of low self-esteem that many survivors of child abuse still struggle with. All forms of child abuse, have the effect of creating a sense of being bad in children. Yet children typically blame themselves for the emotional pain they are in rather than seeing weaknesses or shortcomings in their parents. Unfortunately, as adults, many of us continue to view ourselves, often on an unconscious level, as bad or undeserving of love.
Emotional, physical, and sexual child abuse, and neglect have many other long-term debilitating effects. According to Robert Firestone (Compassionate Child Rearing), these experiences impact one’s “personal relationships, lead to a condition of general unhappiness, cause pain and anxiety in one’s sexual life and interfere with and stifle development of career and vocational pursuits.”
The severity of these effects are proportional to the cumulative number of “Aversive Childhood Experiences”[ACEs] that people encounter during their formative years, the age at which the abuses occurred and the duration of the abuse. In general, the more abuse children suffer early in life, the more they will be subject to voice attacks as adults, and the more their behavior will be under the control of the critical inner voice.
3. How can an adult survivor of emotional child abuse overcome that critical inner voice?
First, recognize that the emotional pain you feel is valid. The experiences you had in growing up made it necessary for you to develop defenses, including the critical inner voice, and these defenses and voices now limit you in pursuing your goals in life. Understanding this important point can help you develop compassion for yourself, which is a strong antidote to the critical inner voice. The more you strengthen your real self and develop feeling for yourself, the weaker the inner voice will become and the less influence it will have over your life.
Second, read Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice and work through the journaling exercises in the chapters related to the areas that you are struggling with. These exercises are designed to increase your awareness of the inner voice, to understand its origins, and to challenge its control over your life. In addition, there are many articles and blogs available on www.psychalive.com that can empower you in overcoming this destructive thought process.
Third, if you believe that you could benefit from additional help, you may want to consider psychotherapy or you might want to use therapy as a tool for further personal development. You could look for a psychotherapist who is familiar with the critical inner voice and who applies the techniques of Voice Therapy, a cognitive/affective/behavioral method for accessing, identifying, and challenging the voice, in his or her practice.
Fourth, become more aware of the times you start attacking yourself in your mind. One way is to be aware of changes in your mood. Did your mood slip from optimistic to pessimistic in the last few days? Did you wake up this morning in a bad mood? Think about what you might be telling yourself, in terms of the critical inner voice, that is negative and affecting your mood.
Become more aware of when you start to attack yourself. It is also important to recognize the events, people, and experiences that trigger your self-attacks. Whenever you notice that you’re attacking yourself, simply take note of the fact, “Oh, I’m attacking myself again.” Recognize the attack for what it is, part of a destructive thinking process that is opposed to your best interests and your well-being. You may not even need to identify the specific voices at that point to return to your own point of view and a better mood
Most important, strive to maintain an accepting, compassionate, and loving attitude toward yourself in all the situations you encounter in your everyday life. Loving kindness mediation has been shown to be effective in helping people develop more self-compassion.
4. Most adult survivors of emotional child abuse have a tendency to bash themselves all the time… What are some steps they can follow to create a kinder inner voice (if that’s possible)?
Positive self-affirmations are a form of self-parenting, they are still a part of how we evaluate or judge ourselves. It’s impossible to effectively replace the critical inner voice with a “kinder inner voice” if you try to tell yourself positive things about yourself in this way.
Positive self-affirmations are very different from developing feelings of compassion for yourself. In Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice, we emphasized this crucial point. Self-parenting, whether it consists of soothing ourselves with positive self-affirmations or punishing ourselves with negative self-statements, is part of a defense that we developed early in life to compensate for what was missing in our environment. “People tend to parent themselves as they were parented, both soothing and punishing themselves in a manner similar to the way their parents soothed and punished them.”
It is very important for you to develop compassionate feelings or attitudes toward yourself. Strive to adopt Dan Siegel’s attitude of COAL, that is, be Curious, Open, Accepting and Loving toward yourself. Think of it this way, you would probably never treat a close friend the way you often treat yourself when you are under the influence of the voice. Learn to befriend yourself, be as kind to yourself as you would be toward your friend.
Dispense with all judgments or evaluations of yourself and practice being kinder to yourself on an emotional level. Even in situations where your critical inner voice accuses you of something that has some basis in reality, don’t castigate yourself for a mistake you made or for something you disapprove of in yourself.
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Thanks, Lisa, for taking the time to answer questions for The Invisible Scar.