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Have you ever had a friend who did something that made zero sense to you? Or maybe you yourself have done something that could be described as mean or hurtful. Today I want to explore why we do things that may seem mean or out of character, and why we also do things that are praiseworthy and kind.

To understand this, it’s important to first understand that we all have an inner voice that comments on our behavior and the behavior of others all day long. For example, let’s say we’re a student and tomorrow we have a test. Instead of studying though, you end up going out with friends. As a result, you don’t do very well on the test and what follows is an onslaught of inner commentary.

Some of us have an inner critic or an inner cheerleader. Whichever it is, it impacts our decisions and how we feel about the decisions that we make. In this example, our inner critic may sound like, “That wasn’t the best choice to go out with your friends. Now you failed your test, I’m not very impressed with your behavior.” Or they may be extra harsh and say, “You’re an idiot, you’re going to fail this class and you’re not going to go anywhere in life.”

There is a part of the critic that believes if they criticize enough, they’ll help change our behavior. But what the inner voice of the critic doesn’t realize is that this type of criticism often makes us continue doing the very behaviors that aren’t always serving us. Our inner critics tend to get stronger over time and the cycle of criticism causing those counterproductive behaviors perpetuates. As a result, our inner critic has more material to use against us. People who often aren’t doing well in life have a very loud inner critic.

The inner cheerleader takes a different path. In response to the test example, they might say, “That wasn’t the best choice, but I know you’ve worked hard all semester and you needed a break. It was just one test, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it. If you really need to, maybe you can ask for extra credit to get your grade up.”

Do you see the difference? The cheerleader is encouraging us to do better and to make good choices, and when we do make good choices, they praise us. In stark contrast, the critic finds our faults and shames us for them.

Now that we understand the difference, we need to ask ourselves if our own inner voice is a critic or a cheerleader. The inner critic will remind us of our faults and attack us for the things we don’t do right. As a result, it deteriorates our self-esteem, doesn’t make us feel good, and most importantly it doesn’t help us change our behavior. The inner cheerleader encourages us to do better and doesn’t fault us if we take a step backward. This is because the ultimate goal of the inner cheerleader is to support us and help us become the best version of ourselves.

Imagine that you have two friends. One of the friends points out all of your flaws every time you see them, and the other friend points out all of the positive things about yourself. Which of these friends would you want to hang out with? The cheerleader friend, of course!

Next, let’s discuss how we can develop our inner cheerleader, and quiet our inner critic.

The first and most important thing we can do is observe how we speak to ourselves. Who is the stronger voice inside of us? We can observe this on two fronts – how is our inner voice speaking to us, but also how is that inner voice speaking about others. How we treat others is in direct relation to how we treat ourselves. For example, if someone walks by us and our immediate response is to say something negative about their appearance, we’ll have a similar response when we look at ourselves in the mirror. That inner critic that critiques others will critique us, too.

Once we discover which voice is louder, we can begin working on changing the content of our inner voice. This could look like the next time we see someone and we think something negative about them, we reframe our thoughts to focus on something we like. In other words, we let our inner cheerleader win. Over time, we’ll start to reframe our own thoughts. The next time we walk by a mirror, instead of thinking something negative, our automatic response becomes to find something positive that we like about ourselves. This could mean focusing on how we put others before ourselves, our straight teeth, our work ethic, etc.

Even if we need to work on something, our inner cheerleader will praise us for trying to improve ourselves. The inner critic may say, “This is something you should already know how to do.” But again, this type of feedback isn’t helpful and only keeps us stuck. Instead, if we cheer ourselves on for making good choices, for example exercising when we typically don’t, it helps us keep up these healthy practices. The inner cheerleader tells us that they’re proud of us for waking up early and going to the gym, while the inner critic might say, “You haven’t worked out at all this week, this one work out today isn’t going to do anything for your health.”

Again, if our inner critic is beating out our inner cheerleader, it’s important to work on quieting that critic and focusing on our inner cheerleader that solely wants to offer encouragement.

Now I know some people reading this may think there isn’t anything good about me, and that is just BS. Even Hitler had some redeeming qualities – he was a good speaker, a good artist, and a good writer. Everyone has some positive traits, and most of us are always trying to work on something. If you’ve never played the piano before and start playing one day, you’re going to be bad! Things take time and patience.

Our inner cheerleader helps us improve, while our inner critic keeps us stuck and perpetuates the cycle of not improving things about ourselves. We have to learn which voice we pay more attention to, and once we do, we can focus on holding our inner cheerleader’s voice in higher regard.

It takes practice, it takes time, but if we allow our inner cheerleader to cheer us on, we can all live beautiful lives.

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