Why Your Inner Voice Is Such a Negative Jerk

Photo: Tara Moore/Getty Images

The other day, I did one of those random acts of kindness for a stranger. I won’t go into specifics, because I don’t want to be that guy. I’ll just say it was nicer than holding the door for someone but not as nice as donating a kidney.

What was interesting to me, though, was the way my inner monologue played out afterward. When I got back in my car, I sat for a moment and enjoyed the warm, glowy feelings of doing something nice for a stranger. I thought, “Hey, that was a kind thing you did. Good job.”

Harmless enough. And yet my very next thought was, “Come on, dude. It’s not like you cured cancer. Get over yourself.” I’m not embellishing — that was, verbatim, the thought that popped into my head. I think I even rolled my eyes a little. At myself.

The reason I was even aware of this fleeting internal exchange is because of the mindfulness meditation I’ve been practicing for the past six months. One of the main goals of mindfulness is to become more aware of your thoughts and thought patterns, as if you’re a third-party observer. As I’ve noticed firsthand, many of these thoughts aren’t especially productive, or even kind, particularly when it comes to thoughts about ourselves.

Most of us have a ferocious inner critic. It’s like we have Triumph the Insult Comic Dog running around in our heads, calling a snarky play-by-play of every action we take and every belief we have about ourselves, chiding and belittling us whenever we start to feel that maybe we’re a moderately decent person.

My inner Triumph was there in my head that day, diminishing the nice thing I did for someone else.

“Come on, dude. It’s not like you cured cancer. Get over yourself.”

Sheesh. Why do I let this guy live rent-free in my head?

Why we’re wired for negativity

The answer is both revelatory and a little depressing: It’s because our brains are actually wired to be negative.

This impulse to discount our positive thoughts, qualities, and experiences while obsessing about the negative ones is so pervasive that scientists have given it a name: negativity bias. The negativity bias is an evolutionary remnant, a driving force that kept our ancient ancestors from getting complacent during a time when survival was a constant effort. Back in the Cro-Magnon days, I imagine it played out a little something like this: Thor and Igor had to get up every day, go out into the dangerous world they inhabited, and somehow come back with enough food for everyone while not getting killed in the process. No doubt there were many mornings when Thor woke up and thought, “Gee, it cold and rainy out there. I no feel like killing bear today. Maybe I just stay in cave.”

Guess what? If Thor embraced that kind of thinking for long, he would die. It was his neighbor Igor — the one who pushed and prodded himself day after day to stop being so damned lazy and get out there and kill a bear or we’re all going to starve — who survived.

That instinct is still with us today, even though it has outlived its evolutionary usefulness. It’s why we’re driven to discount our best accomplishments, demean our best qualities, and always push ourselves to do more. Our positive achievements and character traits slide off us like we’re made of Teflon, while our negative self-beliefs are the ones that stick.

How to send your inner critic to the back bench

Because the negativity bias is so deeply ingrained, we can’t just get rid of it. Like fear, it’s a reality of the human condition. But we can escort our inner critic from the front row of our brains to the back bench, where he belongs.

The key to doing this is awareness. Our negative self-talk is mostly subconscious. The negativity comes in whispers rather than shouts. Often, we don’t even realize when it’s happening; we just know we feel terrible. So we have to make an effort to capture these thoughts, then examine them with a critical eye to decide whether or not we really believe them. Very often, we find they’re false, or at least exaggerated. Once we make this logical realization, we can begin to reject these beliefs and lessen their power over us.

You probably know where I’m going with this: mindfulness. It may sound difficult, but really it just means paying attention to your thoughts. Here are a few things that have helped me in my own efforts.

Meditation apps

My go-to app for this is Ten Percent Happier — it’s billed as “mindfulness for fidgety skeptics,” which is probably why it appealed to me. The app includes guided meditations from dozens of the most accomplished mindfulness instructors around the world. It also allows you to choose meditations by topic to help you focus on specific things you want to improve on, like anxiety, procrastination, and self-compassion. Other popular apps in this space include Calm, Headspace, and Aura—there’s no shortage to choose from.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

CBT is a sort of therapeutic version of mindfulness meditation. It provides techniques for becoming aware of our subconscious beliefs, helping us to evaluate and reframe them. There are also hundreds of mental health professionals who are practitioners of CBT; a quick Google search will show you the ones in your area, and another one will show you strategies you can try on your own to start.

Thought journaling

This is the one that works best for in-the-moment confrontations with your inner critic. I am not a daily journal kind of person, but I do find it helpful when I have a pervasive negative thought pattern to write it out on paper and sit with it for a few minutes. Then I write a counter-thought to it that helps me reframe my perspective.

For example, as someone with ADHD, I constantly struggle with focus, organization, and procrastination. It’s easy for me to feel hopeless and discouraged about getting things done. When I wrote this thought pattern down in a journal, it said:

You’ll never be able to focus or get your shit together. And you’ll never accomplish anything meaningful. It’s genetic and there’s nothing you can do about it.

It startled me to see that in writing, because it looked so much harsher on the page. I immediately realized that much of it is demonstrably false, especially the part about never accomplishing anything meaningful. So I wrote a counter-thought to it:

It’s true I am hardwired for distraction, but it’s also true that I have creative abilities that others don’t have because of these same genetics. And it’s false that I can’t accomplish anything meaningful, because I have accomplished a great deal in my life.

Then I wrote down a few of my major accomplishments, both personal and professional. It was gratifying to see, spelled out in front of me, this counterargument to the relentless negative thoughts that my inner critic bombards me with when I’m struggling to focus.

Bringing these negative thoughts into my consciousness helps me see the logical fallacies in them, which boosts my confidence and enthusiasm. And that, in turn, helps me be more motivated and productive, further disproving the negative thought pattern. It helps me to remember that while the negativity bias may be real, that doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s simply a relic that doesn’t serve us well any longer.

20+ years as managing principal of a wealth advisory firm. I write about the principles of sound investing, the solopreneur life and the wisdom of experience.