What is the negative critical voice?

The critical inner voice is a pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves (and others) that feels almost automated, intrinsic – we may feel it is who we are. This “voice” is responsible for most of our self-destructive and maladaptive behaviour. It can affect our confidence, our self-esteem and even sabotage our relationships with others, or our performance at work. 


This voice effectively undermines how we feel about ourselves and others, and creates a lot of comparison to others, self-criticism, and rumination. At its worst it can cause distrust of others, self-denial, self-punishment and even fuel addictions

Most of us are conscious of some aspects of our negative critical voice, but many of our negative thoughts exist on an unconscious level. Sometimes, we may be aware of what the negative critical voice is telling us, while at other times, we may be unclear about our negative thinking and simply accept it as a feeling about self. We are often unaware of the destructive impact that these thoughts are having on our emotions, actions, and the overall quality of our lives.

Some might think that if they stop listening to their negative critical voice, they will lose touch with themselves – their consciousness. This voice is not, however, neutral, unbiased or reliable. It is the voice of our negativity bias, which is degrading and punishing and often leads us to make unhealthy decisions. 

These negative voices tend to increase our feelings of self-hatred without motivating us to change undesirable qualities or act in a constructive manner. From the position of the negative critical voice we are stuck, we rarely move forward or develop, and often experience ourselves as helpless. 

Why do we hang onto it?

Some people may be so used to being swept up by this voice, they may not even be fully conscious of the voice and its existence. They simply accept it as them – their mind and how it is. Others may be aware of the existence of this nagging voice, but may choose to hold onto it. This is because it was created at a very young age, in an attempt to protect and be helpful. We may still think it is being helpful. 

Some commonly believe it will:

  • be motivating to help do better and achieve more
  • prepare for future disappointment or hurt
  • keep the ego in check, so is needed to prevent becoming arrogant

Whilst some may also believe:

  • it is an accurate reflection, so true
  • it is deserved

The negative critical voice has no benefit and causes profound psychological, emotional, and cognitive damage. 

Where does it all begin?

It is thought that the negative critical voice is created in two ways:

As a function of our attachment:

When that parental attunement fails a little bit too often, and the baby or toddler does not quite get enough of its needs met or regularly enough, that causes psychological distress. This results in the formation of what we call an ‘attachment style’. As the child gets older, the distress and anxiety associated with the attachment style begins to create this negative critical voice as a way to try and manage the anxiety, hence, we confuse it for being helpful or needed. Really it merely creates a very false and dangerous sense of control as a way to alleviate our Attachment anxieties. 

Being internalised by those around us:

The inner negative critical voice can also come from early life experiences that are absorbed into the ways we think and feel about ourselves, as we start to observe and learn from those around us. It comes from a variety of childhood influences such as parents, teachers, peers, siblings, and caregivers. 

Children learn a lot about the world and themselves from how the adults around them behave, and how they mirror the child back to itself. Children learn about themselves, in relation to others. Not only do children begin to absorb what they feel about the world and themselves from the adults around them, they also start to take on how the adults feel about themselves.

Think about a very anxious or perfectionist mother, who can be prone to being tough on herself. Her child is likely to internalise some of that anxiety and perfectionism and start to mirror her way of being.  

How to break out of it

The first step towards any change, is to identify what is really happening. Start to make an effort to become consciously aware of the critical inner voice. What does it say? When? What triggers it? What is the pattern? What behaviour does it create?

The clearer you become about the link between that voice, how you feel emotionally and how it impacts your behaviour the better. Try tracking it for a few days and see what you can begin to understand about what it is trying to do.

Recognise that in some way, it was once trying to be protective and helpful. Shift your attitude towards it. Understand it isn’t protective or helpful, but acknowledge what it was trying to achieve for you. Was it trying to help you feel in control? To achieve more? What did it want for you? Try to see there are other, more productive, and positive ways to still get what you want and need. 

Now you are cultivating active awareness of the voice, try not to engage with it. Don’t debate it, or argue with it. Simply begin to learn to disengage with it. Try and bring yourself to more of a neutral and open position.

In time, if you can, try and actively talk kindly, with compassion and empathy to yourself. Be intentional about this, just as you were intentional about tracking it and having awareness of it to begin with. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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London N4 & E17
Written by Danielle Corbett, (MBACP (Accred), Adv. Dip)
London N4 & E17

I am a qualified and professionally trained psychotherapist in North London, with a background in NHS Mental Health Services. I also work with a wide and very diverse range of people from all backgrounds in my private practice based near Finsbury park.

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