Our outlook is split between a positive, real self, and a negative inner enemy.
We’ve all experienced those major shifts in our outlook that drag our mood in new directions. One minute, we’re in a groove at the office, believing in ourselves, and excited about the outcome of whatever we’re working on. The next minute we’re full of doubt, insecure, and ready to toss anything we come up with straight in the bin.
These odd, often abrupt, perspective shifts can influence any area of our lives. In our relationships, thoughts like “I feel so good about where we’re at” can quickly turn into “Something’s wrong. This isn’t going anywhere.” In a single hour, our self-perception can change from, “I like the way I look today” to “You look so ugly/old/fat/tired, etc.” These shifts can take us by storm, and yet, we’re all too willing to believe whatever point of view is dropping in at any given moment.
The question is what causes us to vacillate between two such dramatically distinct perspectives? Which do we trust, and how can we cultivate an attitude that’s kinder and more “on our own side?”
To answer these questions, we must first look at why we are so divided. Many years ago, my father Robert Firestone developed the “Division of the Mind" to help explain how each of us is split between our “real self” and our “anti-self.” The temperament we came into the world with impacts both sides of this divide, but our earliest experience and the adaptations we made to them contribute a great deal to the nature and degree of this division in our personality.
On one side, we’re optimistic, realistic about our abilities, life-affirming, and goal-directed. This, our “real self,” believes we are worthy of love, trust, responsibility, and good experiences. It is created out of positive early life experiences and attitudes, i.e. the love and nurturance we received from a parent or caretaker, the support we got for our efforts, the security we felt, the resilience we were helped to build, etc.
However, on the other side, we have a vicious anti-self that is self-critical, self-denying, sneaky, suspicious, and even self-destructive. The language of this internal enemy is called our “critical inner voice.” This “voice” is like a running commentary, criticizing, casting doubt, and often making us feel anxious, depressed, or uncertain. This anti-self is shaped by negative early life experiences, i.e. the hurtful ways we were seen or treated in our family, rejections, neglect, misattunement, or even abuse.
These destructive early experiences help shape our inner critic and color the way we see the world. A critical parent can leave us doubting our abilities throughout our lives. An unreliable caretaker may make us less trusting of others. It’s a worthy endeavor to explore how the negative overlays of our childhood shape our current perspective and negatively impact various aspects of our life. The next step is to separate our real point of view from these destructive attitudes and strengthen our real self.
So, how do we do this? First, we have to embrace the idea that our outlook is made up of these two entities. We can notice when our mood or perspective shifts suddenly for the worse or when we react in an intense emotional way to circumstances that don’t quite fit our super-sized reaction. At these times, we can acknowledge that a negative filter has colored the way we’re seeing things and question whether this represents our true point of view.
Remember that these “throwback” reactions are rooted in our past. For whatever reason, a contemporary event has triggered old feelings, and in turn, we’re likely seeing things through the lens of our child self. As young children, we’re only able to see things from our own perspective. We see things that happen as being caused by us. The moods and behavior of adults around us have a strong impact on us, because we’re so vulnerable. Moreover, we absorb and internalize many of the negative attitudes to which we’re exposed.
Perceiving our current life through this child’s lens is always a distortion because we’re no longer children. As adults, we can have the perspective that not everything that happens is our fault, that we’re no longer at the mercy of others, and that many of the negative attitudes directed toward us were distorted or outright false. Yet, when current situations are reminiscent of our past, we may perceive them through an old filter.
This can lead us to misinterpret or assign meaning in inaccurate ways. For example, we may think our partner doesn’t care about us, because she didn’t call back right away. We may feel victimized by a co-worker because he didn’t acknowledge us in a meeting. We may feel exaggeratedly embarrassed when we call someone by the wrong name or accidentally grab the wrong coffee from the counter.
There are many ways we can distort ourselves and others to fit into an old, negative perspective, which is why we must familiarize ourselves with how our anti-self operates and notice when it’s taken the wheel. Once we do, we can meet these harsh attitudes with self-compassion. We can have compassion for the critical ways we see ourselves, the pressure we’re putting on ourselves, and even the unpleasant feelings being stirred by our negative reactions.
If we’re riled up, we can take a break, avoiding rumination and allowing ourselves to calm down. Taking a walk, counting backward from 10, or even taking several deep breaths can really help in heated moments. We can allow ourselves to feel whatever emotions are being stirred up, be it anger, fear, or shame, but still choose how we act based on our real self and our principles. As Pat Love puts it, “Feel the feelings but do the right thing.”
Once we’re in a calmer state, we can meet any “critical inner voices” with a kinder, more realistic point of view. We can remind ourselves that not every thought or feeling we experience in a moment must be accepted as truth. When we’re open to the possibility that our perceptions are misleading us, we can gently shift our perspective and start to see the world through fresh, more honest, and more compassionate eyes. Whatever circumstance we’re facing, being able to cultivate this attitude can help us connect to our real self and remain on our own side.
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